Category Archives: Freetown life

The View from the Porch: Around Town

Crest and motto of Sierra Leone.

As the month of December rolls along, seasonal change is in the air here.  This is true both in terms of the weather as well as the energy of daily life in Freetown.  Recent days have been hot, humid, and hazy, with hints of harmattan  dust in the sky.  The streets of the city are  a bit more congested than usual, with peddlers now selling Christmas decorations, shoppers preparing for holidays,  and “just come” Sierra Leoneans visiting from abroad.  (The exchange rate for the leone has dropped a bit in recent days because of the influx of dollars from these diaspora visitors.)   Street carnivals and outings to the beach are typical in December, adding to an atmosphere of festivity.   ‘Tis also the season for “thanksgiving parades,” which means church, school, and other groups marching through the streets complete with marching bands.  On Sunday night, returning to Freetown from Makeni, we ran into such parades at every turn, which slowed our progress through town considerably.  I saw my first Christmas tree decorating a store front the other day, but all in all the atmosphere is nothing like the hustle and bustle and hype of the season in the U.S.

News these days has been dominated by government corruption scandals. The mayor of Freetown was arrested recently and remains in prison facing corruption charges.  (The mayor spoke about community responsibility at the handing over ceremony for Calvary School a couple of months ago.)  The vice president of Sierra Leone was the focus of a recent Al Jazeera (international news network) expose about corruption in the timber industry.    Investigations of the vice president’s office are now underway and it will be interesting to see whether or not there are any consequences in this case. The National Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC)  faces considerable difficulties in carrying out its work, and the outcome of these two cases may prove indicative of the authority and effectiveness of the ACC.

Seen around town: Circular Road

Seen around town #2: Ascension town Road

Over the months I’ve lived in Sierra Leone I’ve taken hundreds (and hundreds) of digital photos — of people, places and events.  While it sometimes feels difficult to capture the color and life of Sierra Leone in words and pictures, I enjoy the challenge of sharing glimpses.    I recently contributed a number of my photo files for use on a new ELCSL website.  The site is a work in progress, and can be seen at

Alfred Gorvie at Moyamba Junction market. He recently returned to Sierra Leone after studying IT in the U.S. and is the new ELCSL webmaster.

Adding color

King of Kings Women's Thanksgiving Service at Jubilee Center in 2010. As the guest preacher for the occasion, I was given an outfit made with the same cloth.

Special occasions in Sierra Leone are often marked by the wearing of “ashobie.”  Ashobie means “uniform” in Krio, and the wearing of ashobie communicates a shared identity in the uniformity of dress.   There is a strong sense of belonging, of sharing an identity, and of being in community that comes with practice of wearing ashobie.

Ashobie as seen on Sunday night: same material with a variety of fashion styles.

This past weekend we held a grand celebration in the ELCSL compound, and many of the participants wore distinctive ashobie.   Church members often wear ashobie for special worship services, and the women of the ELCSL frequently wear their ashobie when they come together for national or regional worship.

Children's Thanksgiving service at Faith, Lumley in 2009

One of the things that makes the tradition of ashobie so common in Freetown is the prevalance of tailors in every neighborhood.    Imported, colorful cloth material is readily available, and it is quite easy to stop at the tailoring shop, tell the tailor what you want, and return a few days later to pick it up.   All of this adds a lot of color and creativity to daily life.   (Tailors are often male; the tailor I often use is incredibly busy as he is quite good at his work, and employs a shop full of associates and apprentices.)

Ashobie worn by the ELCSL staff "family" for the party on Sunday.

The distinctive blue ashobie of the Lutheran Women's Association. They are marching to worship at the General Assembly in Bo earlier this month.

Driving Report

There is a certain sense of anarchy that shapes the experience of driving in Freetown.  I have been driving around town more than usual lately for a variety of reasons, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve said “this is crazy” or one of my passengers has uttered the same (“its madness!” “this is  insane!”)  Normally these mutterings come with the laughter of disbelief, but sometimes the anarchy gives way to collisions and more serious accidents.  While driving to and from  St. Mark’s in Calaba town on Sunday, we saw two separate motorcycle accidents and a very near miss between two poda-poda’s, with one van almost swerving into a crowd of people waiting for transport by the side of the road .  Prayers for safe journeys are always appropriate here!

The best way I can describe the experience of driving in Freetown is to say that it is like navigating through an obstacle course in a maze, all the while playing chicken with other cars, motorcycles, and pedestrians.  Narrow streets and too many cars equals congestion and chaos.

Typical congestion on Kissy Road, Freetown's primary east-west thoroughfare. At any given moment, hundreds of motorcycles navigate in both directions down the middle of the two lanes of traffic on this road. Bicycles, wheelbarrows and large, two-wheeled wagons are also common on this street.

Another typical driving challenge. Broken down vehicles, like this truck, are mostly fixed where they stop. The lane my driver wants to turn into - left off Kissy Road at Eastern Police -- is occupied as shown here, and by a white car i(if you look closely), first in a line of vehicles coming around the broken green truck.

There are a few streets in Freetown which are simply overrun with traders and pedestrians, and vehicles are forced to thread through the crowds, sometimes banging people with side mirrors and sometimes running over goods for sale on the ground. ( It is my fervent hope to avoid that driving fate as I have thus far.)   In some cases, parked cars obstruct traffic on the narrowest of streets.   Public transport drivers also cause many of the problems in a reckless pursuit of speed which equals more money.  Additionally, poda-poda drivers and taxis will stop anywhere at anytime to pick up or discharge passengers:   beware!   Some taxi and poda poda drivers will use hand signals to let others know their intentions, and while I get some of the signals, some gestures remain a mystery to me after two and a half years.

Streets in some neighborhoods are exceptionally narrow. Many are one way, at least in theory. One particular challenge inherent in driving in Freetown is the existence of open drainage gutters at the edge of these narrow roads. Miscalculations (especially when turning, backing up or trying to squeeze past other cars) means going over the edge.

The ongoing road construction in Freetown adds to the chaos.   Early progress on a couple of main roadways halted  in the rainy season, and significant problems with new drainage systems have reversed early achievements.

The recent addition of new median street dividers has meant that some drivers take a shortcut, or try to by-pass traffic,  by driving  on the wrong side of the road.   It is not uncommon these days to be driving along and meet  oncoming traffic against all normal expectations or rules of the road.

In recent weeks we have seen a flurry of activity to regain ground on the road construction projects and to complete the work at hand.      The traffic intersection known here as Congo Cross is of particular note.  This is a traffic roundabout where multiple lanes come together, and the roundabout is often congested with traffic backing up in a number of directions.   The work that has been done on the roundabout in the past month baffles and befuddles most people I know.  We look at the design and can see that the lanes are much too narrow, while the decorative design for the middle of the roundabout is much too big.   We all say “this is crazy!”  On Saturday night I sat in traffic at Congo Cross for well over one hour, watching vehicles zip past on the other side of the median, going the wrong way, ignoring the law, and trying to squeeze into the lines merging into the roundabout ahead.

Poda podas are the vans used for public transport. They run set routes throughout the city. I have heard two translations or meanings for poda poda: "hither and thither," which does describe how these vehicles move (when not sitting in traffic), and "bit by bit" which is how they collect passengers along the way.

Having said all this, it is really quite remarkable that the vehicular anarchy in Freetown generally works for the common good of movement.  There is a certain ebb and flow and etiquette which most drivers understand and follow.  Adults go out of their way to help children across busy streets, and drivers will stop to allow pedestrians to cross the road, especially when carrying heavy loads.  Freetown residents are remarkably patient and adaptable, and everyone understands when someone arrives late because of “traffic.”

The View from the Porch: mystery at Lumley Beach

Tuesday was a national holiday in Sierra Leone — the “eid” to mark the end of the month of Ramadan.  In the Krio language, the holiday is known as “pray day.”  As I was out and about in the morning, the streets were filled with men, women and children dressed in their eid finest and going to the mosque for prayers.    It was a colorful and festive reflection of the Islamic faith in this predominantly Muslim country.

I made plans with friends to go to the beach on the eid, if the weather was decent for an outing.    Since the sky showed hints of blue on Tuesday morning, we drove to Sussex beach, about 10 miles down the peninsula from my house (Surprisingly, Sussex is home of an Italian restaurant, and is a couple of miles before River #2).   Passing along the beach road between Lumley and Aberdeen, we were amazed to see the beach completely covered with seaweed, and wondered what impact that might have on football players and other holiday revelers.   The seaweed on Lumley beach has been a mystery throughout the summer, but last week was the worst I had seen.  For our holiday outing on Tuesday, the Atlantic waters off Sussex were a bit murky with seaweed, but the beach looked nothing like the coast closer to Freetown.

The problem with the seaweed started back in July, when masses of the stuff washed ashore at Lumley Beach.  Reportedly, this was the first time this phenomenon had ever been seen in the area.  There was considerable speculation and bewilderment at the time, with blame being cast on the dredging operations of mining companies in the Sierra Leonean estuary.   (Sierra Leone has one of the biggest iron ore deposits in the world and mining recently resumed in the northern part of the country).  The mining companies have denied any responsibility for the seaweed, but in keeping with good public relations, at least one company has contributed money towards the cost of cleaning the beach.

Last weekend, and into this week, the amount of sea weed at Lumley Beach was ankle deep from the water to the high tide line.    Fishermen haven’t been able to cast their nets off the shore and those who make their living from visitors to the beach are complaining about the lack of business.     Between the rain and the tides and the preponderance of sea weed, I hadn’t been to the beach in weeks myself.  This afternoon the tide was low and the sun was shining so I decided to take the dogs to the beach to see what we might find.  Clean up crews have been able to remove some of the sea weed, and the tides seem to be tossing up smaller quantities.

Lumley Beach looking towards Family Kingdom. This amount of sea weed is an improvement over previous days. I should note that blue sky in rainy season is a joy to behold.

Still, the question remains:  where is all this seaweed coming from, and why is it washing onto the peninsula coast near Freetown  this season?   One plausible explanation relates to the existence of vast masses of floating sea weed in the Atlantic Ocean;   every so often the mass of sea weed breaks apart and chunks float away on ocean currents.    In recent days, according to the newspaper,  scientists at the University of Sierra Leone have been examining the sea weed and consulting experts in other countries about the matter.    The rest of us just wait to see what the tide will bring in tomorrow.

The view from the porch

The view from the porch is that of a grey and gloomy world  today.  We have been having heavy, persistent rain all day.   As I write this afternoon, the water in the bay is at low tide and I can see the pile of rocks in front of my house while the far shore is lost amidst the falling rain.  The  temperature feels almost cold today, and  I am wearing a prayer  shawl for warmth sent my way from a church in Texas some months ago.

It is fairly unusual at low tide for there to be no one out in the bay fishing or searching for cockles, but it seems to be the case that the rain and the lack of visibility have kept people away today.  One of the guards told me that a fisherman drowned in the bay on Saturday afternoon, a tragedy that drew crowds of people and generated considerable speculation.    The conversation in the neighborhood understood the drowning to be the result of witchcraft practices, with the speculation that the victim was himself a witch pulled into the underworld, under the water,  by kindred evil spirits.     Mysterious events, unexplained illnesses, and tragedies are commonly attributed to witchcraft here.  Saturday’s events served to remind me once again that there is much I don’t know and much I don’t understand about the worldview of those around me.

I have discovered that recognizing and remembering the differences in the African and American worldviews, especially concerning the spiritual realm,  is important for me in teaching and preaching.  I often feel that I miss the mark in both arenas since I  have such a limited  grasp of the problems, struggles and fears of the people I am addressing.

Members of the northwestern region Lutheran Youth Organization met at St. Mark's on Saturday. I appreciate that the word "retreat" in the picture is made with leaves.

On Saturday, when the fisherman drowned in front of my house,  I was attending a youth retreat at St. Mark’s in Calaba Town.  I was asked to talk with the youth about Lutheran distinctives, a topic I frequently address.  On Saturday, I  led a bible study exploring what Luther taught about “the way of glory” and the “way of the cross.”

In the course of our conversations, a question came up about what Jesus means that we should love our enemies and pray for them.  One of the youth noted that it is common in some churches to pray for enemies to be crushed, or to ask for fire to come down upon our enemies and to consume them.  I have a suspicion that my answers, and my references to Jesus’ commands to love, serve and forgive one another, were not particularly satisfying to the youth.  Granted, the way of the cross is a hard way, but in retrospect I think I also failed to understand where the youth were coming from in raising their questions and concerns.   To have enemies — from jealousy, or broken relationships — is a serious concern of daily life here, and it is understood that one’s enemies have the power — through witchcraft —  to invoke harm, sickness and death.  As a consequence, fear is a significant dynamic in everyday life.   I do believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a powerful and essential answer to these issues, and I feel that I still have much to learn about how this good news can be proclaimed in a way that will be heard and understood in the context of Sierra Leone.  Further conversation with the youth and my pastoral colleagues is in order.

The View from the Porch

It has been a quiet and rainy couple of weeks in Freetown since I last wrote.  At times in this season, I can look out over the bay and see that it is raining across the way in Lumley.  On Sunday afternoon,  I watched as the sky grew dark over the bay and the wind started blowing. A couple of  minutes later I noticed a white line moving at great speed across the water of the bay.  I had never seen anything quite like this.   Behind the line the water was white and foamy with the impact of the falling rain.   Ahead of the line the water was steely blue-green, but in less than a minute the rain-driven line in the bay hit the shore and then torrents of rain hit my house too, with power and might.  We had rain the rest of the day and into the night.

Sunday morning, before the heavy rains of the afternoon, I attended worship at Faith in Lumley and was privileged to baptize 11 folks — from shy children to one joyful dancing adult.  Water (with God’s word) has power in more ways than one.

Newly baptized children of God at Faith Community, Lumley, with Bishop Barnett and Evangelist Wilfred Kamara.

Over the past couple of  weeks I’ve been working on two projects with my colleagues here.  We are in the midst of final preparations for a training workshop next week with the lay evangelists of the ELCSL.   23 evangelists  along with pastors-as-teachers will be in Njala for 6 days, and we hope to establish this as an annual training event.  I will be teaching Luther’s Small Catechism throughout the week.   In addition, I have been working to oversee the translation of the English order of worship into Krio, and the first draft is now complete. A  small group will be meeting with the translator this Saturday to review and finalize the translation.  We are anticipating a composition workshop in September to set the Krio words to music.

Bishop Barnett traveled last week with representatives of the ELCSL to Liberia for a workshop sponsored by LUCCWA:  Lutheran Communion of Central and  West Africa.    LUCCWA participants sometimes use “The African Creed” in worship, and Bishop Barnett  introduced the ELCSL staff  to this creed some months ago during our weekly devotionals. We used it today (an inclusive language version)  so I thought it would be worth sharing here. This “creed” is a summary of  Christian beliefs using imagery and language familiar to Africans.   It was originally written by western missionaries working with the Masai in east Africa, and is one example of the way the Christian story has been contextualized.  (For further reference, see Christianity Rediscovered by Vincent Donovan.)

The African Creed

We believe in the one High God, who out of love created the beautiful world and everything good in it.  God created people and wanted them to be happy in the world. God loves the world and every nation and tribe on the Earth. We have known this High God in darkness, and now we know God in the light.  God promised in the Bible to save the world and all the nations and tribes.

Rainy season sunset over Lumley Beach

We believe that God kept a promise by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, a human being in the flesh, a Jew by tribe, born poor in a little village, who left home and was always on safari doing good, curing people by the power of God, teaching about God and humankind, showing the meaning of religion is love.  Jesus was rejected by his people, tortured and nailed hands and feet to a cross, and died.  Jesus lay buried in the grave, but the hyenas did not touch Jesus, and on the third day, Jesus rose from the grave. Jesus ascended to the skies. Jesus is the Lord.

God's beloved children of Sierra Leone

We believe that all our sins are forgiven through Jesus Christ. All who have faith in Jesus must be sorry for their sins, be baptized in the Holy Spirit of God, live the rules of love and share the bread together in love, to announce the Good News to others until Jesus comes again.  We are waiting for Jesus. Jesus Christ is alive.  Jesus Christ lives. This we believe. Amen.

Going Shopping

When I first moved to Freetown in 2009 I was a bit daunted by the prospect of going shopping.   Freetown is teeming with shopping options, from modern supermarkets (complete with recently installed pricing scanners) to tin kiosks,  to petty traders with trays of fruit and vegetables on top of their heads.  In the supermarkets, prices are fixed and non-negotiable. Everywhere else, bargaining, or  “talking price,” is necessary.

Need jeans? This would is a typical streetside display of clothing for sale. The tubs of plastic ware and flip flops are also typical -- and convenient for head-top carrying.

Today I bought a can of paint for my house at a local hardware store, then went to a nearby supermarket for yogurt.  Outside  the supermarket, I bought fresh shrimp from a young woman who sells there daily; she peddles her seafood from a woven basket packed with ice.  On my way home from the supermarket, I stopped at the covered market (open air with multiple stalls) in Murray Town to buy bulgur wheat at 1,000 leones/cup (25 cents).  While I was there I also bought ground nut paste — peanut butter —  at 1,000 leones for a small plastic bag.   (In contrast, imported peanut butter, such as Skippy is about$7/jar in the supermarket.   Later today I’ll probably walk to a road side stand to see if I can find mangos or other fruit.

This young man sells misc. items from under a large umbrella near my house. Among other things, he has cookies, sardines, small packets of milk powder, matches and laughing cow processed cheese -- all are typical and easily recognizable in this context.

Petty traders far and away dominate street life in much of Freetown and make  shopping both convenient and chaotic.   In some parts of Freetown, the sidewalks and streets are overflowing with items for sale, and throughout the city peddlers wander the streets in hope of finding someone wanting to buy.  There are a couple of streets in Freetown so congested that the minute a car is parked,  traders will pile their wares on top and start doing business.

Creative use of space characterizes trade in Freetown.

It’s hard to capture the energy, color and creativity of all this, much less the hard work and perseverance it takes for sellers to make a few thousand leones every day.  No matter the season, though, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Freetown.

Text books, used novels,pens and pencils are available from this side-walk vendor. Keeping things dry in the rainy season is a huge challenge.

Baby carriages and wheel chairs are often used to carry coolers containing cold drinks or flavored ices.

Shoes for sale...

The View from the Porch: Updates

This week I’m hoping to get back into the rhythm of my weekly blog postings.    The biggest challenge continues to be in having the opportunity to sit at my computer when the electricity is on, especially since the power is mostly off and returns  sporadically and unpredictably.    Now that the rains have started, there is  some talk in Freetown that the Bumbuna hydroelectrical system may start producing more power, but no one is too optimistic.  On the other hand, the disruption to the ELCSL water supply (mentioned last time I wrote)  proved to be short-lived, and we have had no problems with water since (for which I am very grateful!).

Back in April I wrote about a young man named David who was accepted into the ELCA International Camp Counselor Program and assigned to work in Minnesota.   When David finally had his interview for a visa at the US embassy early in May, he was told that the US was not at that time granting the type of visa he needed.   This after spending $130 to fill out the application and make the appointment for the visa.    It is disappointing that yet again this year the ELCSL was not able to take advantage of a rare opportunity for one of the youth.

I read in the newspaper this past week of “a new swimming pool in Freetown.”  The writer was in fact cynically describing the state of the new roads under construction in the city, in particular the main roads in and around the western end of town. With the onset of the rainy season and the reality of daily torrents from on high, walking sometimes requires wading through muddy waters, and driving means navigating a puddle filled obstacle course.  Considerable time and effort were devoted to getting the main thoroughfares in shape for Salone’s 50th anniversary celebrations late in April.   Road construction progress was remarkable and by late March, the congestion of traffic in this part of the city had eased.  Alas, construction work has resumed at significant intersections, and traffic jams are once again the norm in this part of Freetown (as they are normal in other parts of the city too.)  As far as I can see, there is a lot still to be done and we can only sit in the traffic and wish the construction crews  good and efficient progress as they struggle against the onslaught of nature these days.

The internet cut off mid-way through my writing, and I have had a variety of visitors all afternoon.    The electricity has also come and gone in the meantime.  At the moment, while all systems are aligned, I plan to hit the button for “publish,” and send my weekly greeting out, into the e-world.

The View from the Porch

There are many things about my house in Freetown that I have come to appreciate over the two plus years I’ve lived here.  The setting is great, including the view of Cockle bay from the porch.   The compound is spacious and generally quiet in a noisy and crowded city.   The location is good — close to Lumley Beach,  not too far from downtown, and with a reasonable amount of traffic compared to other parts of the city.  The electricity supply to this part of Aberdeen is also reasonably good (relatively speaking), and we have always had an abundant supply of water.   Neighbors frequently come to the compound gate with 5 gallon jerrycans or buckets, seeking to fill them with  water.

Containers to carry water, especially the yellow ones, are ubiquitous. I learned this morning that the cost of an empty 5 gallon container has almost doubled since I last bought one. In this picture, neighbors in the Calaba Town area are waiting for the water pump to be unlocked for the day. They've staked a place in line and gone home in the meantime.

Moving around Freetown it is common to see crowds of children collecting water at public taps or to see adults congregating at the local handpump.   It is also common to see kids collecting water from broken or cut water lines, and to see wasted water spilling forth from the same. The sight of water being carried on top of the head — especially going up steps or steep hills — never ceases to amaze me.

Young boys haul water through the streets of Freetown using these carts. Kids riding downhill on these often move faster then vehicle traffic. Notice the ropes for steering.

I have always been conscious of my good fortune:  unlike the vast majority of people in Freetown, I’ve never had to worry about water.   But I’ve also lived here long enough not to take things for granted.   I have always known  that the blessing of running water could change at any time.  This morning George told me the news :   the water supply to the compound was cut off yesterday as some work is being done down the road  upgrade the system, and no one knows when it will be restored.   (I am hopeful it won’t be too long and once again grateful to George who continues to make sure that I have what I need.)

The reservoir at Guma Valley. The dam was built in the 1960's. ( The setting is gorgeous and it is a great place to go bird watching.)

The problem with the water supply in Freetown is primarily one of infrastructure.   The city’s water supply comes primarily from Guma Valley Dam, some 10 miles outside of the city.   The city’s water lines are old and insufficient for the population.   Digging  private wells is not easy as the city is mountainous and the the ground is rocky.   Home building and road construction are constant, and disruptions to the infrastructure are chronic.  I have friends in different parts of the city who almost never have  water in their own tanks or pipes.    Everyone owns multiple jerrycans for carrying and storing water.   Some people hire neighborhood children to carry water to their houses.  Others struggle to find other options for maintaining a reasonable water supply.

Bathing, drinking, cooking, doing laundry, flushing toilets, washing dishes:  how much water do I use every day?

In the midst of these considerations, there has been an amazing note of  good news today: for the first time in ages, we have had electricity most of the afternoon!

A few of my favorite things

Long time!   That’s what Sierra Leoneans say when they haven’t seen each other in a while.  It feels like a long time since I last wrote — back in April before flying to the US for the NTNL Mission Assembly and a vacation.   I did cover a lot of ground in the time I was gone:   New York City, Frewsburg, NY, Dallas, Fort Worth, and Lancaster PA.   It was great to see family and many old friends, to make some new ones, and to share about my life and work in Sierra Leone.   Thanks to all those who helped make my time in the US  so rich and full of grace!   I returned to Freetown on a rainy night earlier this week, refreshed and renewed for the remaining 9 months of my ministry here.

Among my greeters: Martin and Mel are growing and doing well.

While I was on holiday I was glad to have the chance to enjoy some of the things I miss while living in Africa:   spring flowers, green vegetables, hot showers among others.   While in the US, there  were many things  I missed about Sierra Leone.   These are a few of my favorite things:    fresh pineapple, fresh coconut, fresh shrimp, and ginger beer.  The beaches of course,  and the warm, inviting waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

I love the colors of Africa, from the hues of nature to the brightly colored clothing worn as everyday attire.   I am fond of sunny days with clear blue skies during the rainy season, and watching from the seashore the clouds over the mountains of the western peninsula.  I have come to appreciate the fact that when stuck in traffic in the eastern end of Freetown, it is possible to buy almost anything one needs from traders plying their wares.   Yesterday I bought new windshield wipers  from a man walking by, and he installed them too.

In the past few days as I have settled again into life in Freetown, I have appreciated phone calls and visits from ELCSL colleagues welcoming me back.  The thoughtful, joyful, graciousness of Sierra Leonean hospitality is also one of my favorite things.  This, and so much more,  make it good to be back!