Category Archives: Sierra Leone general

Saying Good-bye

The past 2 weeks have been a whirlwind of movement and activity with abundant blessings in the midst of it all.

Representatives from the ELCA and the NTNL arrived in Sierra Leone last week and have been engaged in conversations with the ELCSL since then.   We have covered a lot of ground in recent days, including a working/leisure visit to River #2   and a trip to Bo for churchwide consultations.   Rich conversations about church and mission have shaped our time together with the ELCSL.

Rev. Themba Mkhabela, ELCA West Africa Regional representative; Rev. Jane Mar, NTNL; Rev. Kate Warn, ELCSL Pastor in Residence 2009 - 1012; Rev. Jim Gonia, ELCA Global Mission; Rev. Marc Hander, NTNL. (Photo by Gerilyn Hander)

A gift from the ELCSL. This woven blanket (country cloth) is in the colors of the national flag. It reads: The ELCSL thanks God for the work of Pastor Kate Warn in Sierra Leone.

In the midst of it all, the ELCSL richly blessed me with a night of singing and dancing and traditional ceremonies to bid me farewell as I prepare to leave Sierra Leone on Feb. 27th.   Out of all the experiences I have had in Sierra Leone over the past three years, the farewell celebration offered by the ELCSL was the most surprising and amazing of all.    Special songs of blessing offered by the youth and women still echo in my heart.  The sound of drums  and the traditional gourd shaker being played still resonate as well.

As the night unfolded, I was quite moved to see Bishop Barnett lead a dancing procession of my Lutheran brothers and sisters — coming my way with gifts in hand  As the procession drew near I could also see two men carrying a stout branch across their shoulders, and wondered what exactly they were bringing.  Eventually, I spotted a beautifully woven hammock and began to suspect what was going to happen next.

The traditional mode of transportation for chiefs. I was carried in the hammock as Yei Boi Katie.

During this time of  ceremony, Bishop Barnett honored me with the name/title of “first born daughter.”  I was then invited to settle myself into the hammock.    Being carried in a hammock is an honor accorded to chiefs in Sierra Leone, and  I felt deeply moved to be acknowledged in this way.  I was carried in the hammock, in the midst of  drumming, dancing and singing; eventually I received  the  hammock as my own, among many other gifts.  The blessings of the evening were abundant and memorable — a true reflection of the grace and beauty of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sierra Leone.

One of the gifts I received was this traditional country cloth outfit, complete with hat and shoes, made by Marion Boima.

My final good-bye to my ELCSL colleagues and Freetown friends is only a few days away as I write.   Today I gratefully sent one heavy suitcase filled with many of the gifts I received in Bo and books from my Africa collection back to the US with the NTNL visitors.  This weekend my challenge will be to empty my kitchen and my closets, and to fit my possessions into two additional suitcases for a flight to Buffalo New York.

As I write tonight, the electricity and the internet are on and off and then on.   That somehow seems fitting.  At this point,  I will plan to make one final posting for On Mission Sierra Leone when I am  stateside, once I’ve had a chance to unpack my suitcases (if not 3 years of African life).

Fun and Games

Early in the evening when time allows, I enjoy walking around the Aberdeen neighborhood near my house.  By 5 or 6 pm most nights, adults are sitting outside their homes, listening to the radio, chatting, eating a meal or otherwise passing the time.   Women are often gathered together plaiting each other’s hair. Wherever I walk,   I always encounter  children playing in the dusty streets, and youth engaged in sports.

Brothers at the beach.

Imagine a world not dominated by TV, video games, electronic gadgets and  expensive toys and you can begin to imagine life in Sierra Leone.   Imagine such a world  and you might imagine a world shaped by an appreciation of both simple pleasures and simple treasures.

Draughts is a commonly played board game.

Throughout Sierra Leone, playing and discussing football (soccer) is probably the dominant leisure time activity.  In Freetown,  every neighborhood has a football pitch,  and there are games at the beach every day of the week.  Although daily life here is physically demanding, physical fitness is nonetheless a preoccupation for many young people.   On Sunday mornings in Freetown the streets are filled with people out for a run, and I am seeing serious cyclists more and more on the outlying roads.  Basketball and volleyball are also popular in some circles.

I don't often see girls or women playing football, perhaps because they are busy cooking and caring for the home! This game was part of a recent Lutheran Youth Organization retreat.

I have particularly enjoyed watching children at play in Sierra Leone, and seeing their creativity and skill.

These kids are playing a version of football using batteries, cigarrette boxes, and bottle caps.

Home made toy: sticks and metal.

This is a typical street scene: children carrying things. Here too is , another common homemade toy: a wheel and stick , a toy known as "gig" in krio and mende.. I am told that mothers will sometimes send their sons to the market with this "toy because that way, the boy has to run straight down the road and can't dawdle or get distracted.

This particular boy was extremely quick and very proficient. Kids compete to see who is fastest and most skilled at moving the wheel.

Kabala Adventures

There are many places I’ve long wanted to see in Sierra Leone and this past week I was finally able to visit the northern region.  I traveled with friends to the town of Kabala, about 6 hours by car on fairly good roads, north and east of Freetown.  The area is home to residents of the Limba, Madingo, Koronko, and Fulla tribes.

In Sierra Leone, Kabala is known for its mountains and hills,  and also for being a cold place. I rather wondered what “cold” meant in this context, and was happy to find that a light jacket and jeans were comfortable to wear at night and in the morning there.  ( Many of my expatriate friends enjoy the sensation of being cold in Sierra Leone.)

The dusty (dry season) streets of Kabala are dominated by adjacent hills and rocky outcroppings. I tried twice to climb to the summit of this hill, but never found the proper path. Next time: ask any young person to serve as guide.

Kabala is located  in the midst of the Wara Wara mountain range.   We did some hiking in the adjacent hills, and managed to see a monkey swinging through the trees overhead.  Fortunately, we did not see snakes, and regrettably did not see many birds of interest.

Wara Wara Mountains. The landscape is quite beautiful and stark in the dry season. The sky was incredibly hazy as the harmattan season lingers on.

When we first arrived in Kabala my friends and I decided to see if we could rent bicycles and do some cycling in the area.  The Bradt Guide to Sierra Leone had noted this as a possibility.  We found some young men with bikes in the town center and they agreed to rent us 4 sturdy, mountain bikes for the next day.   The bikes were in good working order when we arrived in the morning, and we paid about $1 each for 3 hours.

We decided to ride on the paved road out of town since the dust on the unpaved roads is intense.   People smiled and waved as we rode by.  Unfortunately,  I ran over a nail and punctured my tire after we had ridden 4 – 5 miles, so we turned back at a walking pace.  At one point, I noted an interesting looking church set back from the road and thought it would be good to check it out.    As we turned up the drive to the church, we were greeted by a couple of people from the  small village.

These boys were quite proficient at repairing my bike tire. They charged 2,000 leones, a little less than 50 cents.

We chatted, exchanged names, learned about the Catholic church, and talked for a few minutes.  And we  discovered  there were two teen boys who had all the knowledge and equipment to repair flat tires .  And so, providentially,  they fixed my bike. The two boys went to work while we sat down and continued to talk with the residents of  the village, called Katombo 2.  We learned a few words in the Limba language, learned about a local school for the blind, and had an altogether delightful, if unexpected visit.  Half an hour later,  I was able to ride with my friends back to Kabala.

Market in Kabala with rice, beans, ground cassava root, corn meal, sesame seeds and more. The red liquid (with the bottle for measuring) is palm oil.

Traveling by car also added to the adventures of our journey.   We weren’t able to buy fuel for my vehicle in Kabala, except on the black market.  I wasn’t altogether surprised by this, but would have planned things differently if I’d known fuel would be a problem.   We ended up buying 10 liters of black market-priced fuel (almost double the regular price), enough to make it to Makeni where we filled the tank and met friends for lunch.

We reached the Freetown area just in time yesterday to meet heavy traffic heading into the city, so we opted to take the mountain by-pass. That particular road is dusty, rutted and rough, but generally faster than going through the city.   We were stuck briefly at a one lane bridge on this road, where we hopped out to help push a taxi up an incline, out of the line of traffic.  The sight of 4 white people helping 6 young Sierra Leoneans push that car made everyone smile.   A mile or so later, our own car came to a halt, as my driver Abu felt the brake system fail.  We could immediately see that brake fluid was leaking and that there was a crack in the system.  We actually felt very fortunate that the breakdown happened where it did. We were near the village of Grafton, and had not yet started climbing the mountains where brake failure would have been dangerous.   Providence came our way again in the shape of an empty land cruiser driven by an Italian man who has lived in Sierra Leone for 30 years.  He gave my friends and I a lift over the mountains and to my door!  Abu stayed with the car and made arrangements for repairs. He drove the car into the compound this morning by 10 am.   Everything worked out amazingly well, and we have a journey to remember.

Down by the Water Side

Beached, at Tokeh.

I have greatly enjoyed living by the waters of the Atlantic Ocean throughout my time in Sierra Leone.   I’ve spent many an hour sitting on my porch watching the waters of the bay ebb and flow; tracking the birds there, and observing the fishermen at work.   All along the coast, and along the many inland waterways, fishing is a way of life, and fish of all kinds are a staple of the Sierra Leone diet.

Sunset at Hamilton Beach

Dugout canoes for river fishing. Photo by Jim Gonia.

Life along the  waterways is full of color and character.   Folk wisdom and expressions of faith abound.    As always, words and pictures offer only a glimpse, but here are some of my favorite photos from life by the water.

I saw this same sentiment on a boat in the bay by my house today.

Evangelism on the sea.

Net with boats at Tokeh.

Hauling in the fishing nets is a community effort.

Lumley Beach. The boat has just come in, and the nets stored for next trip. The boat will be hauled further up the shore using the wooden poles as rollers.

Sail boat in the waters beyond the Freetown port.

The Holiday View from the Porch

Nativity scene portrayed by neighborhood children in Wilberforce, Freetown

New Year’s Eve in Sierra Leone dawned  this morning with cool temperatures, remarkably low humidity and a stiff breeze.  The harmattan weather continues (dust included), and I can’t help but smile whenever I see people wearing parkas, gloves and hats against the cold.   That said, I also have felt almost cold upon occasion recently , and laughed with my friends during a recent beach outing when we found the usually warm Atlantic waters a bit chilly for floating on the waves.

Christmas day worship at St. Paul's in Kissy, led by evangelist Marion Boima (dressed in Christmas finery.) St. Paul's meets in an upper room of a building adjacent to their church site; they continue to struggle to complete their own building.

The ELCSL offices closed for the holidays on December 21 and will reopen on January 9.   Traditionally, many people travel to their home villages over the holiday period, and there is definitely an atmosphere of relaxation and partying these days in Freetown.   The traffic has been crazier than usual as it seems there are more cars on the roads  — possibly because so many Sierra Leoneans return from abroad this time of year.   There have also been fuel queues for the past month, and sporadic shortages of both petrol and diesel.    Apparently, fuel speculators have been creating artificial shortages by buying up the supply and then re-selling at inflated prices.  So far I’ve managed to stay ahead of the game and I’m hoping that the challenge of getting petrol for my car will ease in the new year.

Another challenge arose for Freetown residents in the days before Christmas:  local banks ran out of money.  So many people were cashing checks and withdrawing from their accounts in preparation for the holidays that many banks simply did  not have enough cash on hand to meet the demand.  Having heard the stories about this situation, I went to the bank before it opened on the 22nd of December, and by the time the doors opened, a queue of some 25 people had already formed outside the door. The line had grown considerably by the time I left.  Fortunately the bank had cash on hand to meet the crowds that morning.

"Up till a few weeks ago, this woman was wandering around the streets.... dressed in rags, hair matted, and not speaking. People considered her “crazy”. An old friend from college passed by, recognised her, and brought her to the City of Rest Rehabilitation Centre in Freetown. After taking a bath, her eyes lit up when she was offered a choice of donated clothes." Weeks later, she enjoyed dressing up for a service of Lessons and Carols. She read one of the lessons and sang Christmas carols in the COR choir. City of Rest residents are truly the least of our brothers and sisters -- the very ones Jesus was born among and came to serve.

My own Christmas celebrations this year were diverse:  a program of lessons and carols at City of Rest, a residence for people with addictions and mental health problems; a neighborhood Christmas party for kids and parents sponsored by friends;  a Christmas Eve bonfire at my house, and Christmas day worship at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Kissy.   While Christians celebrated Christmas with worship, non-Christians partied through the nights of this season, and daily life (traffic and traders….) continued as normal.   Tonight many Christians will attend Watchnight services and ring in the new year with their communities of faith.  I will stay home and spend the evening with Freetown friends.  I wish friends and family far away a very happy new year!

Freetown friends gathered at my house for the second annual Christmas Eve carol sing and bonfire. The kids especially loved being able to run around the ELCSL compound and roasting marshmallows.


This morning when George, the ELCSL guard,  came to the porch for our morning chat, he was wearing a denim jacket and winter gloves.  We agreed that it was cool this morning, and that the harmattan season has arrived.  This time of year is marked by noticeably lower temperatures in the morning and dust everywhere.

Musa and one of her twin sons, age one month.

Earlier this week I was visited by the young woman who formerly helped around my house cleaning and doing laundry.  She gave birth to twins a month ago, and brought one of her sons for a visit.   The twins received their names last week:  Alusine and Alasene, which I am told are the typical names given to twins in various traditions.  This week in Advent, as we remember Mary’s story, and rejoice “for the Lord is near,”  it  was good  to rejoice with this new mother.

The season of Advent seems to get lost amidst other issues and events in the worship life of many of the Lutheran churches I visit.  The tradition of holding thanksgiving services dominates this time of year and overshadows liturgical themes.    In late 2009 (my first year in Sierra Leone), I preached with reference to the church calendar at Incarnation Lutheran Church in Kenema, and made note that Advent is the start of a new year for Christians.   On the first Sunday of Advent ever since 2009, I have received a phone call from one of the members of Incarnation, wishing me a happy new year and a blessed Advent.  Every year I rejoice and give thanks for the grace of  relationships developed and sustained in surprising times and places.

Market women waiting for customers at Moyamba Junction

Near the end of my first year in west Africa,  I wrote an advent reflection which continues to speak to my experience here.  These were my thoughts, originally sent to various church newsletters  in 2009:

“This Advent season, I have been thinking a lot about waiting.  The truth is I seem to spend a lot of my time in Africa waiting.   I often find myself waiting for meetings to begin, for events to take place, and for the right people to arrive…. Looking at the bigger picture of life in Freetown, I see young people waiting for employment, teachers waiting for their salaries, and the hungry waiting for food.  Entire communities are waiting for political promises to be fulfilled and for change to come.

There really is a sense of “African time” in all of this – a certain fluidity to the flow of hours, days, weeks and years in which we never really know what will happen, or when.  After all this time in Sierra Leone, I feel that I’m still learning how to live in African time. And some days I’m better at waiting than other days.

This woman sells rice and sauce across the street from the ELCSL compound. She always calls out "hi, neighbor!" when she sees me.

There is a certain irony in all of this when I consider the ELCA approach to mission described as “accompaniment.”    Accompaniment implies movement but quite often I don’t feel like we’re going anywhere.  It’s somewhat difficult to feel like I am accompanying anyone when I spend so much time waiting.  I share this experience with most Americans and Europeans who have crossed cultures and entered the African context.  What often ends up happening is that we grow impatient or frustrated, and end up charging ahead and proposing our own solutions to African problems.  But in this context, “waiting with” our African brothers and sisters is essential.  Only by accompanying our partners and waiting with them will African ideas and solutions emerge in African time.

African Nativity

These lessons I am learning of African time seem right for the season of Advent.    We prefer to be in control and to shape the future according to our own terms.  In Advent, however, we are called to step back, and to wait with expectant hope.  In Advent this year, I give thanks that I don’t need to be in control because God is.  I give thanks for the African community of faith teaching me daily to wait with tenacious faith for the working out of God’s gracious purposes….  God is indeed at work:  wait and see!”

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.

Handing Over Ceremony

Observing ceremonial protocol is  important in Sierra Leone, and special occasions usually entail considerable attention to formalities and  traditions.  While such occasions tend to be a bit lengthy (by American standards anyway), there is something very egalitarian  about the process here in that  many people have a chance to speak and be heard.

The international NGO Action Aid funded a new school building for Calvary Lutheran Primary School in the Up Mountain community of Wellington. Here, the area chief (standing) is addressing the head table at the handing over ceremonies, including Pastor Kaimapo of Calvary Lutheran Church on the left, and the mayor of Freetown, the Honorable George Williams (wearing the tie).

The recent “handing over” of the new school building at Calvary, Up Mountain, is a good example.  The program was about 2 hours long (plus an hour spent waiting for it to begin).   There were introductions, the honoring of guests, speeches and more speeches, skits  by school children, a special musical performance, the presentation of gifts, and the required “vote of thanks.”  A sound  system was hired for the occasion, along with a dj to play dance music before and after the event.    A make shift structure was constructed for shade, decorations were put up, refreshments were arranged, and the community gathered to celebrate.  All of this is important enough to organize and pay for — not an easy thing in many Sierra Leonean communities.

Community members watched the ceremonies from the property next door.

The handing over festivities took place in front of the new school building at one in the afternoon. Not everyone got to sit in the shade.

A variety of stakeholders were present for the occasion:  teachers and children from the Calvary school; ELCSL representatives, staff from the donor organization (Action Aid); a representative of the contractor; the area chief, other local politicians, and even the mayor of Freetown complete with police entourage.

UNICEF and many NGO's are emphasizing the importance of education for girls in Sierra Leone. In addition to funding the new school building, Action Aid gave five substantial financial scholarships to girls from Calvary school for their junior secondary education.

Girls from Calvary Lutheran School's nursery classes: "educating the nation."

An "osusu' is a traditional, communal mechanism for sharing of resources and investing for the future.

Most of the speakers for this occasion challenged the local community to take ownership for the school:  to maintain the building and to use it well for the education of the children.   The “handing over” was official with the passing of the keys from Action Aid to the mayor and to the Calvary Community.   Prayerful dedication and blessing of the school took place the following Sunday as part of Calvary’s worship service that morning.    Teachers and students moved in the next day, and Calvary Lutheran Primary School stands tall, up the mountain, a new beacon of light and learning for the surrounding community.

The View from the Porch: work and play

Later today I am heading to Bo to meet with a small group of ELCSL colleagues. Our plan is to spend two days in an intensive review  of the church constitution.    The ELCSL will be holding a biennial general assembly in November so we are under deadline to complete our work by then.  The ELCSL constitution was last amended in 2003 and it became clear at the 2009 General Assembly that updating was in order.   I serve as a consultant and ex-officio member on a number of ELCSL working groups,  including the constitution review committee.  In this case, one of the roles I can play is to serve as an interpreter for resources that come to Sierra Leone from partners in the U.S.   The ELCSL constitution, for example, reflects influences of the ELCA constitution, and it is helpful at times to be able to explain the rationale behind the ELCA wording as well as the differences I see in the African context.

One of many varieties of kingfishers living in Sierra Leone

Whenever I travel outside of Freetown I carry a pair of binoculars and a bird book with me.    I have continued to enjoy seeing the incredible bird life in Sierra Leone, and have learned many new birds in the past 2 years. My interest started during an early visit to Bo, when I spotted a small, brightly colored bird in a tree outside the room where I was staying.  When I got back to Freetown I borrowed a reference book and was able to identify a malachite kingfisher.  I’ve been trying to pay attention to the amazing winged colors and shapes of creation in Sierra Leone ever since then.  On rare occasions, I am able to take pictures of what I see, and here are a few favorites, as spotted in various locales around the country. Keeping my eyes open for birds in Bo in coming days will be an appealing balance to our focus on the church constitution.

Male and female pintail whydahs. I saw a large flock of these at Lumley Beach in July.

The tail of the whydah is very distinctive, especially when flying. There were many whydahs in Njala when I was there in August.

Blue turacos seen early morning in the village of Gondoma. I have also seen blue turacos in the hills of the western peninsula outside Freetown.

The great blue turaco has grey and purple cousins (plantain eaters) in Sierra Leone. I have yet to see a purple plantain eater but one was sighted by a friend in Freetown.