Category Archives: Traveling Tales

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.

Banana Island

The ELCSL office re-opened today after a holiday break, and the staff are slowing returning to work for the first time in 2011. The new year greetings that came my way via phone calls after midnight on January 1 are now being extended in person.

The Banana Islands are in the distance. The colors of the Sierra Leone flag seen here reflect the blue of water, the green of the forests, and the white clouds of the sky. These two traveling companions are German and British.

Time off over the holidays gave me a chance to continue my explorations of Sierra Leone.  In the week after Christmas, in the company of a small group of friends, I exchanged the noise and crowds of Freetown for the peace and quiet of a tropical island.  (An altogether great exchange by the way.)

The waters between the peninsula and the islands were speckled with fisherman floating with their feet in the water, sitting in their small canoes. The captain of the boat we rode in pulled alongside this fisherman and bought our dinner from him.

The Banana Islands are a series of three small islands off the tip of the Western Area Peninsula. We drove the peninsula road for an 1 and 1/2 hours from Freetown to the seaside village of Kent, and then traveled across the Atlantic waters in a traditional wooden boat powered with an outboard motor.

The Banana Islands were the setting for slave trading in the 17th century and were later settled by repatriated slaves. Island residents today are Krio descendants of those long ago slaves. Remnants of the islands’ colonial past are still visible on the islands in the form of scattered naval cannons, upright iron lampposts, and large bell dated 1881 still used to call the faithful to worship.

Living in Sierra Leone often offers insight on the history of my own country. I stayed in the Ralph Henry Bungalow at the Banana Island Guest house and this sign was posted outside the door.

Riding in boats in Sierra Leone often involves wading in the water. This boat had a handy set of steps for climbing in and out. Typically, however, the captain or other workers on board carry passengers from the boat to shore.

In many ways, Banana Islands fits the ideal of an island paradise: swimming, fishing, snorkeling, forest walking, hammock-napping, bird watching and monkey spotting  are among the options there.
True to my experience throughout Sierra Leone, islanders were incredibly friendly and helpful. Whenever we met people along the way out, they pointed us in the right direction and offered insight on the island life.
We had a good two days of island time, and I am thinking that a trip back may be in order.

We did find and eat bananas on Banana Island, but were taught by one of the locals that the islands are named for their shape, not for the fruit growing there. (Note what struck one of my friends: bananas grow upwards.)

One of the men we met out walking told us that these very large leaves are known as "fishermen's umbrellas." We thought of this when we had a few drops of rain while out walking.

Mogbuama

Lifting high the cross in Mogbuama: processing to worship through the village with singing and dancing.

After visiting the village of Ngolahun 2 weeks ago, we stayed overnight in the nearby village of Mogbuama. If figuring out how to pronounce the names of these towns seems daunting for English speakers –  it is! Mende names and words are tongue twisters for me, and I can almost guarantee surprised (and appreciative) laughter when I try to exchange greetings in Mende with the people I meet. It was certainly true for the adults I met in Mogbuama.   My experience with children in the village also held true:  crowds of kids consistently gathered around to touch my hand or just to stare.

Among the next generation of Lutherans in Mogbuama.

I had previously traveled to Mogbuama for brief meetings and short visits, so it was good to spend the night and to join St. Luke Lutheran Church for worship on Sunday morning. Signs of grace and change were abundantly clear amidst the singing and celebrating crowds. Worship with prayers and singing began at a newly functioning water well, rehabilitated with funds from Water to Thrive. This is the first of 10 wells we hope to dedicate in coming months.

This water well had been abandoned for many years. A pump had never been installed, so it had previously been used with a bucket system. The community cleaned it and the contractor installed new concrete lining and a concrete top, along with a new pump.

Led by the cross, making a joyful noise the entire way, members and friends of St. Luke’s then processed through the village to a newly finished church building. Bishop Barnett was on hand to offer prayers of blessing and dedication. St. Luke is served by Lay Evangelist Francis Sorgbeh who normally conducts a simple service of the word in Mende (with singing of course) each Sunday. Congregations like St. Luke celebrate holy communion infrequently — only when a pastor is able to visit.   The visit of a delegation from the ELCSL office in Freetown along with the regional dean and other pastors was  an occasion then for sacramental sharing.   I assisted in the distribution of the communion elements in partnership with Pr. Lavally. We stepped outside to serve the worshipers who couldn’t squeeze into the church building, and the phrase “holy chaos” came to mind as we were surrounded by adults and swarms of children all wanting to participate and partake.  Holy chaos describes many of my experiences in Sierra Leone, and while the chaos can be overwhelming at times, the presence of God is an enduring grace.

St Luke Lutheran Church. For the dedication service, the church overflowed with worshipers from other churches and communities.

The exterior of St. Luke's a year ago. Plastering inside and out helps preserve the mud brick walls.

The road to Ngolahun revisited

This past weekend I journeyed “upcountry” with ELCSL colleagues  to the villages of Ngolahun and Mogbuama to celebrate 2 special occasions with church and community members there.    On Saturday we traveled to Ngolahun to break ground for a new  building for  the St. John Lutheran Church  Primary school.  Currently over 120 children meet for classes in the church sanctuary, outdoors, and in other makeshift places.

Students of St. John Primary School participating in the ground breaking ceremony. Their teacher is blind.

Funds for a new, 6 classroom school are being provided by a retired Lutheran pastor and his family in Ft. Worth Texas.   The partnership between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sierra Leone and Lutherans in the Northern Texas- Northern Louisiana Synod  has been growing and deepening over many years, and Pasor Willie Hunt’s commitment is another encouraging expression of this global relationship.   I think it is difficult for villagers in Ngolahun to imagine the lives  and support of  Lutherans in a far away land across the ocean, but Bishop Barnett spoke movingly about the contribution of funds for the school as a sign of God’s love that knows no boundaries.

Marking the footprint for the new school building: Bp. Barnett and community leaders.

I first visited Ngolahun in March during the dry season and with help from a road crew of villagers, we were able to drive to the village on that occasion (see posting from March 24, 2010).   This time, however, the journey posed some challenges.  It is particularly noteworthy that in these post-rainy season days, the road/path to Ngolahun crosses and passes through 10 streams and swamps.

It didn't look good when the car I was riding stopped to see what happened to the car that went before us! The stream bed was very sandy, and this Toyota 4 runner's 4 wheel drive was not working properly

In order to get to this point, the men first had to lift and bounce the car sideways onto rocks placed in the stream bed for traction. Then they pushed the car backwards, back across through the water and up a steep embankment. It was an altogether amazing sight. With properly working 4 wheel drive, Bishop Barnett drove his car across with ease.

After we had driven as far as possible in our vehicles, we completed the trip to Ngolahun on foot, crossing over and   through 6 water filled  spots as we walked the final 3 miles.   As we were retracing our steps  on the return journey a couple of hours later, I smiled to see a man carrying a TV set, followed a mile or so later by another man carrying a small generator.

The school to be constructed in Ngolahun in coming months will be built with local materials (mud blocks) as well as cement.  Anything not available locally will probably be carried in the same way as the man carrying the TV.  Where there is a will there is a way in Africa!

One of the swampy areas on the walk to Ngolahun. The ELCSL visitors were honored for coming with gifts of a goat, sweet potatoes and rice. Villagers carried these 3 miles back to the cars for us.

Someone in the village will use the TV to show videos and will probably generate income in that way. This man is crossing the final bridge into Ngolahun.

Tiwai Island Wildlife Sanctuary

Tiwai  Island is not easy to get to but well worth the trip.  Last Thursday, I drove with friends to Bo for an overnight stay and on Friday morning we set out in a heavy duty Land Cruiser for a village on the bank of the Moa River in southeastern Sierra Leone.  I was expecting a four hour drive from Bo, but the roads were not too bad and we reached our destination in a little over 2 hours.  A small bridge to our village destination was under repair so we had to walk the last half mile in the company of 2 construction workers who helped carry some of our luggage and our cooler with supplies.  They always make it look easy carrying such loads.

Our companions on the way to and from Tiawa Island, and the villagers we met were all incredibly friendly and helpful.

Our campsite. Tents were provided along with a mattress. We were grateful to be camping under a roof as we had heavy rainstorms both nights of our visit.

When I told my ELCSL colleagues I was planning to visit Tiwai for the weekend, none of them had ever heard of the island.  This wildlife sanctuary treasure seems to be unknown to most Sierra Leoneans, but has a positive reputation among adventurous tourists and expatriates.  We met folks from all over the world at Tiwai, and generally felt encouraged by the potential for the tourism industry in Sierra Leone.  Tiwai Island is of particular note as the local community is engaged in what happens there and profits from it.

The Bradt guide to Sierra Leone says “a visit to this tropical rainforest island is undoubtedly one of [the country’s] wildlife highlights.  Encircled by the flowing waters of the Moa River you are immersed in the sights and sounds of one of the world’s densest and most diverse chimpanzee and monkey populations and more than 700 species of plant life.”  The island is also home to 135 species of birds as well as the elusive and rare pygmy hippo.    This river island hosts the most well established ecotourism facility in the country as well as a research station for biological and environmental studies.  ( An American researcher currently in residence on the island has been studying the pygmy hippo for the past 15 months and has seen the creature only 3 times.)

From Tiwai Island looking to the Moa River and the opposite shore. (Photo by Pat Flood)

We hired a guide for trekking through the Tiwai forest for both late afternoon and early morning hikes.  I was glad I had taken my hiking boots especially when we walked over forest paths teeming with ants and termites.  Trying to walk silently in the forest was almost impossible for the non-Africans on the trail, although our guide did his best to show us how easy it can be to move without disturbing the forest inhabitants.   Elementary school memories of reel to reel documentary movies about African wildlife came to mind as we trekked along.  The forest was full of the sounds of insects, birds and monkeys, and our guide would periodically pause to whisper about what he was hearing.

Our guide, Mohamed. Notice the machete in his left hand -- a commonly carried tool useful for clearing overgrown paths and in the event of snakes.

We heard and saw a variety of monkeys sitting in the tree top canopies and swinging their way through the forest:   long tailed black and white colebus and diana monkeys among others.  We learned to  identify the distinctive winged swishing of the yellow casqued hornbill in flight, and we crossed paths with a startled bush pig.   An afternoon motor boat ride down the Moa gave us the chance to look for crocodiles (we didn’t see any) and to spot bird life along the way,  before we were chased back to camp by a rainstorm.  I have been on safaris in Kenya and Zimbabwe, but Tiwai Island was an entirely different experience with the wonders of creation at hand.

In researching and booking the trip to Tiwai, I was able to get some basic advance information but still we set out not quite knowing what we would encounter in terms of facilities and supplies.  Water was a primary concern, so we carried a 3 day supply.  As it turned out, the base camp on Tiwai is fairly well equipped and is able to meet the basic needs of visitors agreeable to the prospect of camping and eating locally prepared meals.   I  left Tiwai with the hope of returning someday, and with the hope of expanding the list of animals and birds I’ve seen in Sierra Leone.

Monkey spotting: there are three red colebus in this tree. It was almost impossible to get good photos because they moved so fast and were high up above us.

This sooty mangebey monkey came down to the ground for a visit just as we were packing up to leave. We could hear the monkeys close to our tents during the night. (Photo by Pat F.)

Yellow piped hornbills, according to Tiwai birders. While watching the monkeys was great fun, I also really enjoy birding in Sierra Leone.

Coming and Going

You can see from this map why so many of my pictures relate to water.

Among those who have occasion to fly in and out of Sierra Leone  there is an ongoing debate about the best way to travel between Freetown and the international airport.      The airport is inconveniently located in Lungi, some distance from Freetown across an open body of water, and the options for traveling to and from the airport each have distinct pros and cons. (Driving overland between Freetown and Lungi is one possibility but it’s not really a practical approach given that it takes 4 – 5 hours one way.)

The safest, cheapest, and slowest way to travel to and from the airport is by a government run ferry from Kissy wharf.  The ferry accommodates vehicles and pedestrians, and runs periodically throughout the day and night.  Taking the ferry means allowing hours and hours for miscellaneous uncertainties, including the time required to navigate Freetown traffic to and from Kissy.  Taking the ferry is something of an all day affair when leaving town, and a late night venture when arriving.

Another  option for travel to the airport in the past has been a hovercraft.  People I’ve talked to generally speak positively about the hovercraft.   It has a good reputation for safety, reliability, and comfort.  I have often seen the hovercraft — beached at Man O War Bay in Aberdeen, but in the past year or so I have never heard that it is actually operating.

This is yet another view from my porch. The men with the boat are harvesting sand from Cockrel Bay at low tide. The sand will be sold for construction purposes. In the background is the landing site for UN helicopters. They fly overhead multiple times in the course of a day. The helipad for commercial helicopter flights is on the other side of the bay and a 10 minute drive from my house.

Option number 3 for airport travel is by helicopter.   It takes 7 minutes between Aberdeen and the airport, complete with audio/video entertainment on the way.  The helicopter is the fastest and most expensive ($80) way to go, and I have journeyed in this way on the two occasions I have flown into Sierra Leone.  The helicopter is oft debated as a viable option however, because the  helicopter did crash a few years ago.   Recent years have seen upgrades in the quality and safety of this option, and the helicopter remains my choice for late night airport arrivals.

For traveling to and from the airport in the light of day (and when the wind and the waves are calm), I am favorable to using a local water taxi.  The fact that I live across the street from Pelican Water Taxi makes this an especially convenient option.  At $40 per trip, the price is moderately reasonable compared to the helicopter.   The water taxi is a good size speed boat capable of ferrying passengers across the bay in about 30 minutes.    Water taxis are relatively new for Freetown travelers, but they are growing in popularity. There are some stories of motors breaking down or quitting  along the way leaving passengers adrift on the water, and tales too of high waves and rough rides.  For this reason, I am not too inclined to travel by water taxi home from Lungi in the dark of the night.

When I finally left Freetown on Monday April 26,  the sea was calm and the day was sunny and I opted to cross to Lungi by water taxi.  From Freetown I flew to Dakar, then to Brussels. From Brussels to Chicago; from Chicago to Cleveland; from Cleveland to  western NY state.   The April 26 flight was the earliest I could be re-booked after my original  April 19 flight plans were cancelled by that Icelandic volcano.

Pelican Water Taxi, a convenient walk across the street from the ELCSL compound. This boat seats about 20, and all passengers are required to wear life jackets.

I wasn’t able to attend the NTNL Synod Assembly in Amarillo because of the flight disruptions caused by the volcano, and I am disappointed that I didn’t have the chance to connect with so many who support the ministry of the ELCSL.  I am very grateful though, that we can stay in touch on line.

While I am in the US in these days my computer will be receiving some much needed maintainance and repair but I hope to make one or two postings in coming weeks nonetheless.  I’ll fly back to the Lungi airport in Sierra Leone on May 18, and make my way home  to Aberdeen from there, either by water or by air and always “by God in powa”   — by God’s power as they say in Krio.

The Unexpected View from the Porch

According to the BBC reports I heard yesterday, Bishop Barnett and I are two of 7 million people impacted by that volcanic ash cloud from Iceland.  Bishop Barnett was scheduled to travel to Dallas via London last Friday for the NTNL Synod assembly, and I was scheduled to fly through Brussels to Texas  on Monday.   We have been grounded this week, waiting to hear whether or not we might leave Freetown in time to make the synod assembly.  We are both immensely glad to be here and not stranded on the way.  I can’t help but think there is something consistent with the Christian tradition in having been humbled by ashes through all of this.  As the psalmist says:  “when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers… what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them.”  (Psalm 8: 3 – 4)

Fishing boat on Lumley beach. This week I was wondering how long it took for missionaries to travel to Africa by ship in the days before air travel became so common.

As I write today (Wednesday) it looks like Bishop Barnett will be able to fly to Texas on Friday night.  The earliest I can fly out will benext Monday, so I won’t be able to participate in the NTNL synod assembly as long planned. I particularly regret not being able to meet many of the readers of my blog from NTNL.

As I wait for updated travel plans to be confirmed, and contemplate the complexities of a global world, I thought I would try to post a few photos related to simple modes of  transportation in Sierra Leone.  Alas, for the past few weeks I have been having multiple problems trying to upload photos to my blog.  After multiple attempts, (including photos I would have labeled “poda-poda with a goat on top,” and “early morning discovery in Momajo village”) I’m calling it a day!

Getting there is half the fun

The trip to Ngolahun this past weekend meant driving  a road not normally traveled — by vehicles anyway.   Ngolahun means “the forest” in Mende (and is one of many Mende words I have a difficult time pronouncing).   The village is just about in the center of Sierra Leone,  12 miles off the main Freetown – Bo highway.  I knew Ngolahun was nearly inaccessible  in the rainy season, but until we turned off the main highway I hadn’t realized there wasn’t actually a road for a number of miles along the way.   Travel for the villagers means walking along a well established footpath through the bush, crossing streams and grassy swamp land until the path widens into a dirt road connecting to the main highway where public transport is available.   Supplies are physically carried in, and products to be sold are physically carried out from Ngolahun, and visitors also use the footpath to reach the village.  But when Evangelist John Squire of St. John Lutheran Church learned that an ELCSL team would be visiting, he organized youth from the village to cut brush along the footpath to the village and to brace the banks of the largest stream with logs and branches.  This work made it possible  for our vehicle to enter the village.

The way to Ngolahun

This bridge allows travels to enter and leave the village with dry feet (and safely in the rainy season). I joined my traveling companions in walking across the bridge while the driver forded the stream in my car. In looking at the photos I took, I see that the young men of the village moved the logs from one side of the waterway to the other from Saturday to Sunday so that our vehicle could have traction up the embankment both entering and leaving the village.

When we arrived in Ngolahun on Saturday afternoon, the car was surrounded by a cheering crowd.  We were greeted with high energy and joy.  We were told that  it was a historic occasion:  no vehicle had ever before driven into Ngolahun.

St. John Lutheran Church was established in the village in 1989, and has been served all these years by Evangelist Squire.  He started with 7 members and they now worship about 60 adults and 60 children on a Sunday morning, in addition to sponsoring 3 preaching points.  St. John has also trained and sent lay evangelists to the two nearest ELCSL congregations in Mogbuama and Senehun.  Under Squire’s leadership, the church runs a primary school which meets in the church building.  They are dreaming of building a proper school with classrooms some day.  Evangelist Squire (as well as the school teachers) serve without pay.   He noted that he doesn’t have a cent in his pocket, but that the community provides what he needs in terms of food and accommodations.   I was impressed at what he and the congregation have been able to accomplish with very limited resources in a  challenging setting.

St. John Lutheran Church and Primary School. The zinc roofing for this structure was obtained sometime in the 1990's by bartering. During the war, the zinc was hidden in the forest so it wouldn't be looted by the rebels.

At the ELCSL assembly last Sept. Evangelist Squire had announced that a parsonage was under construction in his village, and he invited guests to visit.   I was graciously housed in this parsonage, and the women of the community cooked a couple of special meals for me, including my first taste of Sierra Leonean style yams — with  fish for an evening meal, and yams with ground nut stew for breakfast.  Once again, I was blessed by gracious hospitality, and inspired by the commitment of the Ngolahun Lutherans.

We were given yams like this one to enjoy in Freetown.

Pastor Hotagua (visiting from Senehun) and Pastor Kobba (development officer). This was early in the morning and the light was poor. As is typical in the villages, individuals would bath/shower outdoors in the small structure behind the pastors.

A world far, far away

One of my goals this year has been to worship at  the 2 ELCSL congregations I was not able to visit in 2009.   Both congregations are difficult to reach, and dry season traveling is highly recommended.  To even communicate on a regular basis with these congregations is challenging, as cell phone coverage is limited and mail service is non-existent.

The church is served by lay evangelists who preach, teach and lead worship.

This past weekend I made it to the most isolated and least accessible of the Lutheran churches in Sierra Leone.  (This coming weekend we plan to travel to the 2nd most remote village.)  I traveled in the company of Bishop Barnett and Pr. Kobba, and everything we had heard about the road and the distance was true:   it was not an easy journey.

The village of Sanhan, Timidale is 42 miles from a major commercial town, and it took us about 3 hours to cover this distance by car.  In places, the road was deeply rutted and trenched.  Not many vehicles actually travel that route.   When villagers from Sanhan want to travel to towns or cities elsewhere in the country, they typically walk 10 – 15 miles  to access public transport.   More commonly, I was told, residents of the area walk to a village by the sea and take a boat to a larger town.  Similarly, commercial items are brought into the area by boat and then carried inland.

The Rogers family, including twin girls. Mr. Rogers has taught 10 years without pay. Note the poster of Barack Obama on the wall.

The residents of Timidale are either Mende or Sherbro in tribal origins, and either farmers or fishermen.   The communities in the region barter for goods and services, and operate with a limited cash economy.  Education is a significant issue for the people we met, and the community members were quite clear in their request to Bishop Barnett:  let the ELCSL assume responsibility for the one primary school serving hundreds of children in the surrounding villages.   At the current time, the school is barely functional and the few remaining teachers haven’t received salaries for 10 years.  (One of these teachers told me that his first wife left him because he didn’t have reliable income.)  The school issue is a complicated one in Sierra Leone, and there are no easy answers for paying teachers’ salaries and maintaining structures.   Historically, the Christian churches in Sierra Leone, ( the Catholics and the Methodists in particular), operated a well-established network of educational institutions.    People remember what the churches once were able to accomplish, and they turn to the church again today with hope.   I came away from Timidale with a new appreciation for the difficulties faced by Bishop Barnett and the ELCSL in managing scarce resources in the face of such needs and expectations.

The community knows that education opens doors to the future, but they are too poor to maintain a building and pay teachers.

One of the toys invented by kids in the village

A highlight of the weekend trip to Timidale was the opportunity for a morning walk from Sanhan village to a fishing village on the Atlantic shore.   We walked 2 – 3 miles through bush and swamplands.  My guide was Mr. Rogers, one of the school teachers.  He asked me why I wanted to walk that morning and why I wanted to visit the fishing village.  I was glad he asked.  I told him that I wanted to try to understand more about  life in Sierra Leone, to see the countryside,  and to see how people were living so I could share those stories with people in my country.  He seemed to appreciate that.  He had his own assignment to buy fish at our destination but in the end came away empty handed as the price was too high.

The hike from Sanhan to the seaside fishing village meant walking this pathway through the swamp and over numerous logs and wooden bridges.

A favorite Sierra Leonean moment happened while I was sitting in the village waiting for Mr. Rogers to negotiate for the fish.  All of a sudden a man came out of his house and started climbing a tree. I had earlier noticed something hanging in the tree and had wondered about it.  It took me a minute and then I figured it out:  the man had climbed the tree to answer a mobile phone.  He talked for a few minutes, then another man climbed the tree and he talked for awhile as well.  It seems the only way to get cell phone coverage in the village was to climb that tree.  Such is Africa:  a mix of traditional  and modern, often in surprising and creative ways.

This boat was being loaded with luggage and chickens for a journey to another town. The Atlantic ocean is in the background -- beyond the mangrove trees.

Road Trip

On Saturday morning the ELCSL development desk officer Pastor Moses Kobbah and I set out for a weekend journey to the provincial village of Momajo.  We were planning  to deliver a cassava grinding machine to St. Andrew Lutheran Church, to finalize details for use of the machine as an income generating project, and to join the community for worship on Sunday morning.

This is a sentiment I appreciate when traveling! This poda-poda van was in the mechanic's compound for repair.

The good news for those traveling to the southeastern region of Sierra Leone is that the Freetown – Bo highway is completely paved now!  No more dust, rocks, ruts or bumps, at least for the first 180 miles of our trip.    With an 8:30 am departure from western Freetown, and a few quick stops, we anticipated navigating the dirt road from Bo to Momajo by mid-day and arriving  early in the afternoon.

Things didn’t go as planned.   Just short of a town called Mile 91 (yes, 91 miles outside of Freetown), the car overheated and our problems began.   We were driving in a well-traveled Land Cruiser nicknamed “the okada.”  Okada refers to a type of motorcycle transport here well known for zipping over, through, and around all obstacles.  Okada motorcycles are fast  — and dangerous in Freetown traffic.   On Saturday morning, the radiator in our okada cracked open, although we managed to move on  after the driver hiked to a stream for water.

We found a  mechanic willing to tackle the job of repairing the radiator  in the town of Mile 91, and I was welcomed to wait on a bench in the shade under a mango tree.  Assorted people came and went all morning and into the afternoon:  idlers,  peddlers, passers-by, and a man sleeping on the hood of an old Chevy suburban. His boots were  on the roof ready to wear once he woke up.

Once the radiator was removed from the car,  I was curious to see the repair process. It wasn’t at all what I expected.  Mechanical surgery is the description that came to mind as I watched.

The mechanics used a nail to make the holes seen here, tied the cracks in the radiator together with wire and eventually coated the top of the radiator with sealant. It seemed a creative approach using the simplest tools and supplies.

The mechanics who repaired and replaced the radiator told us that the cylinder gasket would also need to be replaced, and that we would need to travel to Bo for that work.   And so we went,  stopping every 10 miles to check the radiator and add more water.   Saturday was an exceptionally hot day but we drove into a heavy rainstorm complete with thunder and lightning.  Rain in March is very unusual in Sierre Leone — “unthinkable” I was told, but welcome  in my mind for its cooling effect (for the car and its passengers both).

We reached Bo around 6 pm, and needed to figure out next things.  Finances for our unexpected expenses were a problem.  We also needed to figure out what to do with the grinding machine we were carrying.  We needed to find a mechanic to look at the vehicle, and we needed to find accommodations for the night.  What I can say is that  cell phones are as useful in Sierra Leone for such situations as they are anywhere else in the world.  A network of Lutheran connections in Bo was extremely helpful too.

Pastor Kobbah helping to push the Land Cruiser up an incline and out of the mechanic's compound in Bo. There is a real art to this process: rocks to stop the car from rolling back were essential!

On Sunday morning, the mechanics in Bo related the final (but not unexpected) bad news:   the car’s cylinder head has cracked so repairs would be extensive and expensive.  In the end we decided to leave the car in Bo, and to see what might be arranged for repairs later in the week.   But even that decision was not a simple one to carry out.  The car was already dismantled, but no one wanted to leave it unattended and unsecured at an unknown mechanic’s shop.  (Trustworthiness is never assumed here.)  So in the end, one of the ELCSL leaders who lives in Bo, Pa Koppoi,  offered to keep the car at his home, and he hired 10 young men to push it there.

Pastor Kobbah and I walked behind as the car was pushed about 1 mile to Mr. Koppoi’s house. He graciously fed us lunch and sent us on our way by bus back to Freetown.  I was happy when I finally arrived back at my house Sunday night about 8:30 pm. As I write today, “the okada” remains grounded in Bo and I have yet to hear word of its fate.  My own car is also in the garage for repair, a fairly common thing. I am starting to learn more about public transport, although I am planning to avoid okadas in favor of other, safer and more reliable options.