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.


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!