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.

General Assembly

Lutherans from throughout Sierra Leone gathered in Bo last week under the banner “Let us Rise and Build.”  The occasion was the 8th biennial General Assembly of the ELCSL.  Twenty-three congregations were represented along with staff and a good number of energetic youth.

The ELCSL on the move: marching to worship in Bo. A marching band led the procession.

Assembly business was straightforward this year, focusing on reports as well as amending the ELCSL constitution.  I was priviledged to lead a bible study on the assembly theme over the course of three days, and enjoyed the chance to interact with delegates in that context.   During the bible study we talked about the visions which have shaped ELCSL history and will,we hope and pray, shape the future of the church as well.

ELCSL pastor's: Dalton Levi-John, Lynton Gomoh, and Christopher Yanker,

There were a number of highlights during the assembly.  King of Glory Foundation Scholarships  for theological education were presented to the first recipients.   Lona Yovonie, Marian Boima and Dwight Suluku are currently serving as unpaid evangelists for local congregations, and earn their income as teachers.   Each one also feels called to ordained ministry.   Lona, Marian and Dwight are each enrolled in theological studies but face significant financial constraints in this process.   Earlier this year, the King of Glory Foundation at King of Glory Lutheran Church in Dallas Texas, awarded a grant to the ELCSL for the establishment of a scholarship fund for theological and biblical training.   The King of Glory funds enable the ELCSL to build for the future by investing in the church’s human resources.    Bishop Barnett also challenged members of the ELCSL to add to the scholarship fund with their own offerings.

King of Glory Foundation scholarship recipients for 2011: Lona Yovonie, Resurrection, Bo; Marian Boima, St. Paul, Kissy; Dwight Suluku, Messiah, Taima

Rev. S.K. Yovonie of Resurrection, Bo. After his congregation struggled for years to make progress on building a church structure, he was very happy to see Lutherans at home in the new worship space.

A second highlight was worship on Sunday morning at Resurrection Lutheran Church.  The congregation has been working very hard in recent months to complete the roofing of their building, to install windows and doors, and to prepare the building for regular use. The General Assembly provided the occasion for Resurrection to host a worshiping congregation in their new building for the first time.  In addition, the liturgy for holy communion was conducted in the Krio language for the first time, using music composed by ELCSL musicians.  I was delighted to hear Sierra Leonean Lutheran voices singing their own music in their own language;  it sounded great!

A glimpse of the sanctuary at Resurrection. Doors to the building were installed the week of the assembly and considerable work remains to be done to complete the structure. But the congregation plans to begin regular worship in this structure and continue to raise funds to complete the building project.

True to the rhythms and energy of Africa, dancing was also a highlight of the assembly experience.  Singing and dancing marked the parade through the streets of Bo to worship on Sunday morning, and Friday night was devoted to singing and dancing and celebrating the culture of Sierra Leone.

Lutheran women in Sierra Leone love to dance.

Traditional instruments and a Bundu (women's) society dancer.

Youth Happenings

The youth of the ELCSL have been busy meeting and celebrating in recent weeks, and I have joined them for some of their gatherings.  As usual, youthful energy and enthusiasm overflowed.

Youth meeting at River #2. I believe the young man in the hammock has the best seat in the house.

Late in October, the northwestern Lutheran Youth Organization met for their biennial convention in the scenic setting of River #2.   Youth from the churches in the Freetown area gathered for this event.  I led the Saturday afternoon bible study on the theme for the weekend, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind… and your neighbor as yourself.”  (Mt. 22:37-39)  Pastor Levi-John gave the keynote address and spent the weekend with the youth as pastoral advisor.   The youth worshiped at Lord of the White Sands Lutheran Church with Pastor Yasim Turay on Sunday morning.

During my bible study, I assigned small groups the discussion questions: How do you know someone is a Christian? (What does a Christian look like?)

At the end of October the youth of St. Mark’s held their annual thanksgiving weekend.  They organized a bible quiz competition on Saturday afternoon with teams from other churches, and I served as quiz master as I have on numerous previous occasions. This year’s quiz was based on the gospel of Mark.   A musical competition followed later that evening.  On Sunday, the youth led worship at St. Mark’s, complete with musical contributions from other churches and the naming of a “career of the year.”  Accountants bested the medical field in this competition, winning the designation by collecting the most money from supporters with the very familiar envelope system (familiar anyway to anyone who has ever  lived here).

Samuel Davies preached at the St. Mark's youth thanksgiving. He is the president of the LYO there. He gave a very fine sermon for Reformation Sunday, calling on people to stand for truth in the face of corruption today.

For the past week, youth choirs from Freetown, Njala, and Bo have been learning the Krio liturgy, in preparation for the ELCSL General Assembly which starts tomorrow.  Representatives from all 23 congregations of the ELCSL will be meeting in Bo through Sunday, and I will be leading the bible study for three days on the theme “Let us rise up and build!” (Nehemiah 2:18)  As the Assembly meets,  I am particularly looking forward to hearing the church members join voices in singing for the first time the newly composed music for Lutheran worship in Krio.

Driving Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Jubilee Center update

Construction work at the Jubilee Center resumed this summer with financial support from the NTNL DiscipleLife Alive Initiative.  Bishop Barnett has shared a number of photos he snapped during  a recent visit to the site, and these offer a good glimpse of the work in progress.  It has been good in recent weeks to see the progress on this center for Lutheran life and worship in Freetown

The view from below, near to the Fire Force complex, looking at the administrative wing of the Jubilee Center.

The scaffolding on the outside of the building will remain in place for many months, as windows are installed and the exterior undergoes plastering.  One more story of the scaffolding will be going up in addition soon, on top of  what is already in place.  (It seems to be sturdier than it looks at first glance!)

One of the workers I met in August demonstrated the construction of the reinforcing pillars for the office wing. The workers were collecting water for concrete mixture from puddles of rain water (to save hauling it up 3 flights of stairs).

During my last visit to this site  late in August, I met a man coming up the hill from a nearby mosque.    We chatted for a few minutes and he asked about the building up the hill.  He commented that “he wished he was a Christian because he would join the church that would be worshipping in such a building.”  Members of the King of Kings Lutheran community worshipping in cramped quarters in the Fire Force offices also look forward to worshipping in the Jubilee Center soon.  The current hope is for completion of the project early in 2013.

The security bars for the windows of the Jubilee Center have been crafted into a design of Luther's seal.


Sierra Leone will hold presidential and parliamentary elections in 2012 and a season of intense politicking is well underway.  The incumbent president, Ernest Bai Koroma, was elected to office in 2007 and  is running now for re-election.  His political party is the All People’s Congress.  APC supporters are easily identified by the color red displayed on shirts, hats, banners and flags.  The APC is the dominant political party in the northern part of the country. The APC has been in  power in Sierra Leone longer than any other political party since the nation became independent, and has a complex historical reputation as a result.

The current opposition to the APC is the Sierra Leone People’s Party whose color is green.  (Political partisans take the color of their parties very seriously and the use of color makes sense in a land with high illiteracy.)   The SLPP is dominant in the south and east of the country, and this party recently chose their flagbearer for the 2012 presidential race.   The SLPP aspirant is Maada Bio,  a retired military commander known for his role in the National Provisional Ruling Council and for shepherding the transition from a military government to civilian rule in the 1990’s.

The presidential elections in 2007 were significant for Sierra Leone, six years after a decade of political and military conflict.   In 2007 the country experienced a relatively orderly and peaceful transfer of power from the SLPP government of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah to the APC administration of President Koroma.   But in these days, political tension is rising as the 2012 campaign heats up.   Worry and concern for the future is widely shared as there have been 3 incidents of violence in the nation in recent weeks. The most serious incident took place during a Maada Bio campaign rally in Bo.  Bio was injured when a stone was thrown at his head. Police responded to the ensuing unrest with gunfire, killing one and injuring about 20.  In the night, further violence and destruction followed in Bo town.

In the words of a statement released by the Inter-Religious Council of Sierra Leone (comprising the Council of Churches and Islamic Organizations of SL), “these ugly and dangerous events may be unconnected but they do cast a dark shadow over and threaten our national peace which we have striven to uphold over the recent years.  This trend of violence and lawlessness has left concerned peace loving Sierra Leoneans terribly worried….   We call on all… to firmly condemn and resist such atrocities so as to create and sustain an atmosphere of peace and security in this country.  We plead with and urge all Sierra Leoneans to join us, to pray and commit ourselves for peace to prevail in our beloved land.  In all we do, let us remember that we all have a responsibility to leave a legacy of peace and prosperity for our children to inherit. Let us therefore respect and be tolerant to each other as Sierra Leone is greater than any of us….  We call on all Sierra Leoneans to work for PEACE so that security will prevail for us all to enjoy God’s mercies and blessings.  May God continue to bless our land with peace and love.”  Many people here join in saying Amen to these sentiments.

Singing a New Song, part 2

This past week ELCSL musicians continued their work preparing music for worship in the  Krio language.  Early in the week we gathered a small choir together to record the music that was written last week, and we also recorded a spoken version of the Krio liturgy – from the opening confession to the words of dismissal.

Recording of the new music was managed by Rob Veith who serves with Lutheran Bible Translators in Botswana. Daniel Mossima played the drums; David Kargbo and Halima George sang with the choir.

The recording session went smoothly at St. Mark’s in Calaba Town although we had to pause for rain delays a couple of times throughout our time together.  (The sound of the falling rain became quite loud upon occasion.)  The ELCSL is blessed with many talented and creative musicians, and the team that came together to “sing a new song” did a fantastic job composing and performing.

At the keyboard, Tom Barnett Jr. is the national music director. He will play a key role in teaching the new liturgical music to congregations.

We are now waiting to hear the final product:  a CD of the new Krio liturgy and music which will be distributed to the congregations of the ELCSL.    We will also  look into producing cassette tapes as I am told that many people in the provinces do not have access to CD players.  Along with the CD’s and cassettes, we will be distributing a written version of the complete liturgy and the new songs which will be useful for those who can read Krio.

Choir members Mariam Boima, James Tulley and Betty Fannah. We recorded with voice and percussion only.

The musicians who participated in this project have indicated a willingness to begin teaching the new music to their own  congregations.  Personally, I have been hearing echoes of the music all week; some of the pieces are, as they say in Krio, very “sweet.”    Our most immediate goal will be to train a choir to lead worship in Krio for the ELCSL General Assembly in Bo, scheduled for early November.     Teaching both words and music will be an ongoing process in coming months and years, but we’ve made a good start this week.  I also hope the ELCSL musicians will be  inspired to continue composing music so that Lutheran worship in Sierra Leone will remain vibrant and dynamic in giving praise and glory to God.

Singing a new song

Step #3 of a long term project to create a Krio language liturgy for the ELCSL is underway this week.  After teaching pastors and evangelists how to read and write Krio (one year ago), and after working to translate the English liturgy into the Krio language (this summer), five ELCSL musicians are now working to compose music for Lutheran worship in Sierra Leone.  The project is moving ahead at this point with on the ground support from a consultant with Lutheran Bible Translators.

Singing a new song: this is the team working together to compose music for Krio language worship: Betty Fanna, Halima George, Rev. Christopher Yanker, Tom Barnett (Jr.), and Daniel Mossima. They are practicing one of their compositions in this photo, using the papers to read the Krio words. In this process, the tunes are learned by ear and sung from memory, as only one of the team members reads and writes musical notations.

Daniel Mossima is the national youth president and a very talented musician.

On Monday, the team read through the liturgy in Krio and asked the Holy Spirit to bless and inspire the work ahead.   One of the participants expressed the hope that music for the Lutheran liturgy would not simply replicate the pervasive styles and sounds of Pentecostal worship.   We realized that we don’t yet know the sound or nature of a truly (indigenous) Sierra Leonean Lutheran worship style,  but hope to set a process in motion for the ongoing development of “Lutheran” music in the Krio language.

Rob Veith, an ethnomusicologist with Lutheran Bible Translators is holding the microphone. Once the musicians have composed a song they want to remember, Rob steps in with his recording equipment.

After two and a half days working together, the musicians have composed 9 pieces of music for worship, including Krio language versions of the kyrie, “this is the feast,” the holy, holy, holy, and the  Lord’s prayer.  They were a bit tired as we wrapped up the afternoon session earlier today, but we all feel that the Spirit has been at work in these days.  The team will continue composing as the Spirit moves, and next week we will begin teaching the songs to a special choir, with an eye to producing a CD for use as a teaching tool.  We welcome your prayers as this project continues in coming days and weeks.