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.

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.”