Tag Archives: mende

The beginning of the end

For the past two months I have been traveling in Freetown and the provinces,  making final visits to places I’ve come to know, and saying goodbye to the people who have become my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Dancing the good news: gospel processional, King of Glory, Njala

Two weeks ago I traveled to Romankneh, Bo, Ngolahun visiting schools with the chair of the Education Commission.  I also visited Njala and served as the “Grand Chief Unveiler” at a thanksgiving service there.

Construction work on a new school building in Ngolahun resumed earlier this year, as  the path into the village is dry enough to accommodate vehicles.  Most recently, bags of cement and zinc panels for roofing were delivered to the village by motorcycle.

School students in Ngolahun are helping to build their own school building. These mud blocks are heavy!

Michael, teaching in his brand new classroom. He is one of the "volunteer" teachers at St. Peters, working year after year without salary as the school seeks government approval.

In Romankneh, furniture has at last been delivered to the new St. Peter’s Lutheran Primary School, and the students have moved into their classrooms.  It is good to see these changes and to witness slow but steady progress in the village settings.

My time in Sierra Leone is growing shorter and shorter but still there is time for new things.  I traveled with friends to a village called Kpatema last Saturday.  Driving into the village we were met by a crowd singing and dancing, two Texan Lutherans  among them:  Alfred Gorvie and Pastor Cheryl Walenta.  We joined the Gorvie family for a traditional village celebration, complete with addresses by the village chief and local politicians, followed by hours of traditional dancing.

Bundu society dancer.

Pastor James Hotagua, Faith Lutheran in Senehun

On Sunday I was able to worship for the first time with the people of Faith Lutheran in Senehun.  (Although I have visited every ELCSL congregation, Senehun was one of two I had never joined for worship).  The congregation has struggled to obtain land and maintain attendance, but is doing well now.  They are hoping to build a church structure on land they now own, and for now they are meeting in a rehabilitated chicken house (no one would ever know that now!).  And the congregation definitely needs to build more benches for worshippers. All morning, people kept arriving to join the celebration and by the end of worship it was a standing room crowd. The choir at Faith is all of 2 weeks old and they did an amazing job of helping lead the Mende-language worship.

One of the choir members played this homemade percussion instrument. The stick has notches cut into one side, and the player ran a piece of metal up and down the stick.

This coming week the ELCSL is hosting representatives from the ELCA and NTNL for annual partner meetings.  We will be at River #2, in Bo, and then back to Freetown.  After that, I will be packing up my house and  saying my final good byes.  I will be leaving Sierra Leone on Feb. 27 and returning to the US.  But I hope to share a few final thoughts as I go.

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.

Holy Ground

“Our first task in approaching another people, another culture, another religion, is to take off our shoes and walk gently, for the place we are approaching is holy… else we may find ourselves treading on another’s dream.  More serious still, we may forget… that God was there before our arrival.”

A friend sent me this quote many years ago when I was living in the Islamic-Christian-Arab-African context of Sudan.  Since those long ago days I have come across this passage on a number of occasions; it offers simple wisdom for cross cultural living in a new and foreign land.

The St. Anthony choir.  They made their own choir robes patterned on robes sent from the NTNL.  They led the congregation in Mende hymns.

The choir of St. Anthony Lutheran Church in Yegele. They made their own choir robes patterned on ones sent from the NTNL. The church building is a typical mud brick structure and a work in progress.

When I was in the village of Yegele last week I found myself walking on holy ground, amidst a people of faith sustained and

"Pa Blake" is the founding evangelist for St. Anthony's Lutheran Church.  He is "an old, old man" and in poor health.  I was moved and grateful that he was able to worship with us.
“Pa Blake” is the founding evangelist for St. Anthony’s Lutheran Church. He is “an old man” and in poor health.  I was moved that he was able to worship with us.

blessed by the abiding spirit of God.   St. Anthony’s Lutheran Church was planted in Yegele some 20 years ago, part of a cluster of 3 congregations established in the area at that time.  This congregation has never been served by an ordained pastor,  but leadership and inspiration have been provided by lay evangelists from the community.  My visit provided the opportunity to celebrate baptisms and holy communion — for the first time ever in that church.

God’s grace was poured out in abundance that morning at St. Anthony’s as I baptized almost the entire congregation:  71 worshippers of all ages!  Then we shared God’s gifts of bread and drink, and God’s people were fed for the first time in their own church home.   It was rich and meaningful to be among  the members of this community of faith and to see the visible signs of God’s presence shared there.   I was speaking English and the evangelist (James Vandy) translated my words into Mende, but the traditions of our faith tell us that water, bread and drink speak the ultimate language of God’s love and forgiveness.  (In the absence of wine for communion, we used a local, red colored cola.)

This transcendent language of God’s grace was spoken that same morning at St. Andrew’s in Momajo (served by Pr. Moses K. Momoh visiting from St. Mark’s in Freetown), and Grace in Jimmi (with Pr. Edward Lavally visiting from King of Glory in Njala).   Altogether, 142 Lutheran Christians were baptized in these  neighboring congregations, and worship that day truly was a foretaste of the feast to come when “a great multitude from all nations, tribes, people’s and languages will gather before the throne and before the Lamb.”  (Rev. 7:9)

Mother and daughter: 2 of 54 baptized by Pastor Moses in Momajo.  Same mother and daughter were pictured at the ELCSL assembly in my Sept. 9 posting.

Mother and daughter: 2 of 54 baptized by Pastor Moses in Momajo. Same mother and daughter were pictured at the ELCSL assembly in my Sept. 9 posting.

Traveling Mercies: African Hospitality

Over the past few months some of the youth and women of the ELCSL have made valiant attempts to supplement my Krio learning with lessons in the Mende language.  I am familiar with basic greetings at this point although my tongue still twists whenever I attempt to say certain Mende words.  There is one word, however, that I know quite well and will remember for a long time to come:  pumwe.

I first learned the word “pumwe” driving through Njala some months ago.  I heard it all along the way during travels last week to 10 provincial ELCSL congregations in a region dominated by the Mende tribe.   Every time we drove through a village and the children saw me riding in the car, they waved and shouted “pumwe.”   This Mende word for white person was proclaimed with wonder, curiosity and excitement.

Waving goodbye to the pumwe in Yegele.  (I snapped this with my cell phone's camera after my regular camera quit working, as I really wanted some photos of the children in Yegele.)

Waving to the pumwe in Yegele.

On Saturday night, I stayed with 2 Lutheran colleagues  in a village called Yegele.   On the way to Yegele, we dropped off members of the ELCSL team in two other villages.   Every time we stopped, we were warmly greeted by members of the Lutheran community and promptly fed a wonderful meal of newly harvested rice and stew.  And of course the children we met in each of these villages were curious and excited  about the newly arrived pumwe.   Most of the time the children I met were bold in their willingness to approach and interact with me,  but when I was being playful towards the children in Momajo, they ran away screaming and crying in fear.  Still, by the time I left the village and when I returned the next day, I had about 25 new little friends who followed me everywhere.

First of many meals shared over 4 days of visiting Lutheran churches "up country."  This meal of rice with cassava leaves was at Faith Lutheran Church in Senehun.

First of many meals shared over 4 days while visiting Lutheran churches "up country." This meal of rice with cassava leaves was at Faith Lutheran Church in Senehun.

By the time we arrived in Yegele on Saturday night, we had already eaten four or five times that day.   Traditional Mende hospitality provided yet one more meal that evening, as well as snacks of fried plaintain and roasted groundnuts.  As we sat on the porch of our host’s home through the evening hours, children started to gather.  I learned that I was the first white person ever to visit Yegele, and I was a subject of great curiosity for the children especially.  In fact, I was the entertainment for the evening, and all I had to do was sit  on the porch to draw an attentive, youthful crowd.   Ten children became twenty, and twenty became thirty, and soon the porch was overflowing with more and more kids.  My adult companions were amused, especially when parents came calling for their children in the dark of the night.  One bold boy named Baba Musa spoke a little English and was quite confident in trying to talk with me.  I sang and did the motions for “head, shoulders, knees and toes;” he followed along and had the other kids join in.  Later, the children sang songs in Mende for me.

My goat.   I left him in Njala.  The goat may provide meals for pastors and evanglists when we meet for a training session in 2 weeks.

My goat. I left him in Njala. The goat may provide meals for pastors and evangelists when we meet for a training session in 2 weeks.

When we departed from Yegele on Sunday afternoon after worshipping at St. Anthony’s Lutheran Church, Mende traditions blessed me again:   I was given a goat in thanksgiving for my visit.   The goat traveled in the back of my vehicle as we made our way over the next day and a half to Bo, Bumpeh, and Njala before heading back to Freetown.  More food and traditional hospitality graced us on the way.  In Bumpeh, members of the ELCSL team were greeted by the paramount chief, and we processed through the town with drums and singing.  In addition to the traditional meal there, and some newly harvested rice to bring home,  I was given yet another traditional gift — a hammock.   It promises to be well used once I figure out where to hang it.  In the meantime, I give thanks for abundant traveling mercies!   And I’ll post more pictures and stories about all these things  next week.

The road to Yegele had one unexpected stop.

The road to Yegele had one unexpected stop. My car is an Isuzu Rodeo with four wheel drive, but the wheel base was a bit too low for this spot. Amazingly (with a little help from the second car in our Lutheran caravan, and a tow rope from down the road), we eventually made it through the mud.