Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A boat ride to Mogponguba Village

(Above: Hiking through the Sierra Leone jungle to reach Mogponguba Village)

(Written on July 12, 2008) -- Today we went hiking in the African jungle. Sorry, but I just like to say that. It was a trip for many purposes. Andy’s sponsored child lives in our place of destination – Mogponguba Village. COTN also has a nursery school there with about 100 students who all needed their photos taken for sponsorship purposes by Scott and then I tagged along not only because there was a boat ride involved (which just sounded exciting), but also because I wanted to see and learn what COTN was doing there so I can better do my job when I return home. The hike was about one hour – covering about three to four miles through bush and jungle, pathways across palm oil and cassava farms and over tall grass and rocks. There was a line of us – the COTN school principal, the employee in charge of sponsorship, Dave, Scott, Sarah, Andy and I, the teacher in charge of the school in Mogponguba and then about three nationals who came along for the ride. But, I think the hike was the most exciting for the white folk who kept pinching themselves at what we were actually doing – was this real? We came to a shaded, shallow stream about 10 feet across. Our “guides” laid down a couple of branches and large pieces of bamboo for a foot bridge so our shoes wouldn’t get wet and we balanced across.

“We are so blessed,” I said to Scott who was walking in front of me. “Who gets to experience something like this? Who gets to come live in Africa for two months?”

(Above: The river we crossed and the canoe we rode in to get to the village.)

The pathway finally ended at the river – about a football field across. It is very large, trees and thick jungle surround it on either side and the water flowed quickly past. Once down at the water’s edge, we spotted our mode of transportation across – a huge, hollowed-out log. We’d cross over in the massive canoes – one of which began to slowly approach us, full of nationals: women on their way to the farm or another village carrying food and goods in buckets and bowls on their heads. They passed the white people. “Bua,” we greeted them. “Bua,” they answered us, clutching our hands.

The canoes were literally made out of one log – deeply carved out. We had to take two trips because there were so many of us – with the “driver” sitting at the back, a large, flat paddle in his hands. We slowly and carefully stepped backwards into the boat and walked to the back. Then, we squatted and held on to the sides, the bottom of the boat muddy from rain and dirty shoes. I’ll tell you, going across a river in Africa riding in a canoe made out of a tree was a pretty surreal experience. I was so excited that Scott was there to share it with. To make the water trip even better, half of the village was waiting at the other side to welcome us. They stood up the hill from the water’s edge, expectant eyes and smiles, clothed in bright colors and no shoes. What a welcome to ride up to! We were taken to an outside pavilion and seated in front of about 80 kindergarteners who had a 10-minute welcome program planned for us. “Welcome interns, how are you?” they shouted in unison to us.

Almost every child took a turn reciting a memory verse, they then recited nursery rhymes in English – shouting them at the top of their lungs. At the end, two children stood at the front of the class – one asked questions, the other answered. “What school do you attend? Who is your teacher? Where do you live?”

What gave all of us chills was the last question the boy asked: “Why do you go to school?” The answer: “Because I have a right to education.”

For the next two hours, Scott took photos of every kindergartener enrolled in the school which started in this village just one year ago. By starting this school here, COTN has begun to prepare these little ones to enter into the first grade in the Fall – when they’ll have to join the other children from this village who make the boat ride and the three-mile walk to school and home each day.

I stared at these children with such beautiful faces and saw such potential in their eyes and smiles. They were here, speaking English and learning because of COTN and that alone is such an amazing thing to see and be a part of. As the children proudly presented their “welcome” to us, Scott leaned over and said to me, “Imagine if you were Chris Clark and you were able to see all this happen from that one step of faith.” Chris Clark is the founder of COTN.

(Above: Scott and I inside the nursery school building with some of the excited students.)

What an incredible thing God has done here in this country through COTN – and that’s just regarding school facilities. The personal lives that have been positively affected and changed from the teachers, to pastors, to children and mothers seems endless. And what if Chris and his wife Debbie had come, seen the many children on the streets here in Sierra Leone, went home sad and done nothing? I’m sure people thought they were crazy, but they kept this faith and are now blessed to see such amazing results.

We were told that our little group that visited Mogponguba was the first group of white people from COTN to visit. This became evident as children were brought to Scott to photograph. Some of the four-and-five year olds were terrified of the tall, white man shoving a blank box in their face. There were tears, quivering lips and wide, staring eyes. The parents just laughed and coaxed them through it. But, like most babies in the nearby villages who’ve never seen a white person before, crying and faces of terror is quite expected. And can you blame them?

(Above: Sarah Saunier and I drinking from the sweet coconuts given to us as parting gifts. They were the best I've ever tasted.)

After Scott took every photo, we got a tour of the school building, which the villagers helped build together. A thatch roof, mud walls and benches made of thick bamboo strips completed the building. And by the attitude of the village, they were quite proud of their place of education. To experience the boat ride to Mogponguba was pretty surreal, but to witness the affect that this little kindergarten school was having on this remote village was even more of a privilege. The welcome we received from everyone was humbling (we even were given gifts of coconuts to drink) and unexpected, but to find out later in the day that we were most likely the first white people some of those villagers had ever interacted with, made it all the more strange, unbelievable and special in a way. Yes, we’re in Africa. 

(Above: Scott and I with Kudus, one of our favorite boys from Mogponguba Village.)

Monday, December 15, 2008

What did we actually do?

Our time in Sierra Leone went by so quickly – partly do to the fact that we were busy! Though some things Scott and I didn’t participate in fully since our goal was to lead the interns in ministry, we were able to be a part of everything that went on in some way. 

Here’s a look at what we did the first month …

(Pictured above: Intern Mark Drennan playing games with the children in his village)

VILLAGE MINISTRY (the favorite aspect of everyone’s time in Africa)

The eight interns (five Americans, two Liberians and one Northern Irishman) were teamed up in four groups of two and then assigned a village that would become their own during our stay. Monday afternoons consisted of Outreach, when each group would prepare a message, songs, games and skits to do for the children of their village. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons the interns went back to their villages and were placed with a family or group of friends who taught them an Africa “skill.” Interns came back with baskets they’d woven, a new hairstyle they’d braided, stools they’d nailed and mats they’d learned how to tie together. Some went to the family farm to learn what a typical day looks like, others cooked with the women of the village and tasted the food after. The main point of the “new skills” day was not necessarily to learn how to do all of these things, though the interns enjoyed it. It was an excuse to sit and form relationships with people in their villages, hopefully sharing with them about the love of Jesus, whether they could communicate with words or not. Sunday mornings each team of interns attended their village church which were part of a new church planting initiative that COTN has started in villages near their property in Sierra Leone. Most of the village churches the interns attended had just started a few months before. They helped lead songs, encourage villagers to attend, prayed and some even preached. This part of our time in Sierra Leone was very special because of the relationships formed between interns and the people of their villages. Imagine walking into a village in the middle of the African jungle and hearing people call your name and being able to greet everyone you see by their name as well. Pretty amazing experience. Thankfully, Scott and I got to visit each of the four villages, tagging along with the interns, numerous times and were able to experience a little bit of where they loved to go so often.

(Pictured above: Three village children at one of the school buildings; Tutoring on of my students; Intern Myles Hamby waking up his class with an exercise!)


This was the first year that the COTN school in Sierra Leone held summer school, meant for the students who were struggling the most during the normal school year. The interns were each assigned to a classroom and every Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning until noon, they split up the subjects of teaching with the summer school teachers. I got to participate in this part of ministry and helped Aunty Kadie Kobba teach middle schoolers English and reading. What fun! (And what a challenge!) The main reason why it was important to have native English speakers helping teach is due to the customary way that reading education works in Africa. Children are taught to memorize words instead of sounding them out phonetically. This causes major problems when, later in school or life, they come across a word they’ve never seen before and don’t know how to sound it out. Because the interns spent so much time with one teacher and with one class of students, it enabled us to really get to know them. My middle schoolers became very close to my heart – one of the boys who was not excited about being there on the first day, Shaka Sandy, soon excelled in the class and even came to bid me goodbye at our farewell party. This was a special time, no matter how difficult it might have been some days.


Tuesday and Thursday mornings, the interns spent time doing or preparing to do something that was personal to them – working in an area where they had expressed interest before arriving in Africa. Two girls who are in school to be teachers did one-on-one tutoring with students. Four guys who are all interested in pastoring or somehow going into the ministry planned a three-day pastor’s seminar for all the new pastors and church leaders from the church plants in the surrounding villages. And two other interns assisted the COTN counselor in mentoring groups of home kids on tough topics. This allowed the interns to work at and give to something they were good at and had a passion for.

(Pictured above: The orphan home children, interns and home mothers gather to listen to intern Elijah lead Bible study.)


Every Wednesday evening, the interns along with Scott and I helped lead the Bible study for the orphan home children (about 100 of them). The interns organized who was going to give the message to the older children and who was going to speak to the younger children, what the message would be about and what kind of skit would make them laugh really hard, and yet teach them something at the same time. We all had a blast making fools of ourselves for the skits and also singing Sierra Leone praise and worship songs at the beginning and end.

(Pictured above: Intern Myles Hamby leading his "Yellow Team" of children in a camp chant; The whole group of us enjoying a hearty camp meal of rice -- from top, left: Andy, Gee, Myles, Scott, Sam, Mark, Stacie, Laura, Stephanie, ELijah)

The last two weeks ...

One word can describe them: CAMP. Though going in to camp, we were under the impression that we were just in charge of crafts and helping with sports, we quickly realized that we were actually one of the main forces running the camp. The first week was for children – Try to picture about 250 Sierra Leonean kids all under the age of about 12. Most of them don’t speak English and most of them, like normal kids, want your attention all the time. They were split into four teams – red house, green house, blue house and yellow house – and two interns took a house (more than 50 children) to help lead throughout the week. The most exciting part for the kids had to be that they spent the night. The school class rooms were converted to dorms and each child brought a sleeping mat, extra clothes and a water bucket for bathing at the river twice a day (that was a site I’ll never forget!). All the orphan home children came, but the camp was mostly made up of children from the surrounding villages, which explains why they couldn’t speak English. It also emphasizes the amazing opportunity the camp was to not only tell these children about Jesus – some of them had never heard about Him before – but to also educate them in important areas. We talked about hygiene, sanitation, how to brush your teeth. We also just loved on them – some of them don’t get that kind of attention at home. The camp involved crafts, a Bible message, quizzes, lots of sports and even a movie at night (run by a generator). The interns were involved 100 percent for the entire day – helping with each aspect of the camp as well as keeping the morale up on their team, which involved lots of cheers, singing, fist-pumping and silly dancing around. Though there was exhaustion each night, the children made it all worth it.
The second week was the camp for youth, which was, incredibly, a lot more relaxed. Not only did we now know what to expect, we had teenagers who could sit quietly, understand and speak English. They were also a lot more competitive. Crafts, a Bible message, quizzes, and relay games still made up a lot of the camp, but soccer was added – the four colored teams competed their best players against the others. The other major additions were talk sessions lead by the COTN counselor with the boys and girls separated about sexual abuse, STDs,  AIDS/HIV education and what the Bible says about what’s right and wrong in a dating relationship. Both groups of boys and girls were very receptive to the sessions and had lots of questions. Some interns even brought their mattresses up to the school and slept with the children at night, bringing a guitar, playing cards, lots of love and an incredible amount of energy. The teenagers loved every minute of it.

One of the highlights of the entire two weeks, however, was on the first day of the first camp for the children. Two of the interns – Myles and Stephanie – were teamed up in a village called Wonde for the village ministry. While there, the village pastor told them about another village farther away where a church would soon be starting. They visited this other village with the pastor and realized that no white person had ever been there before. While there and after meeting so many of the children, Myles started telling them about the upcoming camp. He tried to convince the parents to let the children come and he promised that he and Stephanie would be back to escort the children to the COTN property (about five miles away) on Sunday (when the camp began) if any of them wanted to attend. On that Sunday evening at about 6 p.m., most of the campers had arrived – about 200 of them – and the group was beginning to sing. All of a sudden, out of the corner of everyone’s eye, around the bend came Myles and Stephanie with a group of about 50 children in tow – all carrying their mats and buckets, ready and excited for camp. Myles looked like the Pied Piper, with the biggest grin on his face. They had walked the five miles back from the village, picking up children along the way and leading them all there – to learn about Christ. It was a beautiful picture.

Friday, September 5, 2008

What it's like to come home ...

(Above: A few of the many goodbye letters that we received from the children on our last night in Banta.)

It’s been about two weeks since we boarded the plane in Sierra Leone to make the long journey home to the United States. Two weeks since we’ve taken bucket baths or slept with mosquito nets. Two weeks since we’ve wandered through the African jungle. Two weeks since we’ve greeted the Sierra Leone children whom we grew to love so much.

Two weeks, in this case, has flown by almost as quickly as our two and a half months did in Sierra Leone. I know that neither Scott nor I were mentally prepared to come back so quickly and the thought of jumping right back into American life seemed a bit daunting. Maybe that’s why the process has been slow for us. And its not that we didn’t want to come home, it was that we just could have stayed a bit longer. After two months, we knew almost every child by name, we had made friends in various surrounding villages and we saw how much work and how many projects there were to be done – to continue to better the COTN program. When you’ve got the most important person in your life there by your side, working with you, what exactly is the reason to leave? And yet, we did leave and life back home has been good to come back to.
The most difficult thing about coming home has unfortunately not been getting used to the luxuries we have here – the instantly hot showers, the cool and breezy air conditioner, the large amount – and choice – of food, my car, my house, my everything. As much as we would have liked for all these comforts to be fresh -- forcing us to really appreciate them -- they became normal once again after a day or two. On the second day home, Scott said to me, “How are we going to remember to really appreciate what we have after how we lived this summer? A hot shower is already just a hot shower to me.”
It’s amazing how easy it is to get back into our routines as the summer filled with skinny children who work so very hard and have so very little begins to get farther and farther away in our minds. We struggle to cling to it and the emotions we experienced there. We cling to them so we can try, in some way, to explain it to everyone here at home – so they can have a taste of what its like.

Which brings me to the most difficult part of coming home after spending two-and-a-half months in the bush of Sierra Leone: telling others about it. We know that one of the most important parts of going overseas and spending time in a Third World country is coming home and making the people and the situation there real to people here. Not only so they will hopefully desire to help, but also so they will simply be aware of the world outside of our safe borders.
So, why, then, when people ask us, “So, how was it?” do we stutter and give some general answer like, “It was amazing.” Or “It really changed our perspective on things.” I cringe as the words come out for lack of something better. How can I sum up an experience that challenged me like I’ve never been challenged before, that whipped me down to my knees so that I was forced to pray and ask God for help because I had no idea what else to do, that made me have tears of sadness and tears of joy? How can I tell people about living next to children who saw their parents killed or whose family didn’t want them? How can I explain feeling inadequate to be there, or watching a dying woman in a village cry out in pain at my feet and knowing that I probably could do nothing for her? How can I describe the feelings of anger towards injustice or the absolute love for someone I can barely communicate with? Oh, it’s a world that seemed so very far away before – was it even real? Those photos in National Geographic and those documentary films about distant African wars? I can now say yes, it is all real – the people, the lives, the wars, the places. So, now how do I prove that, how do I explain such emotions to those here who are willing to listen? And how do I give just one sentence to those who don’t want more than a sugarcoated answer?
This is what Scott and I wrestle with now. We must work at putting our emotions and our moments of experience into words so our time will be real to you. We will try our absolute best.

Due to lack of time and ability to use the internet in Sierra Leone, we will be posting blog entries that were written while we were there, but did not make it up on the blog during our stay in Africa. We hope you enjoy them.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

It's hot.

The moment we stepped off the plane in Sierra Leone, Scott started sweating. He hasn’t stopped since. To put it mildly, it’s hot.

Going outside kind of reminds me of walking on a freshly-paved, black parking lot around noon in the Florida summer. The sun just beats down and without air conditioning, a refrigerator or a fan, you’re forced to simply get used to it. So, we have. We’ve come to terms with sweating and being hot all the time. Scott has even invented a finger-squeegee method for his forehead and I have to admit, its the first time I’ve ever sweat through a whole shirt. Pretty disgusting. And yet, at the same time, it’s all part of the experience. You wake up a bit sticky, you wash your clothes after every wearing, you drink a lot of water to stay hydrated, you develop a new sense of odor smell and you wear lots of sunscreen. This is what living close to the equator is like – hot. We’re told our bodies will eventually adjust to the climate. We’re also told that the late July and August rainy season will bring cooler weather. For now, though, we’ll all grin and bear it – sweating all the way.

NGolala Village

It seemed fake – the first time we walked into the village of NGolala [pronounced Guala]. Because it was really that – a village in the middle of Sierra Leone, Africa. Just like photos I’ve seen and movies I’ve watched, here it was right before our eyes and all around us. Across a road, down a narrow dirt pathway and through the jungle is how you get to NGolala Village from the COTN property. With Sarah as our guide, we made our way down the stone staircase to the stream that passes at the entrance to NGolala. Nestled in the middle of bush and trees and thick jungle are more than 50 homes made of mud, sticks and thatch roofs. They are scattered here and there – some close to one another, others at a distance. Little dirt pathways lead to this section of houses and that section. We are greeted by children carrying water from the stream up to their homes for cooking, washing or drinking. They smile at us and greet “Aunty Sarah,” water dripping down their faces and arms – their little bodies full of muscle. We stop at each home to greet each family, cooking women or a grandmother sitting on the porch, lest we leave anyone out. “Buah” [hello], they say to us and “Buah, bicea,” we answer back, hoping we’re pronouncing the words correctly. We shake hands; we smile; we laugh together when neither one of us can speak to the other very well. And yet, we recognize that both sides want to know more about the other.

Here, life seems so basic – its about working to get enough food for your family to eat that day, cooking it and keeping the house running by washing clothes, cleaning the home and raising the children. Sleep comes when its dark, on the reed mat spread out on the dirt floor and under the thatch roof. The early sun awakens everyone for another day. There are distractions in life here, sure, but they are very different than our Western distractions of TV, media, social commitments and everything else that flashes before our eyes each moment at home. Here, life is just a lot more basic – simple. The reliance on God also seems a lot more evident here because the people must trust in Him to literally survive – for their next meal, a job, protection. We in the U.S., we can pretty easily rely on ourselves for all the essentials in life. This, at times, might also make it easier for us to just push God out of the picture.

We continue through the village – trying to take it all in. To grasp the different way of life right before us. When we shake hands with people, there is a genuine look in their eyes that we don’t always see at home – a warmness in their voice that sparks our curiosities – Why do they care so much that we’re here? Why are they so happy to greet us? Why so welcoming to strangers of another color?

We left that day trying to make sense of the jungle village that we saw and the many hard-working people we’d met. Life here is so very different.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

An evening of hope

Last night was a somber evening – one that intrigued us and saddened us. One where we tried desperately to understand reasonings for war and human cruelty. One that opened our eyes to the realities of injustice.
Last night, Quami shared his testimony of how he came to know the Lord and how he came to work for COTN. Involved in that story, however, was the rebel war, which involved mass murder, rape, kidnapping, cannibalism and making children into soldiers. He told us the history of the rebellion and why it took place. He shared about getting arrested himself – mistaken for a rebel – and coming close to being executed.
It was because of Christ, he said, and "my belief in Him, that I was let go."
It was a difficult story to hear and yet fascinating at the same time. Especially for those of us who have seen the blockbuster movie Blood Diamond and wondered, “Was it really like that?” The answer is yes.
To help us understand what these Sierra Leoneans who we’re meeting everyday in villages actually went through, we watched a few minutes of some raw video footage that was taken during the rebel attacks on Freetown. Though it made it extremely real – much different than watching it in a Hollywood film – I don’t think Scott nor I expected it to be as raw as it was – dead bodies everywhere, people crying and running around. I had to close my eyes numerous times. And yet, that was real life for this country. That was it. Many of the children here in the home witnessed such a massacre and it puts things in perspective to have a tiny understanding of what they went through. It also breaks our hearts.
What was most ironic thing that evening, or just God at work, was that as we were watching those moments of real horror on the screen, the children in the homes began to sing. Their songs of joy to the Lord echoed, as they always do each evening, through the houses and the open windows – around the palm trees and surrounding bush. The sweet voices of mercy and hope. Their songs were proof that this country can overcome such a war and a reminder of the precious lives that have so much potential though they were once orphaned and alone. They were a strange few moments – watching and hearing two worlds collide, the past and the present. It gave me hope and it made me happy to be involved with such a ministry of love and rescue.

Internet in the middle of Africa

(Above top: On the way back to Freetown from Banta to get the interns, we stopped at this junction for breakfast. Above bottom: Scott in the foreground and Laura in the background smashed into the puda-puda vehicle.)
Who would have thought that getting on the internet to update a blog would be difficult in the middle of the bush in Africa?
Scott and I had high expectations for our internet usage, internet availability and the time we’d have to actually write and photograph for the blog. Little did we know that our job here would need all of our time and that the internet in the middle of the African bush would not always be up and running or all that cheap! All that to somehow explain why our blog has been updated so infrequently and why we are so behind in telling you what we’ve been experiencing and what God has been doing here in Banta. Please forgive us! We’ll continue to update this site until there is nothing else to show and nothing else to write about. Even if we’re updating from good ‘ol Orlando, we’ll keep it coming. Thank you for your patience.
To catch you up a bit, the interns arrived on June 23. Scott and I spent the week before that in Banta with the teacher team – getting familiar with our surrounding and preparing for the interns’ arrival with schedules and figuring out our exact roles here. We made the very tightly-packed, public puda-puda trek back to Freetown with Quami (and about 15 other Sierra Leoneans) and greeted the interns with a cheesy welcome sign when they arrived at the guest house around midnight. They were exhausted and already way out of their comfort zones.
Girls: Stacie Sabo, Stephanie Stout and Samantha McCabe, all from the greater Seattle area. Boys: Andy Chinn (greater Seattle), Myles Hamby (L.A., Calif.) and Mark Drennan (Belfast, Ireland). Mark is special because he’s actually here in Sierra Leone as an associate with COTN – which means he’s staying on for one year. We’ll leave on August 16 and he’ll continue ministry here until next summer.
It was exciting for Scott and I to have the interns finally arrive after we had been here in Sierra Leone for about two weeks – we were beginning! We let them get rest, took a trip to the nearby beach for a few hours and began orientation. One and half days later, however, around 5 a.m., we were off again in the puda-puda headed to Banta. About 100 precious children and more COTN staff were there waiting for us. Though the journey was snug and quite uncomfortable – especially with a bunch of people who just met – the interns found joy in the eight hours of travel as they gazed out the window at the lives and people and villages that went by. And they were, at the same time, reminded of the reality of extreme poverty in this country. They also began to learn a new language called Mende – the language of Banta. In fact, we made up a “rap” in Mende. Translated, it goes something like this, “Hello, how are you? Thanks be to God. Thanks.” You can imagine the puda-puda driver when he heard us singing such things – he chuckled to himself. It was a moment of being the “loud white people.”
And, after the eight hours on dirt roads, through rain and puddles, over a few bridges, past women with water on their heads and children waving, we arrived at COTN in Banta. Greeted by Auntie Chris, Dave, Nancy and loads of shy children, we were home – our home for the next month and a half.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

A silly side of Sierra Leone

Today I experienced African tie-dying.

On a small hill behind house five, Aunty Mariama was hard at work with a clan of other aunties and children helping her create the colorful masterpieces. The commotion attracted Scott and I and we stood watching the spectacle for a while – Aunty Mariama yelling instructions in Mende to her many helpers as the hot water hit the dye with only a few moments to soak the white garments. A fire had been built early in the day where a large pot of water sat heating for the next dying session. Aunty Mariama would choose her colored powder, mix it with the dye formula and then add the hot water. Hands covered in thick rubber gloves sloshed the bright colors over the white fabric, which will eventually become a bedspread or tablecloth. Instead of rubber bands, Aunty Mariama stitches her patterns into the fabric – which in the end, after several colors are used here and there on the cloth – make for a masterpiece design.

Scott confessed he had his major doubts when watching the process of dying – on the dirt ground, no rinsing the bowls after each color and the hustle of the crowd gathered into the process. But, we both were delighted when they pulled the stitches out of the first two projects and they were beautiful with a perfect pattern. Once the aunties were finished with each color, they let the children soak any shirts or clothing they wanted to dye with the leftover color.

We jumped at the chance to join in on the fun and brought back the only white things we own: our towels. We used rubber bands to make a design and though we tried to help, the kids and aunties kind of took over to make sure we got purple and yellow tie-died towels (we didn’t choose the colors, mind you). The perfect souvenir from a summer spent in Sierra Leone.

Aunty Chris

Scott says the difference between African food and American food is the amount of love that goes into African food – the time that goes into preparing it and the tedious detail that each ingredient is given to make it taste just right. Although, we are spoiled here in Sierra Leone. We have Auntie Christiana – or fondly known as Aunty Chris – as our personal cook for our two months here. Not only does this woman love to cook, she is a professional – trained in culinary school. And, she’s very used to cooking for Americans. She even owns an American cookbook. She’s simply amazing – her ability in a kitchen (without an oven, mind you) is hard for us prim and proper Americans to understand. Scott explains the whole situation as “camping all the time.”

I sit outside in the kitchen area now as the wind blows softly through and watch Aunty Chris make spaghetti sauce. Chickens peck by along with a rooster here and there as young boys bring water they’ve pumped from the nearby well – their bulging muscles showing the work they’ve done. Aunty Chris sits on a crate outside the kitchen, which is a separate room behind the house we’re staying in. She cuts the carrots and green beans, she checks on the black-eyes beans she’s prepared and sets a cover on the cake she has baked as a surprise for us tonight. How she makes a cake without an oven is still a mystery to us, yet we’re delighted to taste it and will shower her with compliments tonight. Nancy is Aunty Chris’ helper – we tease the 15-year-old that she’s in a one-student culinary school. Nancy takes direction from Auntie and grinds the garlic, cuts open the tomato paste cans and mashes the onions, which I had the privilege of peeling a few minutes ago. Aunty Chris turns to the half-cooked chicken she’s boiled and begins to coat each one in egg and then bread crumbs and spices. She dabs spots on the chicken that the egg didn’t get to – just to be sure the entire chicken leg will fry.

She looks up and smiles – her teeth shiny white and a sort of genuine laughter in her eyes. The cloth holding her hair back matches the dress she wears – beige with a black design. In the background are the gardens of the COTN homes, beyond that the Sierra Leone bush – tall palm trees peeking out -- and past that are the rolling mountains, faint in the distance. I take my turn at mashing the onions and tomatoes in the mortar and pistil, only stopping when they are a slushy mix. She will add it to the spaghetti sauce in a moment. Aunty Chris is happy to be here – she considers all of the children at the COTN homes here hers since she was the first house mother when COTN set up shop in 1997. Cooking for us is just an excuse to visit them all – she gives the young boys a hard time when they say they are finished filling the barrels of water and she knows there are more to fill. She laughs at them. She greets one here and chats with one there – the Krio language rolling off her tongue like an instrument. And all the while, she cooks – for us. She lets me taste the sauce she’s combined together now over the charcoal stove. She motions for me to run my finger over the wooden spoon to taste. I obey and am delighted with the mixture on my tongue. She looks, waiting for my agreement that it’s good. And it is, I say, it is.

Banta Mokelleh

So, we are here – in Banta. This place is so very different than the capital city of Freetown. It’s the country – with clean air and lush jungle surroundings. The night is black with a magnificent view of the stars and the frogs croak loudly as we try to ignore them in our sleep. After being here almost a week, I understand why COTN wanted to bring the “home kids” here to live. Not only are they not exposed to the inevitable things in a big city, but here they have room to run, play and explore. Its safe and there’s space for lot of growth. As we walk among the school buildings, the medical and malnourishment clinics, I am simply amazed that this place exists – it’s like a haven in the middle of nowhere. Not to mention the houses where the children now live. Compared to the second floor of the school where they used to live, I imagine these buildings are a refreshing amount of space that feels like their own. Each Aunty decorates and arranges her house the way she sees fit.

The even greater impact, however, is that of COTN on the surrounding villages in Banta. Suddenly, a school is close by with the ability to offer help with school fees and food for lunch. Suddenly, education for the children of the village is not as impossible as it once was. And suddenly, after trust has been established, the village witch doctor is not the only option for an illness. Jobs are created, buying and selling becomes a demand, new pathways are created between villages that never existed before and parents become open to the idea of attending the Christian church that’s affiliated with their child’s place of education. Men emerge who are interested in becoming pastors for their own village church and soon new churches are springing up in villages all over Banta – 10 at the moment, with the help from certain people here at COTN. Two nursery schools began in villages that are too far away for such young children to walk to COTN’s school. Through that, these remote places are being exposed to English, education and the excitement that children have for learning. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a farm, weekly Bible studies, a girls church choir, health representatives in each village and teachers who are excited about education.

This is the ministry here in Sierra Leone that Scott and I are privileged enough to join. Just being here and seeing all that has been done is quite an honor. I just hope we can somehow offer something to help further what God is already doing here. I trust He knows the many reasons why we came much more than we do.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Friends in the rain ...

Scott and I were on our way back from a meeting at the office today when we caught site of a heavy rain headed straight for us. I looked behind us to also notice that we were being followed by three young, giggly girls I met yesterday in House 7. We debated making a run for it down the hill, but Scott convinced me that we should take shelter at the school until the shower had passed. There we sat with our three new friends. The obvious solution to combat any boredom was to play handclap games. Sali, Marie, Roselyn and I tried to teach Uncle Scott how to play. He got it eventually, but not before making the three girls erupt with laughter each time he purposely sang the song incorrect or slapped the wrong girl’s hand. We all giggled and laughed at one another as the rain poured down around us and I realized that that half-hour of rain was the highlight of my day. Scott and I are continuously reminded that the little moments here with these precious children who have been through so much, are some of the most important and beautiful.

Hundreds of nieces and nephews

In Sierra Leone, the customary term of respect for an older person as well as a term of endearment is to call them Aunty or Uncle along with their first name. So, the moment Scott and I arrived with the teacher team, we have been called Aunty Laura and Uncle Scott. Most of their African accents can kind of get Laura down, but when Scott introduces himself, there is almost always laughter and confusion because the sound of his name with the two hard consonants is so different from most of their African words or sounds. That distinction has somehow worked in Scott’s favor and lodged his name in every kid’s head. So, that combined with the fact that he is the only white male currently in our group (!) has made Scott the most popular of us all by far. Only here a few days, the children are still trying to remember all the girls’ names, mine included, but when Scott walks across the courtyard between the homes or in between school buildings, a peppering of “Uncle Scott!” rings out in young voices. Don’t get me wrong, I do get shouted at as well, but the popularity of Uncle Scott is beyond comparison. It is absolutely so much fun.

Now, to learn all 90-some names of the home kids so we can shout back at them…

Where we are: Our new home

The compound or COTN property in Banta Mokelleh is growing at a fast past since the home children arrived here a little more than a year ago. Here’s a look at what’s here and what we get to be a part of every day (and the interns aren’t even here yet!):

Off the main road:

Office – the COTN national office staff is made up of about six people

Guest House – attached to the office, this is where Reverend Angie Myles (fondly known as Momma Angie by everyone) lives; there are also two spare rooms for visitors, staff from the states and associates who are serving here for a year.

Counseling Center – a new building that serves as the home base for the counseling program.

School Kitchen – this is not like a school kitchen you would see in America. Its in a corner surrounded by tall branches as a fence which shelter the fire pits and charcoal stoves from the wind. Here, about six women from the surrounding villages cook lunch for about 500 students every day. Next to the stoves are three large wooden mortar and pistols, used to make the sauces they serve over rice.

Medical Clinic – a friendly room lit by windows boasts two beds for sick children along with medical supplies for the nurses who are on duty 24-hours a day. The head nurse – Aunty Agnes – also happens to be the wife of the chief in charge of the entire chiefdom of Banta Mokelleh. Somehow that makes me feel better when I visit with a question about a bug bite or headache.

Malnourishment Clinic – this little home is right next to the nurse and has an outside kitchen in the back. Built to model a typical home in the villages, this place is meant for mothers to bring their babies who are suffering from malnourishment. Not only are the babies fed and given medical provision, but the mothers are taught how to care and cook for their child so they can get enough nourishment to grow and be healthy.

Primary and Secondary School – the two buildings are separated by a soccer field (made of rocks, stones and dirt) and a basketball court. The primary school building, with six classrooms, was built in an L-shape with a courtyard area in the center. The secondary school building has three classrooms. Its large, covered outdoor area serves for school assemblies, ceremonies and church on Sundays.

Down the hill:

Nestled into the literal bush of Sierra Leone, about a ten minute walk down the hill from the office and school area, lies the children’s homes. Before you reach them, you pass the staff housing on your right – a collection of about five small homes that teachers and staff share while school is in session. Past that, though, you come upon a picture that doesn’t quite look real. Ten little homes sit in a U-shape, surrounded by the Sierra Leone jungle on one side and the COTN farm on the other. Tall palm trees frame the scene and you can see aunties leaned over, cooking in the outside kitchens behind each home. Children carry water buckets on their heads from the well near House 5 and chickens run rampant. The front porches of each home look into the middle – friends play games and ball and others help with dinner. It’s a scene from a movie or a book. Sometimes it doesn’t even seem real. To our delight, Scott and I (and eventually the interns) are taking over two of the children’s homes for the summer. One was not yet filled with children and the children from the other home were dispersed to the other houses during our time here. Eventually, COTN will build a special housing area for interns, but we are thrilled to be right in the middle of their lives this year.

The Details:

· * *Each house has a head Aunty and a “vice” Aunty. The head Aunty lives with the children in the home and acts as their mother, the vice is usually from one of the surrounding villages. She comes each day in the morning and helps with chores, cooking and caring for the kids. She leaves each evening and covers for the head aunty when she’s on holiday.

· * *Each home has about 10 to 13 children in it – all one gender, but ranging in age. This way, the older children are able to serve in the older sibling role and help the Aunties.

· * *Each house has a name that is painted in bold letters on the front: Strength, Truth, Hope, Integrity, Faith, Love, Courage, Joy, Peace and Grace

· * *In each home are two bedrooms – one small one for the head Aunty and one large one for the children, which is filled with five or six bunkbeds. Each home also has a living room, two toilet stalls and two shower stalls. And behind each house is the kitchen – a small room where the food is kept and where a fire can be made. Usually, however, the food is cooked and prepared on the cement slab that serves as a go-between from the house to the kitchen.

· * *Though none of the houses have electricity or running water yet, they were wired for both when they were built just a little over a year ago.

The Farm – this 50 acres begins past the children’s homes and provides pineapple, rice, palm oil, cassava (the common food source in Sierra Leone), potatoes, bananas, and okra to the homes. The pig house on the farm, which is home to about 10-12 grown pigs right now, provides a source of protein to the growing children every month or so.

The alarm went off at 4:30 a.m.

My eyes opened to the canopy of the mosquito net that hung from the ceiling around my top bunk. My sheet laid at the foot of my bed, still folded and unnecessary on such a hot night. I grabbed my headlamp stationed next to my pillow and began to prepare for our long journey ahead. We were finally going to Banta Mokelleh – departure time: 5 a.m.

Before we even arrived in Sierra Leone, Scott and I had heard horror stories of the trip to Banta. One said the ride was more than 12 hours on a bumpy, dirt road; another said she had to get out and push the vehicle up a hill; another said the vehicles have a tendency to break down. Let’s just say we were prepared for the worst – but an adventure all the same. In our instance, because of some issues with the COTN vehicles, we chartered two poota-pootas (you know, the 1980 Mazdas). In or on these two vehicles, we were supposed to fit the luggage for about 15 people (Scott and I alone had 6 bags) along with food to feed us all for about a week and a half and a random mixture of soap, a boom box, step-down boxes for electricity, teaching supplies and donations. To look at the hallway full of stuff and then to see where all that was supposed to fit was just silly. It made no sense at all, especially considering that we were supposed to fit as well – for possibly 12 hours, mind you. Despite such doubts, however, about half past 5 a.m., with the help of Scott and Quami, the drivers had actually done the impossible with room for us to spare. The key? Everything goes on the top. So, we’re driving into the African bush in a vehicle from the 1980s piled high with heavy supplies. “This wouldn’t even be allowed on the road in America,” Scott laughed. As we wedged ourselves into place, I felt as though I was part of a cartoon. And yet, to Quami and the African drivers, this was absolutely normal.

Scott and I ended up in the vehicle with Arlene, Quami, Dave and most of the food, which was packed into the back of the van – chicken at our backs and lettuce at our feet. We were left with two benches and the front seats.

The roads in Freetown are a story themselves. Most of them are dirt. During the rainy season, the packed dirt washes away, leaving large rocks and holes for the vehicles to find their way. If you can imagine two poota-pootas, stacked high with heavy luggage and supplies, stuffed full with food and people trying to drive on a road made of big rocks and potholes, that’s exactly how we started our journey to Banta Mokelleh. We drove through Freetown’s streets, passed people selling goods from their heads and little makeshift shops. We drove past the ocean on our left and mud shacks on our right. We traveled by mothers cooking breakfast and fathers on their way to a job. After about an hour, we made it through the city to where the roads widened and the people were less – To where the jungle soon surrounded us.

Scott and I sat on the first bench in the van -- I next to the window and hunched over to take everything in that we drove by and Scott hoping to find as much floor space as possible for his long legs. The wind whistled in and blew consistently in our faces, which was a welcome relief from the heat of the vehicle. Behind us sat Arlene, who periodically leaned forward to give us the history of an area or the name of the village we were approaching. “This is the point the rebels reached before they took Freetown,” she told us as we passed through a town called Waterloo. “This is where the rebels captured British soldiers during the war and held them captive.” This is Moyamba Junction and later, this is Upper Banta, she said.

Out my window was a world that we had never touched or experienced. A world that only existed in our occasional reading of National Geographic or in the untouchable stories of travel photographers and high profile journalists. Traveling on a wide road of packed dirt with occasional spots of concrete here and rough rocks there, we entered the bush of Sierra Leone. In the midst of jungle and palm trees were small villages. Homes made of mud and cement with thatch or tin roofs were not what I couldn’t keep my eyes off of. It was the people. Families sat in front of their homes – busy with laundry, cooking food or nursing a baby. Children scampered after our vehicles full of white people, barefoot with a small pair of underwear or cloth covering them. We passed women carrying babies on their backs and buckets of food on their heads from miles away. Children followed behind them with 8-foot tree branches in bundles, balancing on their small frames, concentration in their faces. Kids played on the skeleton of a run-down van, women waved with an occasional smile and Scott and I tried to take in the images passing quickly by us. “This is National Geographic stuff,” Scott said to me.

Occasionally, Quami would ask the driver to stop at a home or junction area and he’d purchase pineapples, nuts, mangos or bread for us to eat the following week. We stopped for breakfast around 10 a.m. on the side of the road – jungle surrounding us on all sides. Aunty Chris, our cook for these two months, amazingly brought out hard-boiled eggs, cheese and peanut butter to go with the bread we had purchased on our way through Freetown. Nothing like eating bread and cheese in the middle of the African bush – was this really happening?

It didn’t take long for me to realize that my feet were sitting on part of the engine, as the floor was extremely hot. I didn’t think much of it until about five hours into our journey when I started to smell burning and all of a sudden smoke started coming from my feet. We all stepped over each other in our effort to escape the vehicle as it quickly came to a stop. Scott dove back in for his camera gear – the precious equipment we’d taken such pains to transport all the way here. And then, there we were – standing in the middle of the dusty road, staring at a smoking vehicle as the noon sun quickly beat down on our already sweaty bodies. Now what? Quami and the driver inspected the problem and Arlene announced that we were getting out of the sun. She motioned the three newbie’s to follow. Arlene was taking Dave, Scott and I on our first real African adventure – what would happen?

We only made it about 30 feet away to a mud home with a shaded front porch. Arlene knocked on the door and asked in Krio if we could sit on the porch while our vehicle was being fixed. An old woman emerged and nodded yes, smiling. She left us to it, motioning for me to sit in the hand-made chair near the door. I obliged graciously. We sat with our waters, a granola bar and a melted candy bar to sustain us and marveled at where we were and what we were doing. I ran my fingers over the hard, caked mud that someone had plastered to form a wall and looked up at the thick, thatched roof. This was her home. The whole thing was honestly a bit surreal.

About 30 minutes later, Quami summoned the white people. The van had been fixed with the help of a few construction men who had stopped to offer any service they could. And, in no time, we were off again – such is Africa.

The poota-poota pulled onto the COTN property about 45 minutes later and there to greet us was Mama Angie, the COTN country director for Sierra Leone. Her smile and warm welcome made us happy – we were finally in Banta: Our home for the next two months.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

A visit to school ...

Today we visited the school right down the hill from the COTN guesthouse. This is the first building that COTN built here in Sierra Leone. The foundation was painstakingly laid by a team of American volunteers in 1997. In the midst of the war, the roof was still yet to be completed, but it finally opened as a COTN school and orphanage around 2003. The bottom floor was used for classrooms, the second floor was living quarters for children and the women (known as “aunties”) who cared for them and the third floor is a large all-purpose room with a full kitchen, offices and a medical room. Now that the "home children" have all been moved to Banta Mokelleh, both bottom floors are used for school classrooms. The building is large and its obvious that a lot of hard work and planning went into it. It is still a school in Sierra Leone, however, where electricity is not always common – the classrooms are lit by windows and school supplies are treasures the teachers and students must share.

When we entered the gates of the schoolyard, it was obvious that we had come at recess time. Though there were no swing sets or slides, the children have room to roam and play to get their wiggles out. The moment we entered, we were suddenly swarmed with children from all sides – fighting to hold our hands, wrapping their black arms around our waists and clinging to our fingers and wrists. It was almost comical – they have so much love to give. We stood and played with them, asked for names and ages, favorite colors and dreams. We played hand-clap games and Scott lifted little ones into the air. A few boys played ball on the side and the older girls stood in clumps, some brave enough to come and speak in English to the white visitors. It was overwhelming in a sense because we were basically attacked by very excited children – all little replicas of one another in their green-and-white-checked school uniforms, which had rips here and tears there. They all wanted our attention and they were all happy with a smile, a hello, a touch. In another sense, it was amazing. What a feeling to be bombarded with little ones who want nothing more than to hold your hand, touch your strange white skin and smile up at you? It doesn’t get much better than that.

Oh yeah, the school was great, too.

Took place on June 13

It was the mother of all scavenger hunts.

Arlene thought it would be funny to send Scott and I on a hunt to purchase some Sierra Leone items. The problem for us was that almost every item listed was written in Krio, so we not only were clueless on how to pronounce the items, we had no idea what they even were. Our national “guide” was John, a Sierra Leonean who was an intern for COTN last year. He was explicitly instructed to not say a word to us – no help at all -- except how to get to the market where we would begin our hunt.

Talk about an experience. I think that was the day that Scott and I were officially introduced to this beautiful and crazy culture. The first part of the adventure began with just getting there. We took the “public transport.” Now, instead of a public bus in Sierra Leone, they have what they call a poota-poota. This vehicle is usually made out of a 1970s Mazda van, which has been gutted. In place of the original two bench seats and interior, four skinny, metal benches are welded in from the back to the front and only the metal frame of the vehicle remains. Now, if two people are sitting on each bench, the only uncomfortable parts are the lack of legroom and the fact that the benches sit very high so most people have to slouch a bit in order to fit. However, the benches are actually meant for four people – which, when smashed up against one another, somehow is able to work. So, here Scott and I are, waiting for a poota-poota that’s going into downtown Freetown, with John at our side laughing at our reaction to everything around us.

We find a poota-poota and clamber in. I think we might have chosen the hottest day for such an outing. Add in that we’re now hunched over on a metal bench in an old Mazda, riding down the bumpy road along with about 18 (yes, 18) hot and sweaty Sierra Leoneans, I think the day just got hotter. Scott was wedged beside me, his knees practically at his chest and we both just laughed out loud – was this really happening? Were we really squashed into a public transport van in the middle of Sierra Leone with a bunch of Africans? Yeah, this was our day. No big deal. We remembered together what a blessing it is to be experiencing such things together, for to try to explain such an experience hardly does it justice.

We made it to the center of the city. John weaved in and out of streets and people to guide us to the large market area where they sell everything from kitchen sinks to cucumbers. The sights and sounds almost exhausted our five senses. Everything around us was extreme and to take it all in was a job in and of itself, don’t mind that we actually had to do some shopping. We passed women and children carrying fruit, water, clothes for sale on their heads. Others had goods laid out on the ground. There were so many people that we had to be conscious of every step. Cars tried to make it through the crowd every once in a while. We stared wide-eyed at passersby, the Krio language ringing in our ears. The buildings reminded Scott and I of New Orleans – bright colors of greens and purples, with rot-iron railings and balconies adorning the second and third stories. Some had been abandoned, others had been burned, a few refurbished. We wondered how much of this had been destroyed in the war. We wondered if this was still the result.

The outside market finally came and our job began. We fell into our “clueless white people” roles quite quickly, asking the market men and women what certain items were and if they had them. We, of course, were met with laughter when John explained to them the “game” we were playing, yet that didn’t cause many of them to lesson their price. We are white, which to them means we have a lot of money to spend. (If they only knew.) John wouldn’t even tell us if what we had bartered was a good price or not, which did honestly make it more fun. There was a lot of repetition since we didn’t know the Krio pronunciations – we’d struggle to read it, the old woman or child selling would say it back to us with a strained face trying to understand what we needed. We’d repeat it, they’d repeat it and finally they’d understand (toward the end, we just gave them the list). Scott got into a ten-minute barter session with one woman who wouldn’t budge on her high price for green peppers and I think I spent way too much money on two lapas (the fabric that women wrap around them as skirts or dresses).

The deeper we got into the market, the closer together the stalls were and the more intense it was – whole fishes laying out for sale, parts of bright pink pig in baskets, children running around asking if we wanted to buy their goods (“You want? You want?”) and puddles of rainwater to avoid here and there in the pathway. Everywhere was constant movement. After finding, choosing, and purchasing plantains, tomatoes, a kitchen bowl, we visited a small grocery store (a room where you could wander about 5 aisles) for cheese and cookies. We then asked someone to lead us to the closest pharmacy once we discovered what AAA was (malaria medication). And, finally we ended up on a street where about five local newspapers were sold after asking a businessman where we could buy one – that completed our purchase list.

Meanwhile, John just stood by the crazy Americans with a smile on his face, tying to stifle his laughter at our frustrations with language, knowledge and how much we should pay for what. A few times he gave me a nod yes or no if I really begged, but for the most part, he did well with his promise to Arlene. We stopped off at a little restaurant and paid way too much for a cold soda, but it was worth it. Then, it was jumping on the next poota-poota to wedge our way into a seat with other Africans going about their day – we somehow enjoyed the bumpy ride home.

As most of you know, Sierra Leone is a rainy place. Scott and I have quickly learned that when it rains, it rains hard. As we stepped off the poota-poota with about a mile left of walking to the house, we looked at the dark sky in front of us and then looked at one another. There was no way we were going to make it. Indeed, about two minutes later, the buckets of water started pouring down. Walking on a dirt road that leads between mud houses and small, shack-like businesses, John quickly led us onto the covered porch of the closest home. We certainly didn’t know the owners, but then again, neither did he. That’s the beauty of the Sierra Leonean culture – so often, they see themselves as one community. It was absolutely no big deal for us to stand on the porch of someone we didn’t know, without asking, as they stood there too, eating their dinner and talking. For the two white people, we were just along for the ride. We had stopped attempting to understand and were just happy to experience such a day. In the end, John’s uncle happened to drive by in a very nice vehicle (equipped with air conditioning!); we hopped in and he took us up the hill to our home – another act of kindness by this culture. We were concerned about our dirty and rain-soaked bodies messing up his pristine SUV, but it was nothing to him. We were flattered at such treatment and in the way such help was given – with no hesitation. In our individualist American culture, it is so much more common to fend for ourselves. And yet this little taste of Sierra Leone was a refreshing change in mind and spirit.

Took place on June 12

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Waiting for the interns to arrive

The idea was for Scott and I to come to Sierra Leone before the six college students so we could be prepared to lead them once they got here – instead of being just as confused, tired and overwhelmed as they will be (and as we once were) when they finally arrive. The plan has worked quite nicely for us – we flew in the same day as a short-term team that’s staying for about two weeks. They are a team of six teachers (all in their 20s) who have been doing seminars and co-teaching sessions with the COTN school teachers here in Sierra Leone – to train them in better teaching techniques.

Scott and I have been able to hang low and take everything about the country and culture in. We’ve gotten used to the four-hour time difference and the bucket baths, the sudden rainstorms and the rhythm of the Krio language. The heat, however, continues to still amaze and surprise us – especially because there’s no getting away from it. We have caught up on our sleep and et lag and have had some good bonding time with the local, national staff and the international staff that’s here – Arlene who is transitioning into the role of Sierra Leone liaison for COTN who I think might just be a white Sierra Leonean herself. She’s been with COTN working with and traveling to Sierra Leone for 11 years – since its start. She’s experienced the war, was flown out when the rebels took over Freetown and some of her dearest friends are national people. Watching her here in this culture you can se that she’s in her element – she’s home. Dave Spoon is the international staff member who is taking Arlene’s previous job of Sierra Leone Intern Coordinator. He’s learning, along with us, as much as he is able to soak in to his brain, heart and body about this country, its people and it culture. So, we learn together, which is good since we will work closely with these two in our time here.

The two weeks at first seemed a bit excessive to be here prior to the interns’ scheduled arrival, however the time has passed very quickly and has been much needed. We have sat back and watched how things are done, had impromptu meetings and planned ones to discuss summer camp, summer school, village ministry, personal projects, writing and photo needs. We’ve had the opportunity to ask Arlene every questions we can think from scheduling to cultural tabors. And we’ve had time to enjoy the people and moments around us without feeling rushed to photograph, write or abide to a strict schedule or check-off list. It has been quite nice and especially after the meeting today, we’re beginning to feel more confident and prepared for these six interns – their arrival, the work they will do and how exactly we will lead them here in Africa. I’m expecting, however, that the more scheduled day and the leadership role that we’ll automatically jump into will take a moment to get used to. But, that is what we came fro and that is what we look forward to. We wait, excited to see what God will do.

What its like living without running water: (Its not as bad as it sounds)

Peter is a student attending college who works for COTN. The job of this eager and friendly Sierra Leonean is fetching water for a houseful of people (that’s us) to use for drinking and bathing. Scott has already become good friends with Peter after helping him with this task quite often. You could spot the two hanging out by the water pipe quite a few times this week – Scott asking Peter question after question about his culture and life. Two or three times a day, Peter carries large buckets down the hill from the house, fills them with water and then carries them back to dump into the large water canisters which sit in the two bathrooms. This water is scooped out with a small pitcher for washing hands in the sink and for bathing.
The bathing process works like this: A bucket of water sits in the bathtub and the small pitcher is once again used – you soak down, lather up and rinse! Using the toilet is also a bit out of the norm, but after a week can you believe that we’re already somewhat used to it? First of all, you never flush pee. And for all other bathroom issues, you pick up the bucket sitting in the tub and pour about half of it into the toilet, which flushes whatever needed to be flushed down the pipe. Use the small pitcher to wash your hands and you’re golden. Now, if this process was being done in an outhouse, it would be a totally different story. But, in this house, we’ve gotten used to living without running water. And the nice thing about there being no hot water is that here in Sierra Leone, you ALWAYS want the water to be cold.

Written June 12

Our home in Freetown

The COTN guesthouse where we are staying in Freetown is like an oasis on a hill. That’s how it felt when we drove up to it on the night we arrived and that’s the way it feels each time I return to it after being out. Located in a section of the cty called Marjary Town, it is two stories – the upper part is rented for the COTN Country Director for Sierra Leone and the bottom part is for teams that come to serve. Three rooms stocked with bunk beds, mosquito nets and clothes lines make up most of the house along with a large living room area, a kitchen and two balconies that provide a spanning view of houses, people and the Atlantic Ocean in the distance. The house is surrounded by a cinderblock wall, which is coated in barbed wire – a warning that you can never be too cautious in this country.

Though the house is piped for running water, it no longer works properly due to construction in the area and other reasons we’re not really sure of (this is Africa, remember). For this reason, we’ve already started our bucket bathing, which we will be doing once we leave the city as well. And, I’ll tell you, its not nearly as bad as I expected -- honestly. It just makes bathing a much bigger ordeal and process than it is at home – that explanation will come in a bit. This house sits just outside the COTN compound, which consists of housing, a church and a primary school. Up until about a year ago, COTN housed about 80 orphans on the compound who went to the school and church. After acquiring land and building a school and living facilities outside the capital in the chiefdom of Banta Mokelleh, COTN decided to move all the orphans there. This allows them much more space to live and a better environment in which to grow up. The school and church in Freetown are still part of COTN’s ministry. The children that attend the school, however, live with their families nearby. Eventually, COTN will not rent this “oasis” house for teams anymore and simply use the old children’s facilities for teams that come to serve here in the city. I’m happy we got to experience this open and airy home, however. It has added all the more the experience of Sierra Leone.

Right now I sit outside on one of the balconies. The noises around me I’ve gotten used to easily, but they still make me laugh at the extreme difference from our home in America. Children are playing loudly in a yard nearby where an occasional scream or cry breaks out while the Krio language echoes here and there. A rooster crows, though its not sunrise, rice simmers in a pot and someone is hammering wood. Birds and mosquitoes chirp and buzz in my ear. Though the day was hot and humid, the breeze now cools me off and I hope for it to last into the night so sleeping is not so sticky. It has been relaxing, being here early. Watching how this culture works and lives -- trying to take it all in and understand, talking about the differences and becoming familiar with the joy that so many of these people have in their smiles and hearts.

Written on June 12

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Party on the water

In order to get to Freetown from the airport, a strip of water must be crossed. This can be done by ferry, hovercraft or helicopter (when they’re working, which isn’t currently). Our way across was the ferry – a large vessel that holds the vehicles on the bottom deck and the people (with a special first class ticket) on the top, indoors. Scott and I were not expecting a party when we entered the large room, but we were soon in the middle of the mini celebration as we traveled to the capital. We were surrounded by people – talking on the phone, laughing with friends, drinking cokes from the snack bar in the back. Music videos from the 1980s were blaring from the TV in front of us, helping to distract from the heat in the room. The “DJ” would stop them halfway and switch to a new song every few minutes. It wasn’t until later that Quami explained the music videos were for sale and this showing was just a sample of what you could buy. In the mix of the mostly African and Caribbean selection was Whitney Houston’s I Believe the Children Are the Future, Michael Jackson’s We Are The World and Paul Simon Live. The whole experience was really just hilarious. To top it off, three slapstick comedians came out in clown outfits to entertain for a few minutes and take up a collection from a laughing audience at the end. As we got closer to the shore, we made our way onto the deck in the darkness. We stood in a makeshift line next to women carrying fruit on their heads and babies on their backs, travelers from our flight, men returning from work and truck drivers accompanying their loads across the river. We were just faces in the crowd to this group going about their night. Just observers, trying to record and store away everything we were seeing around us.

Our Introduction

It’s only been one short day and suddenly, we’ve been exposed to a whole new world. It’s amazing how you can get on an airplane in one environment and step off it in one that you never imagined existed. In the movies or even a TV documentary, sure, but real life?

Our flight landed at dusk in the middle of the jungle and lush landscape of Sierra Leone. We watched the green palms and mountains as we approached. The long winding river and the Atlantic Ocean that borders the country seemed like the stereotype of Africa and yet here it was, in front of us. We landed near a small airport – and finally, when we stepped off the aircraft, we believed that we were actually here in this foreign place.

It was dark by the time we got through customs. And dark in a third-world country without much electricity is a whole lot different than dark in America. I know Scott and I looked like deer caught in headlights as we emerged from customs, rolling carts full of way too much luggage with way too much photo gear, looking for someone or something familiar. In the maze of Africans and signs and taxi drivers all wanting our attention and speaking a language we could not understand (not to mention that we stuck out like a sore thumb), we found our COTN contact, Quami. The tall, buff, thirty-something African – who must have the friendliest smile in all of Sierra Leone – was an answer to some desperate prayer and a huge relief to these two tired travelers. He guided us through the crowd to the small taxi where our luggage was soon overflowing from the trunk. We stuffed ourselves and our belongings into the backseat, curious as to what would happen next.

The darkness overtook the shacks and homes and people that we passed until our eyes adjusted. But, when they did, we felt as though we were in a movie – the jungle on either side of us with homes and people standing and walking intermingled. “It feels like we’re in an Indiana Jones movie or something,” Scott said to me under his breath. The most surreal part of the entire ride was when our taxi driver set up his portable DVD player on the dashboard of the car. Not only was the movie Pearl Harbor, but it had Chinese subtitles. So, we’re shocked at the poverty out our windows as the wind whips in our faces, sweaty bodies crammed into the back of a small vehicle with our bags piled on top of us. We see, for the first time, Sierra Leone in the pitch black (which makes everything a little more eery) with a reggae rap soundtrack blaring from the car radio and then continue to catch scenes out of the corners of our eyes from this American movie.


We just hung on and tried to take it all in. It was part of the experience that I wouldn’t trade. The best was yet to come, though. The ferry ride to reach the city and then, just a small tropical storm to bid us to sleep.

A few cultural teachings from Koi:

  • Children are instructed not to make direct eye contact with adults out of respect.
  • A woman almost always does the cooking in the home. If a man is seen cooking, it shows that he is not dominant in the household.
  • Always eat a little (even if you’re full) of what someone else has prepared for you – out of respect.
  • Sierra Leoneans’ order of priorities are: family, community, region and then country. Their mentality focuses on what's best for the group, not necessarily for the individual.


A plane ride to Africa

Koi sits down next to us on the plane. We ask him his reasoning for flying to Sierra Leone. He looks at us in surprise and says, “I’m from there.” And so begins a long question and answer period he allows us to control – about his country, his people, his customs. We soon realize that everything we’ve read and watched on videos is very real in Sierra Leone – for here is proof in the flesh sitting right next to us. He tells of his family of seven siblings plus two that were adopted after they lost their parents in the war. He tells of living in multiple refugee camps and stealing food from nearby farmers for the necessity of nourishment. He shares of his brother who had to flee the country because the rebels were after him. He says he doesn’t worry about much now in his country – because after going through the war, “nothing could be worse.”

But Koi is also an introduction to the Sierra Leonean people for us – his warm smile and friendly face are kind to the two curious Americans who know no more about his country and his people than a Hollywood movie about diamonds and a website that lists population statistics. He tells us we will love Sierra Leone and his pride for his country is evident in how he speaks and in the details he shares. He is polite and continues to warn us about cultural characteristics that we may not know.

His mother sells palm oil at a market in the village where he grew up. He says it was only through a micro loan from an international organization that she was able to earn the money to pay for him to attend college – his gratefulness is quite evident in his demeanor and the way in which he tells us his story.

I wonder, as I look into this young man’s eyes, what has he seen? What does he have in his history and childhood that my safe and secure American mind can’t even imagine? Where has he been? And what does he think of us?

He assures us, once he finds out that we’re Americans, that he likes Americans. “The British are too stiff,” He tells us, laughing.

I’m always amazed at how we can be a communicating world – so small now with the Internet – and yet still struggle to relate with and fully understanding certain people and cultures far away. It’s hard to believe such countries even exist when they are not in our daily lives. But, in person, suddenly there is a whole new perspective. Koi is here sitting next to us – a native of this African country we had never even heard of until a few years ago. His stories are very real and this place – his home – will soon be more than just “a poor country in Africa” to us.

We begin our journey…