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.)