Welcome! Thanks for following along with my adventures - down to the very pages that make up the chapters in the current book of my life. Now that that metaphor has been thoroughly exhausted, I hope you'll stick with it and feel a part of the 8 weeks that I will spend in Bo, Sierra Leone. I'll be doing some specific tasks, including: facilitating two book clubs, facilitating a Bible study, tutoring resident students, working with the guidance counselor, and conducting staff training. I'm sure there will also be plenty that I have not anticipated and I'm looking forward to what God brings my way. I appreciate your being a part of it!

Monday, March 14, 2011

River no. 2 and Home...


I don't know why this isn't making a direct link; technology is not my strong point. Slightly irritating and, no doubt, easily fixed in some way of which I am unaware. Sorry!

So, I've been in the U.S. since last Wednesday and back to NY since yesterday. I have a killer cold after making it successfully through 2 months in Africa with the worst injuries being a semi-nasty burn and the beginnings of heat rash. Despite this, it is really nice to be back. Along with the cold, it's physically cold in my abode and I'm very happy about that; I spent some minutes wandering around in the snow flurries this morning while not wearing a coat and reminded myself that I like the northeast. I'm enjoying wearing layers of clothing, and having some energy to move about during the day is also a welcome change. All the physical comfort aside, I continue to process the emotional and spiritual aspects of my time in Africa. I'm not sure how much I'll be able to extract; I think a great deal of those aspects sort of sank into my being somehow. And I believe that's a good thing. How this has prepared me for future steps also obviously remains to be seen but I think I come back with a softer heart, eyes and ears that are quicker to see and hear, and a broader perspective from which to respond. I trust God will do with that what He wills.

So, while in Africa I had a birthday and it is always my custom to treat myself to something in the areas of travel and/or spa-type activities, so this year I went to the beach - specifically a beach called River no. 2. It's south of Freetown and accessible down a red dusty road that is heavily under construction and quite pot-holed. Fudia and I, with cake and water and all my luggage, left on Tuesday, March 1. The night before I went to Vespers and said my goodbyes to the kids. Vespers was actually not its usual format because the kids were practicing a song that they would perform for donors and the ambassador (they came to visit after I left). After practice, there was a sort of impromptu worship song session where Mother Emma Appia led the songs; everyone sort of danced around the dining hall. A bunch of the boys accompanied on drums. After that, there was prayer. I was really touched by a period of prayer for me and my family. While still walking around, everyone prayed out loud at the same time - just talking to God about me and my concerns - praying for my health, thanking God for letting me be there and for what I had offered, praying for my family members and my safety in getting back home...I kept thinking about the cloud of witnesses and how heaven must sort of be like this moment. They then sang a song that thanked me and honored me for my help over the 2 months. That made me cry. We said farewell & I promised to see them off before school the next morning (which I did). That same night Rev. Koroma came over to say goodbye and he and I had a really sweet time of prayer for his ministry and for whatever God brings my way. It was a pretty special moment! Earlier that day (Monday) I had finished my work in the library and passed everything over to Mabel. So, in all, I feel like I finished well - SO, time for the beach!

It took about 3 hours to get to Freetown so I was pretty happy to hit the air conditioning and iced beverages of Crown Bakery. I treated the 3 of us (Fudia, Paul the driver and me) to lunch. I enjoyed a pizza and Diet Coke - always a nice b-day meal. After a brief stop at the UMVIM office, we headed another hour to the beach. What a lovely spot! I won't describe what the pictures show - but overall impressions include pristine white sand, constant breeze off the water, sound of the surf and seafood seaside (grilled lobster as a b-day treat!)

So from Tuesday afternoon until Thursday afternoon we relaxed. Fudia slept a lot and went trolling for fresh fish. She purchased a bunch of grouper and had it fried up to take back to Bo. We had a few bites of it and it was SUPERBLY delicious. She decided not to purchase the pictured barricuda b/c it was too expensive (although she managed to get pieces of barricuda head for free). I read a lot, dipped in the waves, refused to buy any stuff for sale, and hung out with the dogs. It's a nice spot for a dog to live; this batch are quite clever about digging spots in the sand that are cool and perfectly fitted to their bodies. They also lie under the beach chairs. They get scraps of fish or chicken from guests to eat (and some bites of birthday cake from us) and the water is safe to drink - so in all, it's a nice life. There is also the occasional treat washing up on shore which they can drag out and play with and/or eat. Fudia tried to persuade the kitchen guys to let her do some cooking; she was not at all impressed with the rather basic grilled fish or chicken options with rather bland couscous, chips or rice. While I found this aspect of our stay okay, I was less impressed with the mismatch between the amount I paid for the room ($60/night) and the fact that $60 got me a 2-room basic concrete hut with no trashcan, no mirror, no hooks for clothes or towels, no towels, no soap, no chairs, nothing on the walls....but we did have a constant breeze and the lulling sound of the pounding surf :) We also made friends with a British guy who was on a one week holiday. He was quite interesting; I enjoyed chatting with him about books and writing and adventurous travel options. That proved a sort of nice segue back to the West...

A bit of disturbing news also came our way. Fudia was informed that Martha's sister (the woman I mentioned that had been admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of Hep A and then tuberculosis) died. I found myself quite angry about that; I see no good reason why a young woman IN THE HOSPITAL should die of either of those things. Chelsea told me that sometimes there isn't even a doctor; people in the hospital are volunteers. It's also possible that she was given the wrong (or no) medication and of course she could have been misdiagnosed. Apparently sometimes the cause of death is given as "a cold" - REALLY?! It shouldn't be that checking into the hospital in Africa = death sentence. And yet it seems that this is often the case. There is also the case that perhaps a visit to a hospital can save a life; Chelsea also informed me that Mercy Ships is back and docked in Freetown. She is planning on getting the little girl from the village there (the one I wrote about before); her mother is apparently hiding out and sending the girl to clinic by herself. The girl is now going blind b/c the witch doctor is messing with her eyes. He is also burning her hair and she is being beaten on the back of the head to "drive out the demon". Great. While Chelsea can't exactly kidnap her, she's hoping to track down the mom and coerce her into letting the daughter have an appointment in Freetown before being checked into the Mercy Ships clinic. I need to get an update on how that plan is going/went.

Alas, all good things must come to an end and Thursday we made our way back to Freetown where I got dropped off at the apt. of Mike & Chelsea Beasley (of Project Peanut Butter fame). I had a Friday evening flight back to Brussels, so I spent Thursday night and Friday morning enjoying conversation with Mike and the comforts of a clean cool room (they live in the hills so there is a nice breeze). Well, upon making our way to the ferry, I was told the flight was canceled which gave me another 24 hours to cool my heels. It also gave time to get a tour of the factory, meet up with Chelsea (who had been out at the villages) and have a yummy dinner in Freetown. While I was disappointed about not getting off (I was very mentally ready), it was great to have time to sort of debrief about my time in Africa - to talk over issues and plans and "next steps" for both them and me. The needs in SL are so overwhelming and reality there is so "real" for lack of a better way to put it. Although I've been back for almost a week, I think all of this will take time to sift out; life here already seems less "real" and of the moment than it did in Africa.

So I will leave my blog for now. I won't write about my time with my great friend Greta - suffice it to say, it was FABULOUS to see her and was 24 hours too short. Who knows what the future holds? I'm grateful for my time in SL and wonder when I'll go back? I think some change is in the works for new directions for the CRC and I wonder how that will pan out; I sense that trafficking and slavery is on God's heart at the moment and think that the CRC will be used in His plan. Interesting! So bye for the immediate future. Thanks for sharing in and supporting me in my adventures!

Saturday, February 26, 2011



Check out pictures...

My time here in Bo is coming to a close and I have mixed feelings. I have to confess that I've been counting down the days for about 2 weeks - simply because I'm SO tired of being hot which then makes me tired. It really is a struggle to just survive here and get through the day; I realize even as I write it that that sounds awfully melodramatic. In a sense it is. But in a sense it is part of the reality of living in Africa. While I have it easy in comparison to some people around me, it is more difficult than being probably most anywhere in the West. Small things become worthy of much contemplation - for example, how much lukewarm water should I drink out of this bottle to maximize the amount that might chill a bit if I'm going to run the generator for a couple of hours? Or, at what time in the night can I bear to turn off the fan (to conserve batteries) to be able to sleep and minimize being drenched in sweat? It is in moments like these (for me, practically every moment here!) that one really comes in contact with one's base nature and learns to draw on God's grace - and practice it! All to say, I can practically feel the cool air gusting out of the plane air vent in a week's time...

But, there are more important things to reflect on than my creature comforts, and what's on my mind right now is reflecting on the mundane parts of life here - because it is in these moments that I think significance lies. So in no particular order, I will attempt to verbalize (writalize?) what some of these pictures capture.

Once a week (for a total of 6 meetings) I have met with a group of kids on Saturday and Sunday afternoons to discuss, respectively, Lois Lowry's The Giver and Jacqueline Woodson's Miracle's Boys. While reunified kids (those now living outside the CRC due to their over 18 yrs. status) were also supposed to be a part, it is a small core group or resident kids that have been a part of every week's meeting (with the exception of Ibrahim about whom I wrote last time). Anyway, we meet for about an hour and discuss the reading that was assigned. It has been quite frustrating actually b/c sometimes they haven't done the reading, often they don't understand what they read, and heaven forbid we actually DISCUSS any issues. To give them a little bit of a break, discussing literature is something they've never done in their lives! In school, they memorize what the teacher tells them and that's that. For the exams on the texts, if they're lucky they read Cliff's Notes and then memorize that. I don't even think they know what it means to write a discussion question (which is their assignment every week). I get "discussion" questions like "What does P.J. stand for?" or "Why does Lafayette think the family is poor?" I've taken to passing out stickers and/or pencils if someone has actually read and I can tell or if someone talks a lot during our time together. But, on the positive side, we've taken votes on whether it's better to live in a world where everything is the same and there's no pain or whether it's better to feel pain. I've had to try to explain why I teared up when talking about missing my cat but didn't do the same when I thought about my mother (seeing as they all expressed that cat meat is "sweet" this one took a while to explain and I'm not sure I did a satisfactory job) - and this got into a brief conversation about the nature of love and missing things. There was a moment of thought about which 3 books the world simply could not be without if one was forming a new world, and we've pondered whether one's career path should be fixed at the age of 12. Tomorrow and Sunday are our last meetings and late this afternoon I was hounding a few boys to make sure they do their reading. I'm not holding out much hope. Perhaps this is planting some seeds and those who come after me will continue the "book club" trend.

Last week there were a number of days off from school as there was break after exams. I was asked to conduct Life Skills training. Life Skills is a curriculum that teaches, well, life skills! There are 10 topics which range from Topic no. 1: Christian Life and Behavior to Topic no. 6: Personal Hygiene or Topic no. 10: Ability to Provide Shelter. I was asked to teach on Topic 1 or 4 (Christian Ethics). I decided to teach on the power of the tongue and broke it down into 3 different sessions according to age. The littlest ones got a lesson on Esther and the wisdom with which she spoke. We learned about TALK (to be Truthful, to Aid others, to Love others in our speech and to ask/talk to the King - whether it be Xerxes or Jesus). I had a very fun time with crayons in the creation of my visuals. I had movable plot elements and I moved my characters around as I told the story. Esther had a removable crown and there were big black X's when people got hanged or when Haman came up with his scheme to kill the Jews. There was even a golden scepter! The little ones were into it & we had quite a good time. They have posted the TALK acrostic in the dining hall and Mother Appia has absconded with all my visuals. The middle-school kids got the same gist but we took turns reading verses from Proverbs, Psalms and James about the power of the tongue and the life/death that it wields. Our acrostic was THINK (True, Helpful, Inspired, Necessary, Kind) - thanks to a magnet on Mom's fridge for that one! While most of the excitement was over the reading of the verses, I think the point was made. With the oldest kids, we read a lot of the same verses but then really got into the idea of calling forth identity with the words we say over other people. We looked at Jabez in Chronicles & pondered why we get information about him - is it because he changed his destiny (he had a horrible name!) by appealing to God? We talked about other people in the Bible whose names were changed b/c of an encounter with God and I got a bit emotional when I spoke to them about the incredible responsibility they have as role models here; the other kids are constantly watching these older ones and, therefore, what they say is incredibly important. If they flippantly call someone "stupid" they speak that identity over another. I referred back to God speaking forth creation and Adam NAMING the animals - calling forth their identities. And then mention was made of the Word become flesh - Jesus. I think they really got the concept - it got really quiet and a couple of the girls who can be quite girly quite often were really taking it in (or else they were trying to figure out why I was getting so worked up about it). Then I got asked a couple of interesting questions: What is your advice/thoughts about someone who changes his or her name? What should I do (this was from sweet Mohamed W. - my library buddy) when a girl won't quit calling me a name even though I've asked her to stop? (it's not a bad name but she's teasing him a bit and he doesn't like it - I think she's calling him "gracious" or something like that). It kind of degenerated into a "why is it such a big deal anyway?" conversation and they then were trying to work out "discipline" for the one who won't do as she is asked. But at least they were thinking about it and I hope they will take the issue seriously. Names are uber-important in African culture as it is - so they understand the implications of names and how they are related to identity. I hope they will make the leap to language in general.

Other casual conversation has happened while I've been working in the library. My routine is usually that I work there all morning and then a couple hours in the afternoon depending on tutoring schedules. Mohamed Woyeh joins me every afternoon when he gets home from school. He has about an hour before he has to go for tutoring so once he changes out of his school uniform and eats something, he's there. Sometimes I wish he wasn't because I just want to be quiet and he usually wants to talk, but sometimes we'll sit in companionable silence because he also likes to read and he'll pick up a random book and get engrossed in it. Recent favorites have been one on primates, a sex book for boys (written in 1938 and, therefore, in my "let's discard this immediately" pile), an atlas, and a Questions/Answers book on Biology (which he thinks may prove useful for his studies in school). The most tiresome day was when he came across a joke book and had to ask me every single one. One of the sweetest was when he asked my advice about a girl who was bugging him at school; just being "silly" as he put it. We've also talked a lot about riding a plane to America. Done for today....will check back in tomorrow....

I'm back and the last discussion has taken place on The Giver. A few kids actually finished the book! Yahoo! Mohamed has also spent more time with me in the library and has decided that Treasure Island is his next read. Blango and Johanese and I have had a conversation about how it's impossible to ride a Honda from America to Sierra Leone with Johanese insisting that someone has done this. Blango dragged the atlas out to make his point and then Blango took it upon himself to prove to Johanese that the world is spherical. Johanese was more concerned with how Magellan sailed for 3 years just in the ocean. I informed him that he probably stopped at various land points to pick up food and fresh water. It's been really enjoyable to just hang out with the older boys; they're full of questions and they like to take long rambly conversations - one never knows where we'll end up (these are the same boys who got into the conversation about green blood a few blogs back...). I'll miss them.

With the younger ones there has been less talk and more just spending some time. They do crafts Saturday mornings and I've helped cut, tie and design (I'm not a very good kite maker I found out). During evening study hall I've helped with multiplication tables memorization (this is a huge complaint by the tutors). One of the favorite manipulative methods is using bottle caps. Ingenious, really, and fun to look at, too!

If one wants to bond with the girls, one can spend countless hours plaiting hair. I have to confess this doesn't hold much appeal; I've gravitated toward the boys this time around.

As far as other meaningful moments, it's been the unexpected conversations that have come up, some of which I've mentioned in past writing: hearing Rev. Koroma's conversion story, for example, or Veronica's story of how she came to be in a Baptist church. From Mabel I've learned about how a number of the children came to be at the CRC and I've learned a bit more about their backgrounds. Truly it's a miracle and a sort of "destiny" I think that any of them are here. After the war, the bishop sent people out into the streets and these "agents" would find children that were selling things or wandering about, etc.(clearly not being taken care of) and track them to wherever they were living. There was then inquiry and they were taken in to the CRC if it was indeed a dire situation. These are all kids that were really "rescued". About 7 years later there was then a second wave taken in. The oldest ones are now in university. Mabel has been involved with them from the very beginning - working first at a sort of refugee school that was closed down as peace came and people started moving back to their villages or towns. She has touched me with her dedication and commitment to seeing these kids succeed; and it's a challenging job! There is trauma, varying family backgrounds, lack of schooling and then incorrect grade-level placement (which is now affecting their academic success which in turn affects university placement) in addition to the usual nonsense that kids get themselves up to...

Time for a new paragraph. I've had some fascinating conversations with Fudia about initiation rites, the role of women in SL, and medical health. She could barely believe that Siamese twins could be split apart and survive, for example. Speaking of death, it's just sort of a pragmatic thing here. Someone remarks that he doesn't feel very well and within a couple of hours, he's dead. There have been 3 people that have died since I've been here (that I've heard about). One was the husband of Mother Lucia who died unexpectedly this fall. We often hear loud boisterous music and Fudia recognizes it as a funeral tune. Maybe there's more of a celebration of life here (rather than death being so sad) because it's a common place occurrence. People are also frequently in the hospital for something rather dire. For example, Rev. Koroma's wife just had her appendix out (although they made her wait 5 days to do it which seems quite dangerous to me) and Auntie Martha's sister was admitted to the hospital a couple of days ago with Hepatitis A. Yesterday they also decided she has Tuberculosis. REALLY? Mabel herself has, since I've been here, been treated for malaria, typhoid, and "pressure on the eyes". I'm keeping a careful eye on my paper cut lest it become the Nile virus or bird flu.

But I digress (as I frequently do!). As I think about the various faces of Africa - and Sierra Leone in particular - I think about a conversation with Mohamed Nabieu who is back from university on break. He is passionate about "giving back" to the CRC and passionate about helping other children succeed. He is pursuing studies in community development and wants to work at the CRC for a couple of years after graduation. We mused together about why Africa is in the state it is - why isn't there forward thinking? Why isn't the infrastructure of power, clean water, paved roads, etc. in place? Why is there such poverty and illiteracy? What is the role of the government vs. that of the people themselves? How can Africans learn to help themselves? How are they being self-defeating? (for example, in stealing a garbage can that is put on the street for all to use). On the other hand, what are the positives here? He observes, and rightly so, that Westerners have no time for each other - that we are incredibly self-centered in general, and that "time is money." He also observes that with all our infrastructure and technology, we have pollution problems that don't exist here (although I might argue that burning trash is an unpleasant way to color the air). His "thesis" on the above is that education is the key. He argues that women, especially, need to be educated and given positions of leadership - then they will stop having children at such young ages, literacy rates will improve, and then poverty will improve. All of these things are, of course, intertwined in complex ways - but I'm hopeful that people like Mohamed will make a difference. At least we know that the CRC children are being educated and I hope they will go on to be leaders in their respective fields. I enjoyed talking to him and thinking aloud with him. He is a thoughtful young man.

Some interesting conversations have also come up during Bible Study. We have pretty consistently met Friday afternoons at 2 p.m. (the staff and me). Rev. Gbenday has taken over leading it and since the study is on the power of the blood of Christ, conversations have ranged from "if God means for us to forgive others, why didn't he just forgive Adam & Eve and let them stay in the Garden" to a heated discussion on whether or not Satan has the freedom to act without God's permission. The answer is clearly "no" but since no one had done the study and looked up the relevant verses (they seem to follow the educational model they know which is to just "look over the notes" - which means "read the study for the first time during what is supposed to be discussion time and attempt to answer some of the questions on the spot" ) this took a great deal of time to debate - and I used this time to work really hard at drawing on the power in the Blood to change my judgmental heart attitude. I confess I did not altogether feel its cleansing power. No doubt I will have more opportunity to experience it. Great.

I'm sure there is much that I'm forgetting but I trust it will weave its way into my heart and mind as it is supposed to - a song is being composed and given to me - full of rests, sharps, flats, grace notes, trills, crescendos and arpeggios...all the bits and pieces that have made up my time here.

Bye for now...

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Whittling Away at the WASSCE, or How to Get Credits on the West African Senior School Certificate Examination - English Language


Before I officially begin my diatribe about the English Language Exam for the WASSCE, let me just say that, in general, I find some value in standardized testing. I believe baseline measures are useful and that for a number of subjects, knowledge of information can be objectively measured, evaluated and analyzed - giving insight into areas where students may or may not be achieving according to standards set. Obviously there are myriads of issues that go into the development, evaluation and analysis of such tests and data and I don't wish to debate all of these at this point. So for the sake of my diatribe, let's just accept that the WASSCE is firmly in place in Sierra Leone. Let's also not point out the rather obvious problem that representatives from a number of West African nations have come together to devise an English Language exam (despite their own various educational backgrounds and differing accents - which will come to play a part farther in my writing) that is supposed to assess how well students in West Africa (which, of course, implies some sort of homogeneity among these nations) speak (?), understand, and can analyze English as a language.

So, let's begin. There are 7 CRC students taking the English Language exam this year. One, Ibrahim, has been especially diligent about attending all help sessions I've offered. He has also scheduled twice weekly extra help sessions on parts of the exam he's particularly worried about. These sections include the oral language part (just wait until I start in on that!), summarizing, identifying phrases and clauses (and their function in particular sentences) and choosing words that are "most nearly opposite" or "most nearly the same" to a given word.

The exam consists of a number of parts. The comprehension section consists of 2 passages and a total of about 15 questions which is given 50 minutes for completion. Let's take a look at a sample question. After reading a passage on species and why they might or might not become extinct, one is asked the following: What is the grammatical name of the expression "although rain forests cover only an estimated 7% of the planet's land surface"? After you noted that the quotation is not really an "expression" at all, the person who really knows his or her English language would recognize that the clause asked about (remembering that you understand the difference between a phrase and a clause) is actually a subordinate clause functioning as an adverb and you wonder if you should also write that it is an adverb of concession. Wait? Are you correct? Think back....You studied 7 different kinds of adverbial clauses alone! Yes, you believe you're correct and you move on. Easy peasy (peasie?) - you're glad this isn't really a spelling test. You're flying through the questions that ask you to describe two main events in the passage, and you're able to find information about Mrs. Nkechi Adeola's plan for her baby, but then you're stumped: What is the grammatical function of "the residents kept sealed lips" in "So, on this occasion, when the welfare officers called, the residents kept sealed lips"? It seems to you that there is a subject, verb, and direct object contained therein - all of which constitutes an independent clause? But an independent clause doesn't have a "grammatical function." You're lost and know you got that one wrong even though it seems to you the question is severely flawed. Part 1 of Part I finished.

Now you have 50 minutes (and not less than 450 words) to answer one question from five. You decide you will answer #2: "Write an article for publication in your school magazine on the problems of indiscipline in schools." Aside from the fact that your school doesn't have a school magazine, you wonder what "indiscipline" is - you've never used this word (or seen it used) in your life. But you do your best.

Finally you're nearing the end. You have a final 50 minutes to read a passage and do some summary. But summary is a bit perplexing. You think back to a practice example. The passage was the following: "Trees are very useful in big cities. Apart from providing shade in cities, they help to cool the environment which would otherwise be very hot in the dry season. Furthermore, trees reduce the noise level in cities by absorbing some of it." Your task was to summarize IN THREE SENTENCES the advantage of trees to cities. The passage itself is three sentences! You haven't time to check a dictionary for the definition of summary, but you're pretty sure that if one wanted to summarize the passage, one would do it in one sentence. Alas, you are not required to do what would actually be correct. How disillusioning and frustrating for a particular English teacher who has traveled to Sierra Leone in part to assist you in getting enough credits on this particular exam to enable you to go to a university of your choice. You know that she has a very difficult time teaching you to do something incorrectly; but she has to do this because she understands that the scorers, themselves, do not know the correct information. But you remain grateful that she told you to memorize the 20 page, four-columned, size 10 font document called "English Language Key Topics" - because rather than having to do any creative thinking, you need to do rote recall of information and this you are able to do because you have been educated this way for your entire academic career.

Okay. Next comes the Objective part of the exam which takes 1 hour. Here your use of vocabulary and understanding of nuances of meaning will be put to the test. You're discouraged after #1: The HANDSOME profit from her fish business made Mrs. Uba stop complaining about her husband's _______________ salary. Should you choose a. ugly; b. meagre; c. modest; or d. lowly ? This is a tough one because you know you have to choose a word that is most nearly opposite "handsome" and you understand that meagre and modest are your two best choices, but the distinction between them is really one of connotation - and you've heard people use "modest" to mean "just a little" which is what "meagre" means as well. Bummer. Better luck on the next one. "One very important aspect of human relationship is ______________trust." Here the choices are a. communal; b. individual; c. mutual; d. personal. Well, "d" is out, but the others are all important in your mind. You think they probably want "c" but you think about your village where communal trust is probably of ultimate importance. Tough call. You move on to questions that ask you to make sense of idioms and expressions like "talked shop" and "at daggers drawn". You curse the British. Other questions ask you to choose between "at" and "with" for sentences like "My mother remained angry_________me" or select a. round wooden beautiful table; b. wooden round beautiful table; c. beautiful wooden round table; d. beautiful round wooden table for "His father has a _____________________." Finally you are finished and all that remains is the oral part.

In the oral exam, you will listen with loads of other students to a cassette tape on which a man and a woman are recorded. You think they might be from some West African country and they are speaking English. There is a sort of pseudo-British accent going on but not enough to make one secure about pronunciation. So, this is going to be especially tough. Your first task is to identify which of three words the speaker is pronouncing. The words are on your exam sheet. You have to pick out, for example, whether the speaker is saying "ball", "bull" or "bowl". Given one's accent, this can be a tricky pick! The thought crosses your mind that usually when one speaks English, one is having a conversation - and a great deal of understanding the words one hears has to do with context. But, after all, why should one try to recreate the real world in an exam? Moving on. You get to do that same task with four words, and then you get to do it with sentences. For example, did the speaker say "He's just shot a goal," "He's just shot a girl," or "He's just shot a gull." Don't think you can get the correct answer by selecting what might be the best sentence! (i.e. the first one). Nope. You have to now pick out which word on your answer sheet rhymes with the word the speaker says; how often does that come up when you're conversing with your buddy? But, dutifully, you complete this task because the worst is yet to come. Now you hear a series of questions and answers. Your job is to pick the correct answer. Let's look at this example. The questions you hear are the following: a. Who borrowed your newspaper? b. Did John borrow your newspaper? c. Did he steal your newspaper? The answer is "He BORROWED my newspaper." So, the correct answer is "c" because the speaker stressed "BORROWED" and only in question "c" might one stress the "borrowed". Should I stab myself in the eye now or later? Let's pick later because after completely this section, my next task is to listen to a conversation in which I have to determine things like which speaker is being more polite or which one is very sure while one is doubtful or which one expected the outcome. This, to me, is probably the most ludicrous aspect of this exam (aside from incorrect usage, etc.) because interpretation of tone/attitude is entirely dependent on culture. What I might interpret as impolite in America might be entirely polite in Britain - our intonations are entirely different - and a lot more information needs to be gathered (by observing body language, facial expression, etc.) before a judgment on attitude can be made. All that aside, does an ability to accurately identify a speaker's attitude mean that one understands and can use a language with facility?

Let me now inform you that I and you are not the only ones to whom I have expressed displeasure. At Bo Commercial Secondary School's invitational (which you might recall I attended a couple of weeks back) I had the opportunity to meet a minster of education (one of Rev. Koroma's 41 siblings - I think if they organized themselves well enough they could probably run the entire country). He was there showing the government's/dept. of education's support - making the rounds, etc. etc. I made a few comments about the exam (much more diplomatically put than here, of course) and when he related to the Reverand what I had said, he noted that I had said "the exam is missing a few things." I guess that's one way of putting it. It actually was quite interesting talking to him. Only about 20 students (out of around 1000 seniors) had the marks to get into the best universities. We lamented about "youth today" and how they're more interested in hanging out with their friends - school's not cool, etc. etc. etc. I'm hearing a familiar refrain...(the anomoly that is NOVA aside)...

Now that I've worked myself up into a sweat over this stuff (actually I was sweaty before I began) it's time to wrap it up. I hope that my help will do some good. I've spent a lot of time on phrases and clauses - identifying all the types and functions of each. We've practiced proper use of prepositions - which ones go with which verbs. I've given Ibrahim some hints with the oral section - how to listen for which word is stressed as a clue to the answer, etc. I think he'll do well since he's studying like a mad man and he's practicing practicing practicing. He sees me three times a week. The exam is in March, so there's not much time left!

He'll also be taking English Literature; we have 5 students taking that one. Texts for this year are Lord of the Flies, Arms & the Man, and The Tempest. If I can wind myself back up at a later date, perhaps I'll address the teaching of literature here. Let's just say, I do it much differently. In any case, Ibrahim has a good handle on these and I think he'll do fine. He's the boy in the picture, by the way! Pictured is one of our first sessions - on Lord of the Flies. I was laying out some context and asking him to consider themes in the novel given its publication date of 1955. After telling me that WWII happened sometime in the late 1800's and informing me that he had no idea what the Cold War was, I more fully realized that context is clearly not part of teaching in Salone. A topic for another time...

So, all you teachers out there who complain about SOL's, No Child Left Behind, etc. etc. etc. (and I'm right there with you!) count your blessings. Things could be worse!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Grooving with the Gospel

Sunday was a jam-packed day which began with a call from the Rev. Umaru Koroma asking me to make sure I was at church by 9 a.m. with the Scriptures selected. Okay. I showed up at 9 a.m. with Fudia in tow; she wanted to hear Preacher Mary. There were a few people gathered in the back for a women's Sunday School and a similar gathering of men in the front. We were instructed by our teacher from a guidebook for Baptists in Sierra Leone; topic of the day was "Who is the Holy Spirit." After giving our personal opinions, we proceeded to look at some scriptures. As is typical of instruction in SL, we listened to the teacher read from his guidebook and we all repeated after him what he had said. After a few minutes of this rather grueling experience, I was rescued by Rev. Koroma and taken to meet some other pastors to whom I gave my selected Scripture readings. I was then left to chitchat with Veronique.

She is the Assistant Pastor at First Baptist and considers herself a "Wesleyan." Hers is a really neat story. When she was a girl, she lived in a village where an American couple were doing humanitarian outreach projects; they lived in a nearby town for a number of years. When in her village, the woman saw Veronique and called her over to ask her about school. At this time, Veronique had dropped out because her parents couldn't afford the school fees. The woman remarked on how intelligent she appeared and asked her to help out with the village project. Veronique did so and at the end of the time, the America woman (I'll call her Jane) went to talk to Veronique's parents about the school situation. V. had done really well while in school and so Jane offered to pay for the rest of her education. Being a Methodist, Jane wanted V. to go to a private Methodist school which meant she would have to board. So V. left her village and went to stay with the principal of the private school (there was no room for her to board) and she completed her education. She has since lost touch with Jane, but considers it an absolute miracle that she is well educated and an assistant pastor at a Baptist church. What happened to that "Wesleyan" foundation? Upon moving to Bo thirteen years ago, no-one was able to tell V. about a Methodist church, so she stumbled upon the Baptist one and has been there ever since. We both smiled upon discussing the reunion she and Jane will have one day in heaven. Surely God is SO involved in orchestrating our lives! V. has a special place in her heart for Americans and I feel sure she was somewhat responsible for giving me the chicken I received after service.

Back to service...Soon it was time to begin (10 a.m.) and I processed in with the other pastors. Since the church was celebrating Harvest Sunday, there were some visiting pastors - one of whom gave an astonishingly long (but good) prayer. The keyboard player was out (his album was being launched that evening - more about that upcoming) so we sang some songs and the opening hymn to drums. After some prayers, announcements and the scripture readings, I was up! I had been told to prepare a 20-25 minute sermon but had not been told there would be a translator (to translate into Krio). That was a new experience for me but I think it worked out fine. My delivery lacked in the flow and I think my carefully crafted parallel construction went by the wayside, but the essential message got through and I trust God's word went forth and will do its thing out there in people's hearts and minds. I felt led to talk about Jacob's dream of the open heaven from Genesis and the pre-eminence of Christ as laid out in Colossians - the point being that we will not experience the open heaven and walk in the supernatural without Christ being absolutely pre-eminent in our lives (note that Jacob says surely the Lord was in that place and he did not know it). I tried to make it "Africa relevant" by suggesting alternative gods like traditional ways, the witch doctor (who is consulted at a frighteningly high rate even by Bible-believing Christians), money or lack thereof, etc. which might be taking the place of Christ in one's life. I also mentioned Mt. Kilimanjaro as a great mountain but not the pre-eminent one (which would be Mt. Everest) - the idea being that Christ is the "Mt. Everest" against which all else is to be measured. I feel quite sure that there were no mountain climbers in the congregation, but I hope the point was made. When I had concluded (I got a little note from Rev. Koroma telling me to "summarize") we had a long offering session. The various auxiliaries got up and led songs while people put in their offerings. I ended up supporting the "Men's Fellowship" in addition to putting some leones in the general offering. About 5 offerings were taken. Then some of the harvest was brought in - hence, the chicken. Other offerings included sugar cane, bread, some rice and other goods. These offerings were blessed and would be distributed to pastors and others after the service (like me!). If you've missed pictures of my fine fowl, check her out (she laid an egg the day before she died) on the facebook link provided; she also appears in various stages of life on my Facebook profile page.

After all the offerings was some more prayer and then the closing hymn; I played the keyboard! Quite fun. We had a rousing rendition of "Take my Life and Let it Be" which fit very nicely with the sermon. After service, I was invited to become a full-time pastor and Rev. Koroma told me I was meant to be a preacher not a teacher. I'll need to think on that one....It was also suggested that I teach keyboard for the next two weeks to a couple of boys in the church. I then met my chicken (which promptly escaped from its tether and had to be captured by a young boy) and Fudia and I headed for home. Fudia tied the chicken to a stake and I prepared to head over to the CRC for book club and WASSCE tutoring (both of which I'll write about over the next week or so....).

Next up: the "launching" of a new album by the Gospel Pioneers (one of the members of which is the keyboardist from First Baptist). I have to explain that it took me FOREVER to figure out that we were going to a launching not a luncheon. I couldn't make out why a luncheon was happening at night. I asked and asked and asked and finally made out (after demanding someone to spell what they were saying) that we were talking about a LAUNCHING. Good. Once that was straight (which didn't happen until a day or two before the event), other details fell into place. It is in these kinds of situations that one understands the importance of context. Anyway, Fudia and I (she's my official wingman) headed out around 8 for the Bo Town Hall. I wish I had brought my camera; this scene was a classic! Picture a large concrete structure with overhead ceiling fans (only half of which are working), the loud hum of a generator, the hall containing benches and a bunch of plastic chairs (those are the "good" seats). In the back and in the entrance way are Coleman coolers with drinks and some grills set up for chicken, fried plantains, etc. Various individuals circulate through the crowd with plastic tie-dyed tubs of biscuits (cookies) and crackers atop their heads. Drinks are also being circulated - each with a serviette wrapped around it to wipe down the tab that one drinks from. By the way, I made a drink discovery: I do not care for non-alcoholic malt beverages. Malt belongs in a chocolate shake. Delish.

Imagine now the outfits. It was funny that on the way, I actually noticed a woman in a hot pink sequined gown standing in the doorway of a house and wondered why in the world she was dressed that way. Well, lo and behold, she showed up at the launching! All to say, there were some individuals who had gone all-out in some glitzy number - sequins, satin - all sort of bad bridesmaid-looking dresses. There were also plenty dressed in traditional African dress which, to me, is a beautiful sight. The bulk were dressed in jeans, tank tops, t-shirts, etc. - with various degrees of brand namery. Fudia managed to wrangle us some "good" seats which meant we were closer to the stage, under one of the fans which was high enough to do no good at all, and relatively near a window through which a breeze gusted (wrong word choice there - weakly attempted to come through is more accurate) every so often. Thank God for the little green hand fan she brought! We took turns with it. It was really fun to see a bunch of people I knew - I felt like an extra special token white person as they went by and yelled my name and shook hands. There were folks there from CRC and MTC (about half the kids came as well), First Baptist, Leader Church - and then some of Fudia's friends whom I've met.

The event got started with a group of comedians. Okay, first off, I have issues with comedy troupes/comedy clubs because I never think they're funny! It's just not my sense of humor. On top of that, these guys were speaking Mende so it was doubly not funny for me. Fudia thought it was amusing, however, so I laughed at her instead. Then the music began. Oh - I have to mention the sound system. I suppose technology is all relative, but imagine squeaky, over-amped microphones and the artists singing along to tracks. It seemed a weird combo of lip-synching and actual singing. "Deejay" was called upon to play "track 5", etc. There were about 6 different acts - all "gospel" music which here might be defined as a sort of reggae/praise song thing - where everyone's voice has been tweaked to sound sort of nasally and reggae/island electronic if that makes any sense at all. I'm lacking the words to describe the sound well except to say that it's actually quite similar to what I've heard in Jamaica. The lyrics are usually great - just solid and singable - "Jesus is your best friend; just call on Him" kind of stuff. Each has a reggae dance beat and invites one's best syncopated hip/arm/sway/step action. Each artist or group sang along to 2-3 tracks - all the while, people danced their way up to the stage to throw money in a box; sometimes they danced up on stage and tucked money in a pocket or slipped it in a sleeve. Sometimes, individuals stayed up on stage and danced for a bit with the singer then came down. For one brief moment I wondered how much of a scene it would cause if I did that. Wisely, I curbed the impulse.

One of the coolest acts of the night was a Lebanese guy who was more of a hip-hop artist than the others. He got up there and broke out with 2 back up dancers who were AWESOME! It was fun to watch them bend and fold like rubber-bands. The two boys wore matching plaid shorts but each wore an original striped shirt. He didn't get as much offering money because he's from farther away and I think not too many people in the crowd knew his music - but the dancing was a big hit! He came up on stage after we had heard a few songs by the launchers of the album - the Gospel Pioneers. They're quite popular and everyone was singing along. They had about 8 guys on stage wearing matching gold and black outfits. They did some formation dancing - like Michael Jackson video stuff - although one guy didn't know his routine well. Too bad, so sad. And really obvious. Embarrassing. Anyway, about 4 songs in, they all exited the stage. Apparently, the lead guy's wife died a few months ago quite suddenly of fever and he just kind of broke down while singing. Sad. I understand that they came back out around 12 to do some more songs. So, after a few more artists (a few of them blind), there was an incredibly long "pinning" ceremony where the Gospel Pioneers spokesperson thanked everyone he knew in the entire world and pinned some ribbon on his or her chest. If the person was not there, someone stood in and received the ribbon. Sierra Leonians are really big on recognition and an award of some kind for this, that or the other, so this thing was dragging on and on and on and on and on and you get the idea....

At this point, I hit the wall and was done. Time for bed after a long day! I found out it wrapped up quite soon after we left, so not really much was missed. I've been to my first African "lunch" and Rev. Gbenday (spiritual coordinator at CRC and one of the performers up there - a man of many talents!) has promised to make me or help me get a CD. I'd love to have a mixed one. Not many of these artists have CDs out as it's quite expensive to make one but they all have these track things - so we'll see what he can do and I've told him I intend to support the starving gospel artist. No worries there.

A great day with God!


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Tiwai Island

Wanting to go to Tiwai Island has been in my mind since knowing coming back to Sierra Leone was a go. I'm a plant and animal lover and I love to explore. Tiwai is a good place to do this! Tiwai is Sierra Leone's only community conservation program and, at 12 sq. km., is one of the country's largest inland islands. It is on the Moa River and is home to the rare pgymy hippo as well as 11 species of primates (which makes the area diverse and highly concentrated as far as these things go). There are also loads of bird species and numerous kinds of plants. The Gola Forest Reserves stretch east of Tiwai toward Liberia and contain the last patches of rain-forest left in the country.

Now that I've given you some facts from the brochure, time to give the low-down on the trip. It all began a week or so again when Fudia and I made the trek to the office in Bo to find out how to accomplish this trek. There's a lovely office which is near impossible to find. The lovely Jendetta (?) came to greet us and laid out the options and costs. Augustine (our driver on this jaunt) happened to discover his brother working on the grounds. I'm unclear why that was a surprise; Augustine informed me that he knew his brother worked but didn't know where or doing what. Odd. In any case, after gathering our info, we made our way home and laid plans.

We decided to take food (although we could have had the chef there prepare us food) and decided it was most cost effective to take Augustine as a driver. Both Fudia and Augustine had never heard of Tiwai (in fact, of all the staff at the CRC, only 2 had heard of the place and no-one had been) so they were excited to get away and check it out. After loading the van, we set out. We flew along (well, "flew" is maybe a bit extreme) - but we had pavement for about 1 hour. The next hour and a half consisted of red clay gravel/sand road with varying degrees of pothole obstacles. We passed through village after village with children who ran after the van shouting "pumoi, pumoi" (white person). Toward the end of the trip I was contemplating how PC it would be of me to shout "black child, black child" right back. They mean no harm but, really, does the obvious ALWAYS need to be stated? A couple of times older folks hushed them up which I thought was kind. Other sights along the way included rubber plantations, thatched huts out in the middle of random fields (to keep watch I think - although there seems to me nothing to watch), the occasional person sitting by the side of the road, people carrying loads of timber on top of their heads, school children out digging/chopping/otherwise working (I'm told they're doing their "practical" for required classes such as Agriculture - I think it's a clever way to put kids to work and suggest that U.S. schools give it a try), people sitting on their porches watching the world go by, women working in rice fields, people out in the water catching fish, women cleaning clothes in the rivers, murky swampy areas where I'm sure huge vipers hang out, palm tree after palm tree after palm tree...

After 2 1/2 hours of driving we were SO CLOSE when we had to come to a stop. Alas, there was no bridge where there should have been a bridge. See pictures! Although Augustine might have given it a brief thought to try and create a bridge over the gap (or take a driving leap?) both Fudia and I let him know this would be very unwise. After consulting a couple of passers-by, we unloaded our stuff and set out to walk the rest of the way. Luckily, it was truly just "up the hill and around the curve", so in about 10 minutes we found ourselves in the last village. From there we caught a motorboat to the island - a 10 minute ride. Fudia hadn't been on the water since 1980 and she doesn't swim, so she was scared, but I told her I'd rescue her even if there were snakes in the water. I don't know if that made her feel any better, but we arrived safe and sound. I did inquire about crocodiles (which are there) but the driver told me they were scared of people. Really?! Since when?!

The first thing we did is meet the staff and get the lay of the land. There are maybe 5 or 6 people who sleep on the island and take care of people who are there. They also serve as guides if one wants to have a canoe tour or forest hike (both of which I did). There is a research facility on the island and sure enough, we hadn't been there 5 minutes before I saw a white woman with a huge backpack on come tromping through. She is April Conway and is on the island for 16 months researching the elusive hippo. She hasn't spotted one personally yet but she has installed cameras which have captured them in the wee hours of the morning. There are photos posted in the central gazebo area. They have names like Delta 3 and Charlie 2. I feel sure there's some sort of significance. Anyway, we established sleeping areas; there are 6 platforms surrounding the central area - each of which has a few tents on it. Fudia and I shared one platform (each with our own tent) and Augustine took a different platform. The guys made up our tents with sheets/pillows and in the meantime I met a Dutch man and his son who were on the island for a couple of days taking a break from visiting the daughter who works in Kabala. They would be part of my forest hike the next morning. Since we were sweaty and dusty from the drive, Fudia and I decided to go "wash" in the river. I got in a heated discussion w/Fudia about not putting soap in the water until I figured out that "washing" has nothing to do with washing. Augustine waited for us b/c it's not customary for men and women to "wash" together (although it seems to be okay for them to go to the beach together). We spent a lovely 45 minutes or so just cooling off in the river. No water danger as the current was flowing quite fast (April told me the water hadn't been tested for some horrible parasite starting with an L, but since the water was fast it was most likely fine). Indeed, so far, I remain well. In any case, the river, while deep at some points, is quite shallow at others and one can see to the bottom. There are oysters all over the bottom and rocks scattered throughout which means a canoe guide has to know the river pretty well. I didn't see any snakes which made me happy.

Next on the agenda: canoe ride. I headed out about 5 for a two hour ride. SO pleasant once I decided that despite the rocking, the canoe would stay upright. Not that I would have minded falling in, but it would have been a big drag to ruin my phone/camera. Being on the river was peaceful and filled with the sounds of birds and maybe monkeys (don't really know my monkey calls). While I didn't see any animals, I loved being on the water enjoying the breeze, the fresh air, and the really beautiful vegetation. Some of the palms grow right in the water and because the water was so still, the reflection was really beautiful. It made me think of Impressionist paintings and the effort to capture light and color and reflections of sun and water. It was a pretty quiet ride as Mustafa's English isn't too great and he didn't know the answer to some of my questions; but it was lovely to just BE and enjoy.

When I got back, Fudia was ready to eat so out came our chicken and fried rice. Cold water was enjoyed by all; there's solar power on the island and what a treat that was! I hung out for a while with the Dutch men and another man, Rod, from Vancouver who is spending 3 months traveling through West Africa. We shared our observations of progress or lack thereof in Sierra Leone. Peter and his son (whose name I can't recall) shared about the daughter's work and her frustrations and joys. Rod told us about his travel plans and how his money got stolen in Freetown. He was heading to Liberia next; we encouraged him to get a cell phone. He's in digital media and is an independent contractor - hence the time to just explore. He was sporting a whole bunch of African bracelets and REI nylon pants with an Airwic-type shirt. Hiking shoes finishes the picture. I couldn't have clothed him better for the part if I had tried. The next day we ended up giving him a ride to a spot where he could catch a bus/taxi for Liberia. Some reading in my tent completed the evening. Lots of insect/night sounds made for very light sleeping - as did my slightly damp/mildewy sheets. I think it's hard to dry things in the rainforest!

Up and at 'em by 7 a.m. on Thursday for a forest hike. The goal for this trek was to see monkeys so we wandered around for 3 hours trying to do just that led by our trusty guide armed with a machete. But these monkeys are not like zoo monkeys! They are not interested in entertaining and are really hard to spot. First of all, they're incredibly high up in incredibly tall trees. Second, they must have informed the entire population that there were 5 white people who wanted to see them and they clearly decided amongst themselves that they were not interested in playing that game. We did spot some but I did not manage to get even one picture because they were too high and leaping about. Our guide spent a few minutes communicating with a red colobus monkey which was really cool; I couldn't tell which was the human and which was the monkey! We also spotted a blue something or other and I think I saw a black and white colobus as well. The sign that they're about is rustling of the leaves in the upper part of the canopy and then flashes of color if you're lucky. There are signs on the ground of monkey activity: fruits/nuts with chunks out of them; little stockpiles of leaves or nuts; or pods that have been stripped. Our search for the monkeys was interspersed with information on trees and plants with their medicinal uses, the spotting of beautiful colorful butterflies flitting about, signs of pygmy rhinos and bush hogs out and about in the night, and identification of various birds. By the way, we would have been HOPELESSLY lost; I understand why one is not allowed to wander the island without a guide. Do not I repeat DO NOT attempt to be your normal American independent self in the rain-forest.

A side note about monkeys: It was interesting to take this trip at this particular time seeing as I have just finished my December New Yorker magazines and just finished an article about the director of Global Viral Forecasting, Nathan Wolfe. He monitors the emergence of deadly viruses, all of which seem to originate in the jungles of Central Africa and spread because people eat bushmeat (monkeys, cane rat, anteaters, etc.). When it comes down to feeding the family or possibly dying of a horrific virus, people will feed the family, so education and prevention is proving a huge challenge. I thought about viruses while looking for monkeys. I'm grateful, too, that I don't have to make the choice between eating a monkey or possibly preventing the spread of disease. Back to the topic at hand...

We were back around 10 a.m. and it was time for breakfast. I was definitely over the hike by the time we got back as I was soaked through and unpleasantly thirsty. More cold water, praise God! We had ordered some breakfast: pancakes Sierra Leonian style which means balls of a sort of fried dough-type thing with a savory onion/tomato sauce. Interesting combo. Washed this down with tea and cold water and finished it with a segment of orange which I bummed off Peter. Time to pack up and go as I had a date with Rev. Koroma to go to his school's sporting event in the afternoon. I paid up - total for this trip ran about $100 - serious bargain for the three of us! Fudia & Augustine got to go for half price b/c they're Sierra Leonian. Hmmmm. But in all seriousness, the Tiwai Island Administrative Committee wants the natives to get behind this and come visit. I hope Augustine and Fudia will spread the word (Fudia won't hush about how she misses being there and is already planning to spend some of her leave time there) and a couple of people have let me know that they were not adequately apprised of my plans (in other words, they would have liked to come along)so all this is a good sign that perhaps it will become a popular place and will attract support and more funding. I was thinking it would be a great treat for some of the older CRC kids to go for an overnight if they get good results on exams or good final marks. Maybe that's a possibility...

With Rod (the Canadian) in tow, we hopped back on the boat - our load lighter except for 2 fish (a reddish something or other on top of a slimy-looking catfish) that flopped out the top of the Coleman (Fudia had requested someone go fishing for her so she could have fresh fish for fish stew that night which was, by the way, quite tasty). In the village on the opposite side of the river, we picked up the captain's mother who needed a lift to Bo. Two and a half very dusty hot hours and one horrific traffic jam in Bo later, having dropped the mother off on the side of the road, we were back at the MTC and I RAN inside for a shower in anticipation of my next social event. Who knew I would be dashing about in such a fashion?! :) Augustine took off with the van to get it cleaned and Fudia cared for her fish. A happy time was had by all and I can actually say I have hiked a rainforest in West Africa!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Project Peanut Butter

Check out picture link (on Picasa) for illustrations of the events or spots described below...


Wow! Thursday was one of the most interesting days I have had in a WHILE. I'm still pondering all I saw and experienced. The history: Wednesday night I met up with Chelsea Beasley who is an American woman living in Freetown with her husband Mike. She has been here 3 years (originally as in intern). Once she got married, the two of them moved here. They have established a country site for Plumpy Nut which is a food item for severely malnourished and moderately malnourished children. It's based off a model that has been very successful in Malawi - founded by one Dr. Manary. He's back and forth to the States and loved the idea of having the product in Sierra Leone. Aside from the thrill it was to eat pizza, pita & hummous, a Diet Coke and ice cream all in one sitting (while chilling in some air conditioning!) it was great to hear from Chelsea about her work and her experiences both living in Freetown and traveling "upcountry" to do clinics and pass out the food.

Check out www.projectpeanutbutter.org for more information

Thursday she and her driver picked me up and we headed out around 8 a.m. First we drove to Taima (about 30 minutes from Bo) to pick up the nurses (3 of them), John (the main coordinator for the area) and Murray (random helper guy). After checking in at the newly renovated (please note: "renovated" is all quite relative...) clinic, the nurses climbed in the Land Rover and Murray climbed on top. Our destination: Kowama, a village about 15 minutes away. The clinic is held under a thatched roof structure which was specially built for the purpose. Originally, clinic was held in the adjoining school but it was proving too disruptive for the children, hence the construction of said structure. Women were gathering when we arrived and more trickled in over the next couple of hours. They're supposed to arrive promptly on time, but this is Africa, after all. They gathered benches from the school and lined them up underneath then sat down with their children. We unpacked our gear and set everything up. Big rubbermaid totes are the way to go for this sort of thing and everything goes in plastic bags - perhaps to protect a bit from the humidity? So out came the scale, the measuring pad, the binders with information on each child and mother, and little bits of paper on which measurements are written. One of the nurses greeted everyone and it was time to get started.

First things first. Everyone burst into song - led by the nurses. I recognized a praise chorus and then there were a couple other choruses I didn't recognize. There was a prayer led by Grace (one of the nurses) and then they might have said the Lord's Prayer (in Mende I think). Then there was a prayer-type thing where they all held their hands out and at the end, rubbed their eyes. I forgot to ask Chelsea what that was all about but that same sequence was repeated at the second village, too, so clearly it's something that's well-known and familiar. Once that was over, there was a general "talking-to" and then we got started!

My job was to help measure length of the children. Unfortunately, photos of me doing this didn't come out but on the project peanut butter website, you can see pictures of this measuring being done. SO, new children were taken first. Their age is noted, then upper arms are measured, followed by measurements for height and weight. The project uses standardized charts which, based on these measurements, determines whether the child is severely malnourished, moderately malnourished, or developing at a healthy rate (in which case the kid doesn't get any food). My job was to take the child, lay him or her down on the ruler (for lack of a better word) and hold the child steady. At this point they were usually crying (maybe from looking at the scary white person?). Luckily, only one decided to pee on the table (the mothers were all about removing every stitch of clothing for these measurements). At the foot end, Susan (another one of the nurses) attempted to get an accurate read on length to the bottom of the foot/heel (a difficult task when young child is protesting by pointing his or her toes as hard as possible). I was also supposed to double check that she was writing down the length accurately. Give or take half an inch, it was fine. The accuracy of the measurements is important because it determines when the child is ready to graduate off the food.

It was pretty amazing processing over 100 children. Many of these children will die without this food; their lives are literally being saved. There is great success with it; only 2% will fall back into a malnourished state if the program is followed. The children eat the product (which comes in little sachets) 5 or 6 times a day. Mothers are required to turn in all their empty sachets on clinic day. Originally there were problems with mothers selling the food for cash. Not good. They are also tricky in that they would rotate kids and line up for food again. Now each child's finger is marked with paint when they go through the line so it's clear he or she has gotten the food and no-one gets a double portion.

But back to the kids. I found tears welling up quite frequently; I think maybe this was because of the idea that this work is so redemptive. I felt such love for these little sick ones: a number with yucky-looking skin diseases that will only get worse as it gets hotter and more humid (which is hard to imagine!) and a lot who are so clearly sick. And I felt compassion for these mothers - many of them probably 13 or 14 years old - what a life! They will remain pregnant for as many years as they have in this world - tied to the men in their lives (the majority of whom have girlfriends) but unable to leave them seeing as they have no rights and would then be hard pressed to survive at all. I give them credit for recognizing that their kids need help and pray that this project gives them hope and they see Jesus's care in this practical and life-saving way. Which brings me to one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the day. This occurred in the second village, Hendebu, but I will relate the story here b/c it's on my mind. There's a girl (9 years old) whom Chelsea has been keeping an eye on. She was severely malnourished a couple of months ago and is better now although her belly is still enormously swollen. But she is SO ill; she is nothing but skin and bones and her eyes are all watery. Apparently she's been to the hospital and all the test came back negative, but it's Chelsea's opinion that she's dying. I would concur that there is something SERIOUSLY wrong. The mother believes that a curse was put on the girl by a neighbor and her man thinks traditional medicine is the way to go. Chelsea insisted that the girl go to the hospital (there's a free one near Bo) that day, but the woman said she had to get her husband's permission. It was a strong possibility that he would say no and she was afraid to go against his wishes because he would leave her and/or beat her. The nurses were hard at work trying to persuade her that it couldn't wait; the girl would be dead within 2 weeks (the next time clinic is held). By the end of the conversation, she had agreed to talk to him that night and arrangements were made for Susan to accompany the girl to the hospital on Friday where Chelsea assured the mother that the daughter would need to remain for at least 2 months. I hope she's in the hospital even as I write! UNBELIEVABLE.

Back to the kids...Some interesting cultural info:
Lots of the little boys had on Boss jockeys for babies. A bit surreal. Both boys and girls wear numerous body ornaments like necklaces, earrings (the girls), bracelets, and sort of a chastity-belt looking thing (the boys). Given that the men here are anything but chaste, I asked Chelsea about it. She said it's to help the boys develop strong loins and a strong belly. The necklaces are to develop strong necks. Twins have string that connects from a bracelet to an anklet and the idea is for each twin to develop equally well. I don't quite get how the anklet/bracelet connection is symbolic of that concept, but okay. The jewelry is made of beads, shells, colored string, etc. Quite attractive actually! I wonder if they have multiple options and switch it up depending on Mom's mood or the rest of the clothing outfit (although often these kids aren't wearing much of anything in the way of clothing).

Back to the process. Arm measurement is first. Murray went around and did that. Then they could come to me for length measurement. Susan records the number on a little slip of paper. The mom then moved with that slip of paper to the scale where Grace weighed the child. The number gets recorded on the little piece of paper. John & Chelsea were the last stop for the recording of these figures into the binder. The measurements determine how many sachets the mother can receive. She takes this final piece of paper to the back of the van, shows the other nurse her empty sachets, turns them in, and receives the food for the next two weeks. Once all the kids have been processed and the food passed out, the ones new to the program stay to hear explicit instructions. They also have to feed the children some of the food. Those children who are unable to eat are admitted to the hospital. Another NGO usually arrives around this time to provide transport (but they haven't shown up for the past couple of times so it's unclear what's going on). This day arrangements were made for John to come back and pick up any children who needed to be admitted. He also is responsible for tracking down mothers and children who haven't come for 2 consecutive weeks. He has an interview with them to determine what the issue might be. It could be, for example, that they're afraid their baby will be snatched and eaten as part of a yearly initiation rite for a secret male society. Yes, I didn't believe it either. In this day and age?! Indeed, it's true. Attendance at one of Chelsea's other sites was so reduced for a couple of clinics that the situation was investigated. It turns out that babies were being snatched, so plans were made that the mothers would all leave at the same exact time and come to clinic in bulk so that individual babies couldn't be taken. In her work, Chelsea reports that is not altogether uncommon for children to just go missing and it usually corresponds to initiation rites. Great.

There's some sort of gnat attack happening...hoping it's gnat and not the deadly Anopheles...Annoying. But, back to the day. So, we wrapped it up at Kowama and headed to Hendebu, another 10 minutes down the road. A thatch structure has been constructed here as well in a central location near the well. Here, we had a much smaller group but the process was the same. Before we began, we went to greet the granny. She's really taken on this project and encourages everyone to attend clinic. The village has a chief but, according to Chelsea, he's not very "chiefly" (he's quite young) so the granny runs the show. She wasn't feeling well, however, so she didn't come to clinic and didn't make lunch (usually she feeds the clinic staff). We paid our respects at her hut then conducted clinic. When we were finished, we went to pay our respects again and she gave me a coconut as a farewell gift. It should have been me giving her something! Since Chelsea has been on holiday for the past month or so, she was passing out bags of gari (ground cassava) to select individuals, but I didn't have anything to contribute. I think it was my first time drinking coconut milk right out of the coconut - not bad! Although I wish it had been cold and frothed up as a pina-colada.... fun treat, though. I brought it back to Fudia who promptly chopped it up and ate it. I missed out on getting a piece because it was gone in a flash! That brings up to 4 the native fruit I have ingested right off a tree: coconut, papaya, tumbe (a nut that needs loads of sugar), and a "breast milk" fruit which a bunch of boys climbed up an incredibly high tree to get. It's slightly sweet but has a gooey consistency - not my favorite. As is common with me, I digress.

I was dying to explore this village so while Chelsea was oohing and aahing over a newborn (who it seems might get named after her!) I tried to look around without looking like I was looking around. It wasn't incredibly successful...
Random observations about the village include the fact that all the chickens have green ties on their wing feathers and that the village sells firewood and coal (the big bags with palm fronds folded across the tops). If you ever see a little smoking fire randomly in the middle of a field, chances are good that they're making coal. The goats were happy and healthy here. They get "goat fat" from them which seems to be some kind of milk product which gets smeared on things. The translation was breaking down at this point...They also eat the goats for meat. There were some incongruous moments such as seeing some young guys walking around in such clothing as Dartmouth T-shirts and bright pink Crocs. Ah, Africa.

Our time was up, so we headed back to Taima to drop off the staff and then headed back to Bo. After a fuel stop it was a mad dash to the supermarket for cold water and back to the MTC for a good hand-washing, some lunch, a nap (under the fan! The power was on..) and some reflection time. This experience needs to settle in my heart some more, but there were moments when I felt like my hands were the hands of Jesus; what an overwhelming privilege to lay my hands on those children and bless those precious ones in His name.

And hats off to Chelsea and Mike. It's amazing life-sustaining work they're doing. The network of NGOs continues to grow here and they seem pretty effective and cooperative with each other. Progress! Another food program is newly in effect in Taima which is more of an educational project that builds on the immediate intervention of Project Peanut Butter; they are developing the networks and workers to sustain it and I think soon it will move to the villages, too. It could be that an entire generation of Sierra Leonians will be healthy and well developed! An encouraging thought...

Monday, January 31, 2011

Hanging with the Homeboys

Today I would like to relate the course of last Saturday afternoon spent primarily with Johanese and Mohamed W. (not to be confused with "Blango" - the other Mohamed). The afternoon began at 2 whereupon I made my way over to the CRC for book club. Saturday we discuss The Giver which my little group of 5 (with a couple "sometimes show") are pretty into. In fact, Blango insisted upon reading the dream sequence where Jonas experiences "Stirrings." Nice to know teens are teens the world over... ANYWAY, after book discussion is supposed to be extra help for the WASSCE exam (which I owe a blog about...). Nobody showed up for the scheduled review session on Lord of the Flies, so Johanese and Mohamed and I just hung out and chatted for the next couple of hours while the girls were across the way braiding hair.

Speaking of braiding hair, the boys and I talked about it! I learned that part of the hair-braiding frenzy is that if the girls don't have their hair braided, they're liable to get flogged in school. It signifies that they are not "taking care" and might come from a bad family. Similarly, the boys have to have next to no hair. Interesting! They found it amazing that 1. teachers can't flog their students in the U.S. and 2. students can have long hair. I informed them that sometimes private schools work differently and can set different rules than in public schools (boys might have to have shorter hair). In Salone they are able to report a teacher who "touches the buttocks" rather than just caning the buttocks. The teachers are also not supposed to do more than 3 whacks. The boys resist by 1. refusing to cry or 2. outright physical resistance; the latter case is risky, however, as it might result in a suspension or expulsion. The teacher can also take them to administration or to another bunch of teachers who will then oversee the procedure. I asked what the students might have done who were lining up to be caned on the palm the other day; they said they might have been late for school or been talking Krio in the classroom - relatively minor infractions. I did confess that there have been times I would have liked to whack a student, but, alas, there are other methods of discipline in the U.S. classroom.

Speaking of "abuse", there was something on the radio this morning about a girl who is reporting that a pastor raped her. All sorts of people were calling in offering their two leones on the matter; there is movement to clean up the justice system a bit and give people a voice - especially women and children. Apparently, there is legislation being considered in the areas of children's rights and there is hope that women will have more recourse against deadbeat husbands or abusers. At the moment, it seems that police are very open to bribes and men sort of walk into jail and walk right back out. ALTHOUGH, Sunday's discussion group (Miracle's Boys) which just consisted of girls this time informed me that the death penalty is in effect here in SL and that they decapitate. Note to self: doublecheck to make sure something wasn't lost in translation...

I believe that from the conversation on flogging and abuse we segued to remarking on groups of people who magically disappear. This seems to happen a lot in Salone. The story was related of the Kamajohs who were soldiers in the war who had magical powers. Bullets couldn't penetrate them and they could spin around 3 times and vanish like vapor. This is widely believed and given more credence (at least by these boys) because they heard the eye-witness account from a pastor. It is quite fascinating the way superstition and voodoo/witchcraft intertwines with really strong faith in Jesus. I have yet to work out the thinking on that one...I'm all for the possibility that maybe some of those guys were angels, but really?! Invisible curse guns and the like? No and no and no and no and no (as my nephew would say).

Next up: the nature of blood. It started out with Mohamed informing me that he had studied animals quite extensively and he wondered if I knew that spiders live on blood? In addition, the common house fly has green blood in it head and red blood in the rest of its body. Even more interesting, a doctor had told him that blood in the human body has no color and only turns red when exposed to air. I took it upon myself to deliver the truth on that one - actually knowing something about that subject! You never know when random trivia will come in handy... From blood we went to brain transfusion; Mohamed expressed interest in getting one and I told him I'd contact my doctor friend (that's you, Lee!) to see about it. He wondered where she would get them after I told him she doesn't work in the morgue; I told him she has enough authority to ask someone to go to the morgue and get a brain and that she could keep them in jars in her office if she wanted to. I wonder if I'm ruining these kids for life?!

At this moment in time, Lion started barking and ran by. Lion lives here with Puppy, his "wife". We talked about the difference between a dog's life here and in the U.S. Dogs hunt for their food here and I guess Lion often deposits something at the security gate. Sometimes the food that dogs bring back gets eaten. Again, really?! I made the comparison to retrievers and other "working" dogs in the U.S. but given that we actually feed our pets and don't necessarily eat what they retrieve (a memory of Prince dragging home a rotting deer part from the dump comes to mind), it's a bit different. Lion's schedule seems to be to leave the compound relatively early in the day, check back in at some point and maybe come in at night - but maybe not. I tend to think that he frequently joins the large group that carries on seemingly right outside my window. They do have a good time! We talked about the dogs in my past and then I brought up Mac (my cat for those of you who don't know him). I'm worried about him as he is staying with my mom and doing the male cat territorial thing b/c they have a cat now, too. Very bad. They asked if he had a wife. No.

I'm not sure how we got to cars, but we did. They asked how much I had paid for my car and then suggested I sell it and give the money to the poor. I told them that then I would have no way to get to work because there is no public transportation where I live. Maybe I could jog was one idea. I said it was too far. Mohamed offered to come with me to America and carry me. Now THAT sounds like a decent idea! We talked about various ways of getting around depending on where one lives. I explained that in some parts of the country, one needed a car. In other parts, not so much. They agreed that if they were in NYC, they'd ride bikes. Prices of things was sort of the foundation of this conversation so we discussed how prices are relative depending on demand and ability of the consumer to pay. I pointed out that I could buy rice less expensively here than in the U.S. but that potatoes were actually more expensive here than in the U.S. (that fact garnered from Fudia who recently made french fries). We mused over that weirdness for a while - especially when it was brought up that my lantern which cost about $15 at Dick's Sporting Goods costs about $1.50 in Bo. When I expressed incredulity over that notion, they double-checked with the security guards who all insisted that it was CRAZY to spend as much as I had. Not much I can do about it now!

We talked a bit about church and I told them about the great (apparently) sermon which was preached in Krio at Leader that morning. They go to a different church so I gave them the gist. I definitely missed a few punch lines (seeing as in Krio it's a pidgin English so I get about every 3 words - enough to get the concept but not the exact details) but I know the congregation was seriously engaged and Rev. Gbenday (the spiritual education coordinator at the CRC and part-time pastor at Leader Church) told me afterward that the pastors switch it up a bit (although he didn't put it that way exactly) so that the congregation remains alert. The boys and I talked about Krio and I learned that there's a sort of proper Krio which is spoken more around Freetown and there's the other kind of Krio which they speak; someone in Freetown would know it wasn't proper Krio. We compared it to speaking British vs. American English but I pointed out that it's really a matter of education. Mr. Lamboi (the director of the CRC), for example, would understand everything I say because he got his degrees in the U.K. and is very well educated. He probably understands more than many Americans simply because of his education and even an American might not understand a Brit unless they had lived there or had British friends so they knew the slang and some of the idioms. I think they grasped that concept but since there are 17 languages here, it's really a different kettle of fish (to speak idiomatically :)). I don't know how many of those are written languages.

While a lovely time was had by all, it was eventually time to go - me, back to the MTC for dinner and them, off to showers and dinner. I was left with the assignment to try and figure out what a "temelon" is (the only information given is that it grows in northern African muslim countries and is brown) and to figure out what the English word is for "kpoyeh" (which is Mende). After doing my homework, I have figured out that "temelon" is a location in Guinea and that the internet does not really care to give me a definition of "kpoyeh". Fudia, who speaks Mende, has no idea what the word is and says she needs to hear them pronounce it.

So there you have it! LOVE those boys and especially just enjoy BEING with them (or whomever else). The culture of "being" and of being in the moment is a foreign one for most westerners. I think we always have an agenda or someplace to be or something to be doing. While getting out of northern VA has certainly helped with this, I want to cultivate even more an attitude of being open to what comes along. It's in relationship and encounters and time spent that ministry happens. For continuing reflection...