After departing Freetown as a team of just 5, our journey started in true Sierra Leonean style with a selection of contemporary African pop/gospel, and classic well-known power-ballads such as ‘I will always love you’ by Whitney Houston, which was appropriately playing as we saw our team-mates drive into the distance (an emotional moment).
Dennis from the CAFOD Freetown office accompanied us and ensured our journey eastwards towards the Kenema District was a laugh a minute with his expert ‘shape throwing’. Providing an interesting backdrop to the melodic tones of Celine Dion and Westlife were the views of paddy fields, mud-huts and palm trees. The journey was very smooth and straightforward from the west to the east of the country so much so that many of the team decided to trade the beauty of the landscape for the beauty of a good nap! There is a smoothly paved road that runs right through the heart of Sierra Leone which was finished in 2009.
On arrival in Kenema City we had a series of ‘courtesy calls’ to make in order to raise awareness of our presence in the area. We first met with the Caritas Kenema team, headed up by Patrick the director.
He introduced us to many people in the community. We began with Bishop Patrick Koroma, a very humble man with a copious supply of fizzy drinks. Meeting the Bishop of Kenema was a particularly humbling experience.
He welcomed us into his home, introduced himself as ‘Patrick’, and served us with cold drinks from his freezer, which we were particularly grateful for as it was 7:30pm and still over 30 degrees Celsius outside. It was a very casual and laid back meeting where he shared with us about his previous work with Caritas.
We could easily have spoken to him for much longer but our meeting was brought to an abrupt end with a power cut, we were guided back to our car by torchlight!
Before meeting the district and City councils, we were privileged and humbled to visit the Paramount Chief of our local area. He had a suitably grand name; Paramount Chief Amara B. Vangahun of the Nongawa kingdom. He was essentially the highest figure of authority in the whole of the Kenema district. There was certainly an air of authority and grace about him. He, like everyone we have met so far, was incredibly welcoming. A Chief from a neighbouring Chiefdom was present too for this meeting.
He assured us that ‘although our hair and skin may be different, we are not strangers’. Paramount Chief spoke to us in Mende, the language used in Kenema District, and this was translated for us by Mousa, one of the Caritas staff. Paramount Chief Amara expressed his gratitude to us for coming to the country and said he whilst we were here we are an example for the young people of Sierra Leone.
Our accommodation for our first few nights in Kenema was a guest- house on the hillside. ‘Home’ comforts were laid aside as we became immersed in much more self sufficient lifestyle.
Victor, a young adult, worked very hard at our accommodation to ensure our buckets (for showering, toilet flushing and general water related activities) were full. Victor was an expert spider catcher, which was lucky as we are somewhat inexperienced and Laurence, our solitary boy on team, ran a mile claiming it was ‘the size of a dinner plate’.
We soon adapted to the unpredictable water and power supply Hannah, Naomi and I enjoyed a shower in a thunder storm. Quite a sight for the locals as we rushed outside with our shampoo and shower gel!
We spent some of our best ‘team’ time at the guest house and created some excellent memories; Hannah provided the party room as the other rooms were quickly quarantined after Sarah shared her toilet with a poor unsuspecting lizard, Laurence quite literally fell into a toilet and Naomi accidently sprayed Deet in her mouth and lost the ability to speak.
The food has been fantastic, extremely fresh and hot thus far. We’ve all developed a taste for Plantain, a type of fried banana (it took us some time to get the pronunciation right we spent our time in free town requesting plankton!) We’ve eaten a huge amount of freshly caught fish including barracuda, snapper and ‘chicken fish’, which is kind of like chicken… but a fish!
As people who work with youth, we have had a lot of opportunities to spend time with the youth of Sierra Leone. To say they are inspiring would be somewhat cliché but that is what they are. We have visited numerous schools and youth groups and they have welcomed us into their space and their lives. We have shared cultures and stories and they have told us of their faith. Yesterday we met with the Diocesan youth. Youth here spans right up to the age of 30, so it was a really interesting facilitating conversation with young people who were older than us.
Their faith was just incredible. I worked with a small group of around 11 young people, 3 of whom spoke of wanting to become priests. I mentioned my interest in music and they took me inside the Cathedral to show me some traditional African Instruments. Desperately hoping I may be able to buy one and squeeze it into my suitcase. One boy, Thomas, had written a sung version of the Creed and the Gloria in Mende. They have invited us to their Church to celebrate Mass with them next weekend. I don’t doubt it will be a real highlight!
We all look forward to more adventures and of course, to sharing them with you at home.
But for now we are signing off.
CAFOD ‘Step into the Gap’ Team Kenema
As if writing this blog wasn’t enough, Sarah included this prayer. With you on this Sarah….
In this season of Lent, let us not distance ourselves from our brothers and sisters around the world. Help us to live daily remembering that although there may be many miles between us, we are joined globally in your love; ‘we are not strangers’.