Sunday, March 29, 2009

Lent 5

Lent 5
March 29, 2009
Grace Episcopal Church, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Reverend Lois Keen

Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:31-34; Psalm 51:1-13; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-33

Rob Bell is the 38-year-old evangelical pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan. When he starts to preach during Sunday worship, he prepares the congregation by announcing that he will be teaching – notice, please, teaching, not preaching – for 80 minutes. (The Christian Century, March 24, 2009) So, what do you think? Will that fly here – give me 80 minutes every Sunday so I can really teach Bible instead of trying to jam a little bit of inspiration into 10 to 15 minutes? Will you go for it?

[LOL of course]

Of course if I could have that time, I’d be able to tell you what that strange little piece in the epistle means, about being a priest after the order of Melchizedek. And I’d be able to unpack the part in the gospel – the rather harsh part – about hating your life so you won’t lose eternal life.

And together we’d be able to sort out for each and every one of you how you might live into the imperatives of the Gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ – about loving your neighbor, about loving God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, about selling everything and giving to the poor, and about taking up your cross – little things like that.

Instead, I have time this morning to teach you just one thing. The underlying assumption of what I want to teach you today is this: Jesus died so you can be free. He died so you would not have to be afraid of God anymore. He died so you would not have to be afraid to “get it wrong” anymore. God knows the disciples got it wrong most of the time, and so did the early church of the Epistles, and we call them saints!

Here’s what I want you to learn this morning – Please do not reduce the Bible to a self-help manual for life, a rule book to end all rule books. With well over 600 commandments in the Old Testament alone, who can stand up to this? Turning the Bible into a rule book assumes that you are not already safe in the arms of Jesus, in his heart and his wounded side. And you are. Safe, that is.

The Bible does contain plenty about how to live your life. A lot of it is contradictory. It will leave you frustrated. It will leave you feeling guilty, ashamed, like the young lawyer who went away from Jesus because it was too hard for him to get his mind around selling everything he had in order to follow Jesus.

Instead, approach the Bible like this: as a treasury of faithful peoples’ experiences with God, that provides an entrĂ©e into your own journey toward God. The Bible is there to incite you to seek out God for yourself, to find and be found by God, to discover that God has always been there, indeed is always with you, and then for you to “write” at least metaphorically your own chapters of your own experiences with God to add to the scriptures.

The Bible begs you to taste it, to chew it, to mull it over, to argue with it, to engage with it as though it were a living thing, not a dead book stuck in one time and place.

How are you to do this? Well, you can certainly do it alone, at home or at work or in the park or on the train. At the same time, not either/or but both/and, you can join a Bible study, not for the purpose of having some clergyperson tell you what the scriptures mean, but as one place to bounce off your own insights against other people’s insights, including the clergyperson’s. Bible study group is a place to be in community with others. It is a place to encounter God, who is the epitome of community – Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Inspiration; Source of all Being, Incarnate Word, Guide. One Holy and Undivided Trinity, one and yet community of persons.

If you would rather, I can restructure Sunday morning worship to allow for 80 minutes of teaching and Bible study in the middle of worship. That way you only have to come here once a week, bringing your Bibles with you, that would be very important, and ready to work together in study. The Orthodox Jews in Egypt do just that – the floor of their synagogue is filled with double desks instead of pews, so the worshippers can be in pairs, studying and arguing and discovering scripture together. What better way to use our Sunday time together?

If that does not appeal to you, than I strongly urge – indeed, I expect you to take advantage of the opportunities to study scripture that are already available – The Mission Congregation monthly Saturday afternoon gathering, the Wednesday Night study group which engages scripture through various themes, the monthly 8 a.m. Sunday “Service” Service which puts scripture into action, taking our lead from the youth group who engage scripture in this way.

Or, you can sign up for the Bible Study time and day of your choice.

Outside in the hallway along the wall of this nave, this worship space, there is a chart with the days of the week and time slots on it. You can choose the day of the week and the time slot that works for you, and enter your name and the frequency with which you would like to meet – weekly, every other week, monthly. The only day not available is Friday, and the only time slot not available is Sunday morning before 10:00 a.m. Otherwise, there should be some time there that works for you.

I am very serious about this. You cannot move forward as a congregation unless you come together for the purpose of taking the scriptures seriously and engaging God, face to face, through encountering each other in study.

It’s totally bogus to have your preacher tell you how to relate scripture to your life. She or he can give you some insights, some glimmers, but those must be only a part of the input. Your own life as you live it in the context in which you live it has to be the other part, and only you can provide that, as you wrestle with the scriptures yourself in group. And ten minutes on Sunday morning isn’t enough.

I’m asking you to make an ironclad commitment to do Bible study here, in this building, regularly. I in turn will commit to being with you for Bible study at every one of those times for which people have signed up, even if there is only one person, although if it is at 7 a.m. I will most likely be in my exercise clothes! We can take the Sunday lessons as our texts, to begin with.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, this invitation comes from the prophet Jeremiah, in the reading from this morning, in which God promises to take the laws away and instead write his law of love in all hearts. The invitation to study scripture together is an invitation to open your hearts to that law of love, and learn from God what the implications for your life may be with that law written in your hearts rather than as words on paper.

As your priest, I am telling you, this is the single most important thing to which you will commit in the coming year. It is a commitment to our Lord; it is a commitment to the scriptures themselves; it is a commitment to yourself and your life as a Christian, and it is a commitment to the life of this congregation, whatever form that life may take in the coming year.

Now, about that “priest after the order of Melchizedek” bit in the epistle.

If you have your Bible with you, please turn to Genesis, chapter 14, verse 17-20, which reads, After Abraham’s return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet Abraham at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King's Valley). 18 And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. 19 Melchizedek blessed Abraham and said, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; 20 and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!" And Abram gave Melchizedek one tenth of everything.

Now, here is how Melchizedek is understood. He came out of nowhere and he went nowhere. His biography is not in the Bible, and so he has no beginning and no ending. His blessing of Abram is the action of a priest. Abram confirms that priesthood by giving Melchizedek a tithe, one tenth of all he has, as an offering. Melchizedek, therefore, a priest who has no beginning and no ending, is, for the writer of the letter to the Hebrews, a prototype of Jesus, a priest after the order of Melchizedek, who has no beginning and no ending but was and is and ever shall be. Jesus earned this priesthood by offering prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who could have saved him from death, but he also went reverently and obediently to his death, and having been thereby made perfect, is now the source of salvation for all, “having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.” I’m sure that is perfectly clear!

Martin Luther wrote, “If you could understand a single grain of wheat you would die of wonder.” So, too, with the scriptures. I invite you to come and understand together just what these ancient writings might have to say to you in your life, today, in this time, in this place.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Recollections of Bunce Island

I am reading the first in a series of novels by Alexander McCall Smith, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. It takes place in Botswana. Botswana sits on top of South Africa, landlocked, surrounded by Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola and Namibia. According to the novel, the earnings from diamond mining are what fill the coffers of the Bank of Botswana.

The father of the No. 1 Lady Detective herself went off to work in the Diamond Mines of Johannesburg, South Africa when he was 18. He describes the physical he has to take before he can be sent to work in the mines: "...they put me on a scale and listened to my chest and made me run up and down a ladder for ten minutes. Then a man said that I would be a good miner..."

This reminded me of Bunce Island. Bunce Island sits in the Sierra Leone River, northeast of Freetown peninsula. It was a major post for trade in slaves from Africa. You can take a speed boat from the Aberdeen section of Freetown, as we did, and enjoy the ride past other islands on the way. Many of those islands are inhabited. Bunce Island is not.

We arrived, and, as with the boat trip to Banana Island, had to be carried from the boat to the beach. The beach is virtually untouched, except by the footprints of monkeys, and the little holes of the sand crabs. Oh yes, and the grafiti carved into the trunks of the trees. (The mate on our boat did one of these carvings while we were on the island.) There is the remainder of a shipping quay at the site where we landed.

I found the beach beautiful and said so. Our travel agency guide said it needed to be developed. I said I hoped it would never be, that development would destroy its beauty.

Of course travel agents want facilities like bathrooms and snack bars for their clients. There was no toilet on the boat (about an hour) and none on the island (about another hour, plus the extra long boat ride back because we had mechanical trouble!). There is no gift shop or tour shop or snack shop. There is a caretaker, but he does not live on the island, he does not have a cell phone, he had one of I imagine endless discussions with the tour agency personnel about how he must get a cell phone or at least have someone on his island be their cell phone contact so they can let him know when there is a group waiting for him to come give them a tour. But, to his credit, he was having none of it.

Here's how it works: you land on the island. You sit down on a "bench" made by lashing together what looks like thick bamboo branches. It works fine as a bench. Then you wait. You wait until the old man or one of his grandsons notices that there is a white speedboat anchored off Bunce. Then he gets in his dugout canoe with the grandsons to paddle for him, and he travels by canoe from his island, a good way off from Bunce, and there he is, your guide for the tour of the island. One grandson stays with the canoe. The younger comes with you and the old man. His job is to help people up and down the trails. It is quite funny to watch the old man insist on doing this helping - he is frail, rake thin, short, and, well, very old.

Off we go, then, following the man and boy, up a steep trail from the beach to the part of the island that was developed by slavers. The first building ruin we came to was, according to our guide, built by the French. We start here at the northern end of the ruin. We end here at the southern end of the ruin. It is at this southern end, at the end of our tour, that our guide says that the English and Portugese kept their cargo above ground. The French kept them underground. And he points to the entrance to a low tunnel, now surrounded by part of the trunk of a cotton tree. As we continue down a steep path and around the ruin, we see what he means.

Africans headed for the slave markets, gathered by the French, and slaves used by the French on the island, lived literally underground, in an area I think no one could stand up in.

So, the French ruin. Next we come to the main ruin, the castle. Our guide did not speak English. Our tourist agency guides translated a little of what he said, but not everything. I could catch some things but not a lot. So here is what I understand. First came the Portugese. And then the English. The English built the castle and erected the cannons to protect the island from the Portugese. Here, in the middle of the main ruin, there is a room with a fireplace. On either side of this room there are two other rooms that lead only to this central room. The smaller one, on the left, was for women. The larger, on the right, was for men.

The fire would be stoked. Irons would be placed in the roaring fire. And in their turn, the men and women would be brought into the fireplace room where they were branded. The sole purpose of that fireplace was for the fire used to brand human beings.

The tour continues. We go to where the house of the governor was - it is also a ruin, but you can see it was two stories. There are tunnels, two of them, very low, too low to stand to walk through, that lead through the ground under the governor's house. They go to the beach below. It was through these tunnels that the men and women, future slaves for England, New England, Southern America states and the Caribbean - crawled, I guess - to get to the slave boats waiting for them at the quay.

If you face the tunnels and then turn 180 degrees, you are facing two doorways. The left one leads to the open air holding yard for women slaves. This doorway is overgrown. The right one leads to the open air holding yard for men slaves. This doorway is cleared, because it is the access to the rest of the island, to the graveyards, and back to the tunnel entrance of the French house.

Here I understood most of what the old man said. Before they were put on the boats bound for slave markets, the men had to form a circle in the yard. They had to run, one round, two round, three round, four some would fall after four and be beaten until they got up...five round...those who fall now and cannot get up - machete. Six round you are sound enough to make a good slave.

It was this of which the reference above to the man in the novel reminded me: "...they put me on a scale and listened to my chest and made me run up and down a ladder for ten minutes. Then a man said that I would be a good miner...".

We went through the right hand door, to the place where the men's holding yard had been. We passed through jungle. We saw enormous cotton trees with their strange, folded trunks. And then we were at the graveyard. There are two - one for white people, one for Africans. There is a society that is trying to preserve this island, and our tour agent guides are part of that society. They themselves have come out to clean the gravestones. If you had a bit of black rubbing wax and some paper you might be able to rub the paper with wax in order to read what is on the stones. I do not remember who our guide said some of the names were on the gravestones.

Bunce Island is not, as it stands, a place you would go for a vacation. But it is beautiful in its wilderness. It is inconvenient - inconvenient to get to, inconvenient to wait for the caretaker, inconvenient in its lack of facilities, lack of literature, lack of artifacts to take back to help you remember what you are told. And for all that, I wouldn't have any of it changed. It was one of three or four highlights of the trip to Sierra Leone: the girls in the school in Waterloo, Bunce Island, the opening of the Voices of Women photo exhibit at the Sierra Leone Museum (not on our itinerary so I am especially glad to have been able to go there instead of to the market) and Banana Island, which afforded a canoe trip over the Atlantic, the people who live on the island and weaver birds in their perfectly round, woven nest communities.

That's today's post. I apologize for any inaccuracies.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Recollections of and Reflections on Sierra Leone

We have been back in this country exactly two weeks. I have been getting caught up with the church's work and ministry, on which I am still behind. But there are readers who have been faithfully checking for Sierra Leone updates and at last, here is one.

Part of the quandary is not so much the time it takes to post, but about what shall I write first? After conversations following church this morning, I'm writing a little more about the FAWE Junior/Secondary School for girls in Waterloo.

FAWE is Forum for African Women Educationalists. It is a highly respected organization in Africa, and in Sierra Leone. Just the word "FAWE" opened doors, got us through customs, through roadside check points, an audience with the First Lady of Sierra Leone. FAWE delivers, that's why. They do what they say they will do with people's money and they provide detailed, substantiated reports. So we were eager to see the two classrooms which money raised by Grace Episcopal Church had made possible to build.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon, 1/2 hour late (traffic getting out of Freetown is horrific!) for a Thanksgiving Service for the Waterloo FAWE school, and in our honor. We walked in the door of Saint Michael and All Angels Anglican Church, into a long nave (that's the main worship space of a church) lined on both sides with benches. As we walked down the aisle, being escorted to the front bench, I realized that the benches on the right, line after line, were filled with young girls in blue uniforms and hats. These were our girls! The girls of our FAWE Waterloo school! So many!

They sang songs. There were prayers. At the time of the offering, the parish priest, Canon Leighton Davis, rural dean, walked down to our bench and took me by the hand, saying (from the scriptures!), "Come up higher!". More singing. More prayers. Recognition of us three from the Grace Episcopal Church in the United States. We each had to say a little something. There was a sermon by a woman priest. (Woman Anglican priests wear hats in church!) I was asked to read out three prayers of my choice from the prayer book for children, from the altar, at the end of the service. The service was long, and those benches were hard, but it was - well, one of the best services of worship I have attended.

The church of Saint Michael and All Angels has a little tracker organ, and a set of drums. The songs the girls sang were accompanied by drums only. The congregation's songs were accompanied by both organ and drums.

Then, as we exited the church, a school band from Freetown was warming up for the grand March Past. All the girls from the FAWE school lined up behind them, and as we came down the walk from the church, the band struck up their music and the girls marched past us. But it turned out that was only the beginning! March Past means to march past the entire town - up every street and down every other until the marchers have Marched Past everyone in Waterloo. We drove to a spot from which we could see the girls coming down the long, dirt road. They marched on past us and then we drove to the school compound.

Now here is the surprising news. We expected to see, behind the compound wall and steel doors, a small couple of offices and the two classrooms we had paid to have built. There before us, instead was a proper school, still under construction.

We were told, "The beginning Grace Episcopal Church made with the first two-room block of classrooms was seed sown. Now others want to take part in building this school, too!" This morning in Church, Eugenia Chinsman told the congregation the same thing. She has heard from the FAWE representative for Waterloo, Eileen Hanciles the same thing. In fact, Eugenia herself, as she took a group from New Haven Connecticut to the school last year, was asked if they could "piggy-back" on what we had begun! Now there will be a library, complete with books. And there is a four room block of classrooms, the ground floor complete and two rooms above under completion, part of which is sponsored by a Dutch group, which is funding a computer lab. The computer lab will be powered by a generator. There are no phone or electric lines. There is also the stipulation that during evening hours, when the girls are not in school, the computer lab be used to teach the adults of Waterloo computer skills.

All this because Eugenia returned to her native Sierra Leone after the 10 year civil war, saw the total destruction of her country and the desperate need for safe education for the girls (the boys were already being seen to) and had the guts to ask an Episcopal Church congregation in Norwalk, Connecticut, U.S.A. to help make a difference. All we did was furnish funds for two classrooms, and dream of enticing people to sponsor scholarships at $100.00 per year. And there it was, a proper school, which we were being told came to be because we had been the ones to take the first step.

In a post downthread, I hinted at the possibility I might never go back to Sierra Leone, it was so dire. Today, I can imagine circumstances under which I would return. At the same time, Grace Church is facing the possibility of its own death as an active church, so from what base would I go to Sierra Leone, and for what purpose. (And I haven't even written about the possibility of a street ministry to homeless residents of Norwalk, an invitation to which I am in the midst of responding! That's another story.)

Sierra Leone is not alone in Africa in the condition in which it is currently. I don't know how any of these countries will have a future, based on equality and dignity of every person, with homes and jobs. One billboard in Freetown reads, in Krio, that the people of Sierra Leone want clean water, electricity and roads. At night the shacks that pass for shops along the streets of Freeport are lit by candlelight. Billboards everywhere trumpet the need to be tested for HIV/AIDS, to take your HIV/AIDS treatments faithfully, to use condoms, that good military personnel use condoms, that the only "safe ride" is with condoms, and a couple of billboards about polio and TB.

What will happen, I don't know. However, schools for girls are a beacon of hope for the communities in which they are located. The Waterloo FAWE school is certainly that for Waterloo. And Grace Episcopal Church, which planted a tiny seed, is now part of something bigger than we ever imagined, instigated by our leap of faith into a world of which we knew nothing at all, until now.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Great news!

This morning I had my second "routine" mammogram, post breast cancer treatment. The results: A PERFECT SCORE!!!! The tech said, "See you next year"! It doesn't get much better than that.

I am relieved. I also know women who tell me every time they have their own "routine" mammogram or MRI, post breast cancer. No matter how many years out we are from the year of diagnosis, surgery and treatments, it is the same. Anxiety, followed by great relief, to the point of tears of relief.

I know everyone is glad for me. I also know that those who share this history with me, and those whose partners or spouses share the same memories as my beloved partner has, can really know what this relief is like and what it means. Thank you, my fellow travelers in the world of breast cancer, for your support, and thank you, the rest of you for your prayers. May you never have to know what this morning feels like - ever.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Dispatch from Sierra Leone - Saturday Before Departure

First a correction on the founding of Freetown. The information in the previous post, that it was founded for slaves emancipated from this country, is incorrect. I misunderstood my guide, I think. Today we traveled by boat up the Sierra Leone River to Bunce Island from which slaves were shipped to the Americas and the Caribbean. On the boat ride we were shown a video that included some history of Sierra Leone, and according to it, Freetown came to be when runaway slaves from Novia Scotia arrived in Sierra Leone, around 1792. However, the printed materials we were permitted to view at Bunce Island say that Freetown was founded by British philanthropists for repatriation to Africa of freed slaves in 1787.

Please forgive the confusion. I imagine that all three of these views are true in their own way.

Bunce Island is a must. The Gullah people on the south coast of our United States trace their roots to Africans gathered on Bunce Island for shipping for sale. The slaves from the rice countries were particularly valuable, hence the rice country of Sierra Leone being a primary shipping point. The United States rice industry owes its success to expertize of slaves exported from the rice countries of Africa.

For fun, I have two photos of monkey paw prints in the sand where we landed. Another debarkation and embarkation requiring a two-man carry across the water from or to the boat. A breakdown on the way back to Freetown - the inboard sucked in a piece of floating plastic and was disabled for about an hour, which included a side trip to another island to take on water for the engine after it was fixed and cooled down. The children on the island began to cheer when they saw our boat was coming to them! I didn't see any monkeys, but I certainly heard one shriek. All the birds were hiding. The place is rife with cotton trees. Unripened mangoes half chewed by monkeys littered the ground at the ruins of the island castle. And, my favorite story, a young boy helped me down two steep slopes in our tour of the island, so I tried to slip him 2000 Leones (less than a dollar American I'm afraid but worth two bowls of rice) but the ancient indigenous caretaker who was our tour guide saw it and I am assured he took the money from the child after having himself been paid a great sum of money for taking us around.

So, some odds and ends to end this phase of my reports from Sierra Leone. The boat rides, both to Banana Island in the dugout with the 15 hp outboard, and the speedboat to Bunce, were nice diversions. I love being on the water. The lunches, most of which were in local restaurants in Freetown, and home cooking at the motel in Waterloo, gave us an opportunity for indigenous foods. You must try olele sometime, and definitely groundnut stew (if you like it hot! They will not tone down the heat.) We will take the ferry to Lungi airport tomorrow at 4 pm for our midnight flight to Heathrow. (The next ferry will not be until Monday - too late!) We'll have a long wait in the airport, but I am assured there is a restaurant on the second floor, and one duty free shop. I have a detective story to keep me occupied.

Newlin, my BP, wrote that I must be exhausted. I am. Even the days that were listed as relaxation were exhausting. And I fear I won't have much time to recover when I return. But in the end it is going to prove to have been worth it. Even though last night and this morning, I couldn't wait to go home, I now find I wish there were time to go back and do a couple of things or see a couple of places again. And I never did get on the beach to watch up close the fish nets being hauled in. Alas, there is always something left on the plate from which one has to walk away.

Once I get home and read through what I did write about, I can begin to fill in the blanks of what I did not write about. For now, this is your correspondent in the field, signing off until our return to the States - on behalf of myself and my companions, Kathy Dies and John Sutton, Peace from us to you.


Friday, March 6, 2009

Dispatch from Sierra Leone - History and Future

There is so much to report, and it is all in my journal. I'll write more when I return next week. For today's entry I choose to write about Banana Island, which we visited on Wednesday, and Bunce Island, which we will visit tomorrow, Saturday.

Sierra Leone was an integral link in the slave trade. There is even a town here named for Captain Newton, who wrote "Amazing Grace" after he began to think his involvement in running slave ships might not be such a healthy thing for his soul. Slaves from all over Africa were brought to Bunce Island, which had a castle and an Anglican Church in which to house slaves, and guns for protection. From Bunce, which is just up the river from Freetown (which did not exist during the slave trade) the slaves were shipped to England, the American colony and later the United States, and the Caribbean.

Banana Island is at the southern end of the Freetown peninsula. A 20 minute canoe ride, in a fifty foot canoe powered by a 15 hp outboard, will take you across the Atlantic to Banana from Kent. The country is all so beautiful, and marred by the poor living conditions of the inhabitants. The mountains run right down to the Atlantic. The ride was a delight. There will probably be photos available of me being two-man carried through the water to be deposited in the canoe. I expect to charge admission to see those photos!

Banana Island was a Portuguese settlement. The remains of slave occupation is mainly of those the Portuguese brought to work on Banana Island. However, there are some ruins of buildings in which slaves were housed for sale and transport, and a circle of stone marking the pit into which sick slaves, those too sick to sell and transport, were thrown to die.

This juxtaposition of natural beauty and painful, horrible history is very hard to process. I do not know when I will recover from some of the things I have seen. I imagine I will recover, but I'm not sure I should.

The staff in the hotel have learned we are here to see a school we are helping to build. My waitress this afternoon, when she brought the bill for my tea to sign, got up the courage to tell me there is a school in the Eastern section of Freetown, a primary school, which has no support at all. She broke my heart. These people want education for their children. Education is required for primary age children. At the same time, while primary education is technically free, it costs money for books and uniforms and pencils and paper - all the things we take for granted. I was glad to be able to tell her about FAWE, Forum for African Women Educationalists and she will tell her child's teacher about them. I don't know if they can help - they probably can't help every school. But at least I had something to tell her that might mean hope.

Freetown, I wrote above, did not exist during the slave trade days. It was founded by freed slaves who wanted to return to Africa after the United States emancipated our slaves. Before the ten year war, which ended around 2001 or 2002, the hills that surround Freetown were all woods. Now every square inch is covered with housing. During the war much of Freetown was burned. Churches were burned down. The police station was burned down. The people who did not leave for England began to build on the hillsides. Now, there is rebuilding in Freetown. At the same time the houses remain on the hillsides, side by side with the shacks of the "squatters" who were displaced from their villages in the countryside and make their living now selling goods up and down the streets, taking advantage of the traffic jams.

I seem to be dumping my brain into this blog, so it may be truly rambling. But you have not experienced driving until you have been a passenger in a car on the streets of Freetown!

One last item, from yesterday, Thursday. We received an invitation, off our schedule, to attend the opening of an exhibition at the National Museum in Freetown, an exhibition of photographs called Women's Voices. I have left my notes in my room, but this much I remember. Women from two villages were given digital cameras and rudimentary instruction in their use, to record their lives and the lives of the women in their villages. I believe they took pictures for a year. The youngest woman was 12 years old. After the pictures were all taken and the sponsoring organizations gathered them up, the women were brought together with the male leaders of their communities, and the photographs, and told the stories that the photographs represented. The women found their voices. Now they, and this exhibit are part of the drive for equality of women alongside men in Sierra Leone.

As one of the women from the project said yesterday during the opening ceremony, woman was not taken from the man's backbone to walk behind him, or from his headbone to walk above him, or from his footbone to walk under him. Woman was taken from his side, from his ribs, to walk alongside him as equal. It was so powerful an image. And as the indigenous woman official who gave the opening remarks said, if we have done something wrong in supplanting for one month the regular exhibits of the museum with this exhibition, it is with very little apology that we do so.

As an old, aging hippie feminist, I tell you, these women are on the move. And they have support for the changes they are hoping to make.

My time is up. I'm going up to enjoy the view of the Atlantic and the black kites (raptors) soaring back and forth in front of my balcony, and get some rest from the enormous multitude of images that flood my brain every day here. God's Peace be with you all, and may you add to your prayers for today, the girls and women of Sierra Leone, some of whose stories I will try to tell in future posts.

Yours faithfully,

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Dispatch from Sierra Leone - Waterloo School

I have returned to Freetown from Waterloo and three days with the girls of the FAWE junior and secondary school, which Grace Church has been helping to build. Since we sent money to finish one classroom and build another, that building is finished, and more people have learned about the project and are helping as well. There is now a two floor, four room wing being constructed, and the contributors for the second floor are also supporting a computer lab for one of the rooms.

The girls are wonderful. They are, no surprise, what you would expect from girls who are growing up in difficult, even poor conditions. They are clever, they are also very bright. They have great ambitions for themselves. The important thing will be to keep them in school so they can get the education they will need to fulfill their ambitions.

The curriculum is ambitious. They have English as a language, as well as English literature, maths, agriculture, science. Many of the girls will not stay for more than one year. They are needed to sell things in the market and on the side of the road, or work in the fields. But maybe they will be able to read or write a little. In the first class I took to teach, they were learning story versions of Shakespeare plays. At the same time, they do not know a lot about their own country.

We had a long, hard three days, and didn't get back into Freetown until 6:30 p.m. so I am going to keep this brief so I can go to bed. There is a funny thing happening, however. I have a good ear, I suppose because I'm a musician, and as I type this, my brain is thinking in the rhythm and way of speaking English of the people I have met here.

That's all for now. More tomorrow, I hope, after we spend the early afternoon at the National Museum for the opening of a photographic exhibition "Voices of Women" sponsored by the International Rescue Committee and the National Museum of Sierra Leone. The exhibition lets women at risk tell their stories through photographs taken of their daily lives. Hope I can be clearer about that tomorrow.

Good night.