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.

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