Whilst in Sierra Leone, we are staying in a Children’s Recovery Centre called St George, which is essentially an orphanage….the only difference being is that great efforts are made to re-instate these children back into their families, and failing that to put them into foster homes. However, it is far more than a “Centre”. It is a home, a family, headed up by gentle, kind and wise man called Uncle Eddie.
We have our own room, which is luxuriously large for us (probably about the size of our sitting room at home). It has a thin layer black and white checked lino over a concrete floor with mosquito nets at the windows. During the day we pile up our not so comfortable sleeping mats, tie up our mosquito nets and clear the floor space, partly for play, and partly to stop dusty footprints all over our beds. And yes, dust is everywhere. It is the dry season and it is DRY….and therefore our floor, our clothes and mostly our children are covered in dust morning till night, their little white faces turned into red, grubby, smears….not to mention their feet; and I forgot to bring a nail brush!
The best thing is we have flushing loos and running water in the form of showers (no sinks!), close to our room which makes life so much easier in every way…especially at night. We also have an “enclosed” corridor outside our room which runs the length of the building (which consists of the showers and three rooms including ours). By enclosed I mean a chest height wall with iron bars above to the roof. This is GREAT because it gives our children a space to play and eat a snack away from the rest of the children who inhabit St George’s….as you can imagine, outside our haven of quiet communal life reigns in all its fullness. It’s hard to be, go or do anything where you are not quickly joined by at least one or all of the twenty inhabitants of the home.
Our food is prepared in the kitchen, which is located centrally in the compound, over open fires in big huge iron cooking pots. Rice is standard, although every now and again pasta has appeared. To accompany it, there is almost always a chicken or fish stew of some type…hot and spicy complete with bones. Last night it was fish heads and tails….after squashing my squeamishness I picked off surprising amounts of meat from the heads, while Star without batting an eye lid, picked up a tail and crunched into it, bones and all. Her only complaint was that the skin was too spicy. She has turned carnivore and eats as much chicken and fish as I can pick off the bone and suck clean of spice (sorry for the detail!). Rice she can do without! They are also working hard to give us vegetables, so sometimes carrots, beans and cabbage appear, which is gratefully received. The hardest meal is lunch. It’s served at 2.30 and we are ravenous having not eaten since breakfast at 8.00. But lunch is almost always rice served with potato leaves and fragments of dried fish, which seems to be more bone than fish, boiled in palm oil. Hard on the stomach no matter how hungry you are (although, of course, Michael likes it!). The children however are doing amazingly. We are so proud of them. They don’t complain, they eat what’s in front of them, with only slight modification such as Apollos covering his breakfast of fried plantain and egg with tomato ketchup. Elijah’s capacity to eat spicy food amazes us and Apollos and Star are definitely increasing theirs.
Next to the kitchen is the washing tap which is set in on a concrete platform with built in water drainage. This is where we wash our clothes during the day and Star in a big bucket in the evening. My attempts at hand-washing were met with howls of laughter from the kitchen yesterday, and quickly a young girl was dispatched to help me. She is 14 years old and called Kandiatu. Her mother died 3 years ago and her father is unknown. She and her two younger brothers were taken in by St George’s. She has a deep sadness in her eyes, beautiful smile and wants to be an accountant….but right now I am grateful for her help with my washing. My amazement at her speed and ability to removed the ever present red dust from my children’s clothes is matched only by her amazement at my ineptitude. My attempts to help were met with pitying smiles and suppressed laughter and the honest statement “You know nothing how to do dis”.
I have noticed that Kandiatu seeks me and the other girls out, just seeming to want to be near. Her English is good, but she is quiet and doesn’t talk much. The other children want to play games and or colour pictures or sing songs, whereas Kandiatu is one of only 3 girls amongst 17 “brothers” and is older than most. When not in school she works in the kitchen and the laundry. I like her. Strangely we came back from visiting a school the other day to find her lying unconscious on a table, with Eddie praying fervently over her. Apparently she had collapsed at school and been bought home. She was unconscious for over two hours. Obviously we joined Eddie praying. In her non-resposive state I spoke to her and asked her that if she could hear me, to start saying the “Jesus”. She began in the faintest whisper and shortly after came round. We are still trying to understand what happened, and trusting the Lord for her freedom from what ever it is. Do pray that the Lord would give us the keys..
Other inhabitants are Samuel, he is 15 and has wide smile. Patrick is 12 but looks more like 8, with a round face, a bright mind, and a friendly and out going demeanour. He and Samuel showed the children and I around the first morning we were here….when Michael and the rest of the team were sleeping off the night in the truck. I asked Samuel if he liked school. He said he did, so I joked and said “Oh good, my children don’t”. He looked at me in genuine shock and said “Why? Education is the only way to a job and that is the only way to a good life. Don’t they want a good life?” It was a sobering moment on our first morning.
And there is Mamio and Augustine, they are the babies, aged around 3 or 4 and their favourite game is pushing each other over and laughing hysterically. And lastly little Mustaffa who is probably a polio victim, unable to walk or talk, he crawls over the stony ground on calloused knees. He is probably around 10 but looks more like 5. He has the sweetest gentle spirit, a ready smile and never ever cries no matter how hard he may fall trying to get off the bench where he eats his food. He was abandoned about 10 months ago by his grandmother at a police station. The story Eddie heard was that people began to say that he was a witch with powers to “move things around after dark”. This is a common accusation over disabled children, often resulting in their abandonment or worse still death. When you look into ‘Staffies large gentle eyes and enjoy one his delightful smiles it is hard to believe that anyone could even think such a thing.
And then there is Eddie. Eddie runs the place. He is from the North of the country, but rarely goes home to visit. I couldn’t say for sure how old he is, somewhere between 25 and 35 would be my wide guess, but honestly anything is possible. Anyway he looks young, but has a wisdom and largeness of heart that belies his un-wrinkled face. He is organised, faithful, capable and runs the place excellently, involved in every area: the cooking, the laundry, overseeing home work, speaking into the resident children’s lives, not to mention organising us and the meagre staff here and fixing the generator on a regular basis. But more than that he is a father. He is un-married and therefore has no children of his own, and by all accounts his own father was anything but the perfect role model. But none-the-less he fathers these children. The first impression we had on arrival was the sense of peace in the place, and observing him the first few days, you couldn’t help but notice the gentleness with which he handled the children. When asked how he likes his job he job replied, “This isn’t a job. If this was a job I would be doing it for the money, I would work to be a rich man, but I wouldn’t care. I said I would only come here if I can be a father. A father cares about his kids, he doesn’t count the money. This is a family not a job.” And by the tears that fell as he prayed for Kadiatu and the way his arms provide a safe haven for Joshua, a deaf and mentally disabled boy who can do nothing for himself at all other than eat, and the way he absent-mindedly pats his kids on the head as they pass, you can see The Father written all over him. He is a rare one and its a privilege to know him.
Our team of 15 are doing great. On the whole they are dealing well with the food, the dust, the heat, the poverty. We are doing a lot of playing and hanging out with the children here, visiting a local “old peoples home” and a disabled home, going into schools to teach and take assemblies,,..and of course negotiate living life in a radically different way. My favourite moment so far was while visiting Freetown a young girl dropped the peanuts she had to sell in the middle of the road, a great loss…..and I think the traffic would have destroyed it all had one of our team not run to her aid, stopped the traffic (a BRAVE thing to do) and started helping the girl pick it them up. The rest of the team joined in as did the locals. It was a beautiful act of kindness.
So how is it really to be here? Well it is a stretch and I haven’t even got to the day we ran around Freetown trying to find a rabies shot for Ali (who is on our team) and Patrick (who is at St Georges) who had been bitten by a potentially rabid dog. It is uncomfortable (there are 3 backed chairs in the entire place, which have cushioned seats that puff out dust when you sit and rise). The showers are cold, the food is DIFFERENT (if you get my drift), there really are no shops as we would think of them for miles. There is red dust everywhere, which makes our white skinned kiddies look grubby all the time, and it goes without saying that hygiene is a serious challenge. We share our room with numerous cockroaches and at least one mouse, which met a sticky end when one of us rolled over it in the night (found the next morning flattened under our sleeping mats) Transport is a nightmare….when we go somewhere if we are to leave at 10 am you can guarantee the poda–poda will turn up at 12 noon and we will cram 21 of us into a 14 seater – and that doesn’t include the driver and his “bus conductor” who jumps out whenever there is a problem with traffic. The roads are TERRIBLE (although much improved in the last few years) and “shopping” is like nothing I have experienced so far. Really this place is something else. It really is un-developed. There is no nice hotel, the one or two decent restaurants are EXPENSIVE, there’s no cinema, MacDonalds, shopping mall….nothing. One trip to Freetown was enough to cause great jubilation amongst the team that we were NOT living there! So how are we managing? Well I am taking my understanding of the phrase “One day at a time” to a new level. When I look ahead even one day, it’s just too much, but when I focus on just this one day, it’s doable…even joyful. Perhaps this is how much of the world lives, and I am just learning a secret that has long been available to me. The times I waste my energy on worrying about sickness or sunstroke or our water supply or what we are going to do with our children today or how we are going to lead the team or freaking out about the array of creatures that share our room, are heavy and fruitless. When I remind myself of the “One Day at a Time Rule With No Worries” I do great. It’s not comfortable, but it is good.