On 23rd June I will fly to Freetown, Sierra Leone to work with an NGO called Children of the Nations. Here I will answer a few of the most commonly asked questions...partly on the off chance that some of you might be interested but more than that, to help me sift through my thoughts as I get so close to heading off.
Why are you going to Africa?
The simple and quick answer owes much of its shape to my friend Paddy – I am going to Africa because I wish to better understand poverty, people, peace and faith while seeking out a way in which I might be used in God’s work of redemption in that place.
I preface this blog entry by acknowledging that it is, even more than usual, laced with self-indulgence. But it is helpful for me to look back and think about how I got here. My parents have been, are and will continue to be a huge influence and it was they who first impressed upon me our responsibility to do what we can to stand in the gap opened up by inequality. They have always exemplified love of ones neighbour in many different ways and their involvement with Tearfund ensured that this has always had a global aspect. So when I went to university and was exposed to the teaching of Steve Stockman and travelled with him and the Presbyterian Chaplaincy to Cape Town, South Africa to build houses with Habitat for Humanity, a seed was not so much planted as what was already there given some room to breathe and take shape. And, crucially, probably for the first time, flesh was put on the bones of teaching and inspiration. I had met people whose lives were radically different from my own and the impact was intense. I would suggest however that it was not until my second trip to South Africa, when I had the amazing privilege of spending two months in the country, that Africa really dug its heels in.
I have always been ridiculously blessed with fellow travellers, friends who have joined me on different parts of the journey and I owe so much to so many in that respect. This time was no different and the social action group we started on our return home, Boots On Comrades, saw a wonderful group of people meet together to toy with ideas of affecting a change. Something else had happened between Captownship trips. I had been taught African history by the late and quite wonderful Martin Lynn. Martin not only taught with a passion, a depth of knowledge, an honesty and a genuine interest in and care for his students that could not fail to have an influence on me but he also introduced me to Nigeria. This led me directly to an amazing year with Care, working at Coventry Cathedral’s International Centre of Reconciliation and the human rights NGO, Christian Solidarity Worldwide. And for that I will always be grateful.
Christians talk a lot about being “called” and having various issues “placed on our heart”. This can seem like a quite mysterious process. I found it really helpful at Bible college when a missionary was quoted as saying that quite simply, “the need is the call”. Africa fascinates me. Perhaps there is a hint of the white man’s burden about the whole thing and at the very least the colonial past and the controlling policies of the modern era offers a connection to these events and peoples that is perhaps absent for me with other places. It is also the part of the developing world which I know the most about! And Africa is certainly a place of great need (as well as arguably even greater potential). When I was growing up I never had a particular desire to leave home for foreign parts and remember being quite confused by the notion as a child – why would anyone want to leave Ireland, a wonderful, safe place with sensible weather for one of these far-flung places where natural disasters, dangerous wildlife and scary diseases hang out. I remember a friend, Jonathan, confidently proclaiming his desire to be a missionary when he was older. I had no such thought. But over the last few years I have been really drawn to Africa’s western region and at this point going there and involving myself directly in the kind of work I am going to do feels like the most natural of progressions.
Why Sierra Leone?
Sierra Leone first came on my radar properly when reading an article in The Economist while living in the grandeur of Dewis Lodge, Coventry. I was immediately appalled and confused by the viscous brutality of the conflict there and why the violence was marked by such acts of horror continues to be a darkly compelling question for me. Last year I wrote an essay about the war there, comparing the different ways the international community intervened there with the different forms of intervention experienced by Rwanda before, during and after the 1994 genocide. This essay was a pretty tough thing to research – you always think you’ve heard the most horrible story and then you read the next one. Sierra Leone’s story stuck in my mind for all kinds of reasons – the poverty, the character of the violence, the apparent resource curse, the process of post-conflict reconciliation, the role and current trial of Charles Taylor, the colonial past, the philanthropic vision that gave birth to Freetown, the use of child soldiers...and on and on it goes. When I heard that Children of the Nations worked there and when I heard about what that work consisted of, I was immediately intrigued.
Why Children of the Nations?
Children of the Nations mission statement says, “our mission is to provide responsible care to orphaned and destitute children by the equipping of nationals, giving children every possible advantage available to grow in a stable, Christ-centered environment, empowering them to be the leaders of tomorrow.” I am moved and excited by the holistic approach adopted by the organisation and I am moved and excited by the focus placed on nationals. Working with children is something I love doing and Children of the Nations have found some areas of work for me which seem to fit amazingly well with what I have studied and what I have some experience of to date. Working with COTN in Sierra Leone sees me living and working in a post-conflict situation in the developing world and with children, bringing together so much of what fascinates, provokes and challenges me. What COTN is doing in Sierra Leone just seems wondrous to me. It is amazing to think that I am going to be a part of it. And it is great to share in that work with my family and so many good friends who are supporting me financially and spiritually.
With your departure so close, how do you feel?
This is a question I have grown somewhat tired of answering. Partly because I do not have a great response. My feelings are many. I am excited by what lies ahead while also scared of what might be in store. I cannot think of anything I would rather do while, at the same time, feel entirely inadequate. I question how much I know about the two main areas of work that I will be involved in – writing and teaching a course for the kids looking at issues of peace and conflict and helping guide a grief counselling programme for our children – and as a result worry that I will leave my friends and family behind and only have minimal impact where I am going. This is countered with confidence that so much of what has passed in the last few years feels like preparation for this work and the way I have been blessed with financial as well as emotional and prayerful support has also been really affirming. At the end of the day the need is the call. And I am being called. I am offering whatever it is that I have, what I know, what I might be...entirely imperfectly I might add, there will be plenty of moments when I will doubtless do everything but offer of myself...and I just have to trust the rest of the way.
My desire is to, in some way...in any way...affect a positive change. If past experience is anything to go by I will learn more, gain more, than I will ever be able to give. It is also important to note that I share in this year with an amazing group of people who are an integral part by virtue of their financial and prayer support. I pray that we will be graced with a role to play.