Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Thoughts from Freetown

“Uncle Peemay! Uncle Peemay!”

A little speck of a child waved excitedly from the crest of a small hill back in the distance, her shrill voice almost lost on the air. Uncle Peemay, a character created by the children of Banta Mokelleh, stopped, lifted his cap from a sweaty brow and held it aloft. He smiled broadly and shouted back a Mende greeting. A high pitched reply found its way back, a pure expression of welcome or excitement or joy or maybe just fascination at this little white uncle that had just wandered past. It didn’t really matter to Peemay. His heart was bursting regardless. What was most amazing to him was that he had never met the speck before but somehow little Yayma, as he would later find out the girl was called, had heard about him. And wasn’t going to let a little thing like distance get in the way of saying hello.


I’m at a computer. On the internet. Listening to music. I just ate a little chocolate.

This is amazing! This is Freetown…

And yes, I am Uncle Peemay, my Mende name (Spelt phonetically because I am yet to learn how to spell it in Mende) which means “runner” and which almost always draws a smile from those who hear it. It is an unusual name I guess and people get a kick out of an Irish boy introducing himself as such. When you arrive in Sierra Leone people ask you your name. And then they ask you what your African name is. And if you don’t have one they give you one. I was named by the apprentice (assistant) to the puda puda driver who originally drove us to Banta (Puda pudas are beat up mini buses which have had all the seats taken out and replaced by benches which allow for ridiculous numbers of passengers). And already I find it hard to imagine heading home and leaving my name behind.

I am frustrated that I am yet again faced with the impossibility of sharing a month of life in Sierra Leone with you in one blog post. It can just not be done. I came to Freetown about a week ago and enjoyed a few days of craic and debriefing with our summer interns before they flew their way back to America. My time with the team was a really special one – I will miss them a great deal. But I am excited now to get back to Banta and throw myself in to my job...after I work out exactly what that is going to be of course! (I need to have a meeting with the country director to work out that minor detail). Some of our kids arrived in Freetown this evening for a few days summer holiday and medical check ups and I was just so excited to see them (Summer interns, know that I was asked about you countless times… “Where is Auntie Adama? Where is Uncle Scott?” And my personal favourite, showcasing the wonderful way people here use English, with ten year olds throwing out the most unlikely of words, “Where are your companions?”)

So we finished up summer school and all the rest of the activities I wrote about in my last post probably about a month ago. Some of the interns put together a three day seminar for the Church of the Nations pastors which was really great to sit in on – talking to them about how to understand the Bible, how to put together a sermon, how to lead their churches. Then we launched in to two weeks of summer camp. The first week was for kids aged 6 to 10/11 (In a Carlow-esque way we ended up with tiny little campers who had somehow been allowed to come along) and the second was for anyone from 11/12 up. It was a residential camp so think of it as an Avoca or Cormeen kind of affair (For those of you who know what that means) but I don’t know if that image is a help or a hindrance to your understanding of what it was really like.

Wonderful is what it was.

Wonderful because something like 250 kids came each week, some traveling all the way from Freetown and others walking for miles and miles. Wonderful because we got to give them a break from their usual routine of farm and domestic work. Wonderful because we got to spoil them with three meals a day instead of their usual one. Wonderful because we got to share ourselves with them. Wonderful because they were so responsive to what we had to say and what we had them do – the usual Christian summer camp mix of games and bible study and quizzes and talent shows with some more unique African touches. Wonderful because we got to see God doing some moving and shaking in young lives as well as our own. Wonderful because my house rose to the top to take victory in the Harry-Potter-esque inter-house competition both weeks. “Green House! Fire!” There are just too many little snippets to share – maybe I will try to do so in a future blog post. But for now I will move on…


“God is good?” “All the time!”
“All the time?” “God is good!”
“Hallelujah!” “Amen!”

The pastor’s congregational call and response completed, all eyes turned to the fifteen year old girl who had just taken a step forward from the choir. Closing her eyes she sang out, leading her fellow teenage singers in traditional African style.

“What man can not do for me, my God has done!”

The choir burst in to accompany her for the next line, swaying from left to right, eyes closed, hands clapping, faces screwed up with either passion or the impression of passion. Their combined voices surge with energy and soar through the simple melody. The hand clap beat is then swiftly bolstered by three drumming boys in the front row, their faces quieter than their female counterparts, but their hands dancing. Out to the left the sun beats down on a straggling worshipper as he makes his way across the gravel football pitch. His Sunday best, a fine linen shirt, is a splash of moving yellow in the midst of the red earth which itself sits in front of the green palm tree jungle and the brown mud and thatch huts which lie below the bright blue sky.


I was asked by one of my summer team leaders about what I had learned this summer, or what had maybe surprised me about my time here thus far. For various reasons I never got to answer her. When you come to Africa to work with kids you fully expect, or at least I do, to learn a lot from those kids and be ministered to by them indirectly. I expected to come here and be loved by the kids that I worked with and I expected to be blessed by that, to learn a lot from that. I expected to come and serve them and learn a great deal in the process. I expected to be ministered to indirectly. But what I have been excited by is the more direct way in which these kids have ministered to me.

The best example of this is from when I was sick. I had a violent and horrible evening of vomiting followed by two days of recovery right before camp started. Such is the way children are treated here (Why do something yourself when you can get a kid to do it for you? More on this in a later post) a kid ended up with the fun job of vomit removal. But what was really moving, and an example of this “direct ministering” that I am trying to explain, was the next day when three of the girls from our home came and prayed for me and sat with me and sang for me. What was really moving was when a kid from Ngolala village heard that I was ill and came to visit me and see how I was.

“What man can not do for me my God has done”. Words sung by orphan kids whose understanding of the sentiment is surely much deeper than many men and women who have been following God for countless years more. Children who have been abandoned or abused or left to die by men and women but who have been accepted, loved and given a home and a family by their God. The beauty of the voices that sing those words and drum those beats is only a scratch on the surface of the beauty of their Father.

Don’t get me wrong. These kids can be brats, just like any kids. They can be stubborn. They can be petulant. They can be selfish. They can be annoying. They can beat (In Sierra Leone they say “flog”) the crap out of each other. And you have never seen grudges held like some of these kids can hold grudges. They’re kids not cardboard cut outs and I really want to be sure to avoid that clichéd the-kids-had-so-little-but-were-always-so-happy kind of stuff. So my point is that, while not being little angels, these kids are teaching me a lot. Indirectly and directly.

My brother sent me a package from America and it included a note written on a COTN card. It was your typical charity card – a picture of cute African kids on the front. But the difference here, and I don’t know if my brother realized this or not, is that I know these faces. They are Isatu. They are Roseline. They are Phillip. I have been blessed to get beyond the cardboard cut out. I don’t know if I am going to be able to help you get past it too with these blog posts, but I am determined to try. And I am determined to encourage anyone who shows the remotest interest in visiting to do just that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Uncle Peemay,

Really brilliant to hear from you again!! I'm sorry I didn't reply to your last post..It's all the bitterness and jealousy that I'm carrying around about the fact that you get to be in Sierra Leone and my lot seems to be Belfast - for now...!

No, I don't think it's the fact that you're in Sierra Leone that I'm jealous of, it's more the fact that you're throwing yourself so completely into life there. All my memories of being in Africa, wherever it was, are tinged with frustration - I always felt frustrated that I should be doing more...something. Does that make sense? I think it was because I wasn't doing the things that I'm best at most of the time (although what they are I'm not too sure!). And I put all this pressure on myself to 'be useful' whatever that means.

Hows that for candour?!

ANYWAY, I'm glad you're getting on so well. It's really brilliant. I'm looking forward to hearing about what the next 10 months will bring for you work-wise.

And life with the Americans was good? You always have a soft spot for Americans...especially American girls it seems...!! I bet you were always surrounded by American-girl-volunteers!

I'm heading over to the US next week actually - but I'm sure I shall not be surrounded by American girls! I'm going to Dc for three weeks to work for Family health International - ever heard of them? I've been doing some research for them before I go. It's quite interesting - I'm learning lots about different UN bodies. Except it makes me want to work for them. My favourite so far is the High Commissioner for Refugees. I think that would be pretty cool.

Do you know much about the Criminal Court in SL? Isn't there something about war crimes? A tribunal or something? IF (big IF) I was to visit, I'd love to see something of the tribunal.

Right better go - oh I finished that book Soldiers of Light. It was really fascinating, but a bit depressing maybe? hard to see how things would change..What do you think now you've spent some time in the country?


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