I'm not really sure where the time has gone.
I have been back in Banta for about a month and a half. It feels more like a few days. It feels more like a lifetime.
I have celebrated 50 years of Sierra Leonean independence, an overly honoured guest of the Paramount Chief. A new Paramount Chief's staff was unveiled, a gift from the Government to replace the one given by the British in the days before Independence - finally, he joked, the Chiefs too were free of their colonial master's influence, the staffs which represent their power were no longer branded with the Royal Coat of Arms.
I have enjoyed the company of four different teams and COTN's founder and International President. I got to marvel at my friend Jattu who so faithfully returned to her little brothers and sisters and shared a team of her friends with them – a team described by some of our children as “the best yet”. I saw the sweet sorrow of Julius as he was parted from his friend Matt – one a child, the other his short term tutor – neither able to look the other in the eye without coming close to weeping as they said goodbye. I spent a weekend in Senehun village with Matt and some other American friends, narrowly avoided a scalding when taking our nightly bucket baths before working up a sweat by dancing in the dust for hours.
I have bounced around on poda poda journeys, hung on for dear life on Freetown motorbike taxi rides and glided over rivers in dugout canoes. I have been bitten by black flies, mosquitoes and ants but thankfully the bat we found in our room didn't get its teeth in to me and the snake outside our house was too small to defend itself from being stoned to death. I have offered swimming lessons in the Jong river and tested to see how clean its water is. I have watched as new buildings are constructed which will bless our children for years to come. I have met with our national board and spent great lengths of time discussing the ministry with our national staff. I have spent time with my newly married friends, Mr and Mrs Ngoneh, enjoying stories and photographs recounting all that has happened since we were last together. I have spent time with Romanian miners and their drunken monkeys. I have darted about the streets of downtown Freetown on messages which on paper looked like taking five minutes but in practise stretched out for hours.
I was with our children as we broke the news to them of the death of a man who could be described as being a kind of grandfather to many of them. Much time has been spent since telling and retelling stories from his life and his funeral in Freetown was packed with people. Little Fatima had told me that I would be in trouble if her sister and herself didn't get to go to the service, precociously closing one eye and looking with the other down the finger she pointed at me. I made sure their names were on the list – they were special favourites of their grandfather who would always look for them on visits and sneak sweets in to their hands. Another of those close to him, Abi, held me tightly after the service, taking my arms and wrapping them around her little neck.
I have marvelled at the utter beauty of the children I am here to serve – from the adorably cute smiles of Senehun's Jaminatu to the growing beauty and strength of some of our older “children” like Theresa and Karim. I have praised and scolded them, broken up fights and smiled at forming friendships. I have had dinner on the beach with our impressive undergraduate, Precious. On my arrival I was greeted incredibly warmly. On my arrival one girl refused to speak to me for two weeks. I have been told that I am fat more times than I care to remember. The sun has ensured that I have lost weight so such comments have become less common! I have been told that I need to try to marry more times than I care to remember. If I am not careful no woman will want me because I will be too old.
I have again enjoyed the space this place creates for the spiritual, my better angels being encouraged to stretch a little, my bible suddenly seeming to spring to colourful life. I have seen God in thunderstorms of worship. I have seen suffering in wounds which refuse to heal. I have been reunited with toddlers that were babies, teenagers that were children, widows that were wives, mothers that were girls. And so life continues. Though I don't really know where the time goes.