Thursday, April 10, 2014

I Know Who I Am

“But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praise of He who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy.” – 1 Peter 2.9

When I arrived in Uganda I was met at the airport by a very nice guy with a sign which had my name on it. I travelled up to our ministry site in Lira with a lot of excitement about seeing old friends and new with my feeling of being one seriously lucky traveller only being increased when Richard, who was driving, said, “We are about to cross the Nile.” Having already seen Lake Victoria that morning I couldn’t really believe that the Nile was also on the list. I strained my neck to see as much of the furiously rushing water as I could, taken aback somewhat by the power of this famous river. In its youthful arrogance it was pushing forward as fast as it could like a sprinter who had inadvertently found himself at the start of a marathon and hadn’t yet realised. It would be three months before that water reached its Mediterranean destination.  We joke in Sierra Leone about how Uganda is paradise. The stories that we hear from there and from those who have visited are always so glowing. My introduction to the country did little to dispel the myths.

At Children of the Nations we enjoy honouring our guests with little welcome and farewell programs, bookending their stays with words of thanks and songs of appreciation. If you’re lucky maybe even a dance of awesome. I arrived on the same day that some dear friends were also leaving and so their farewell and my welcome were combined. We sat together in the middle of our home in Uganda and I had the opportunity to hear from and speak to members of my family I had never met before. When I introduced who I was and mentioned who my brother was there was a ripple of recognition and a few bursts of the shrill cry East Africa uses to express excitement. We were about to finish when one of my friends who was saying her fond farewell put in a song request. And boy, am I glad she did.

What happened next will stay with me for a long time. All of the kids and staff present got up and treated us to a rendition of a song that I had never heard before. Excitement and joy seemed to build with every line and the kids danced as they sang. The lyrics pounded on my heart, their truth only highlighted by the stories of those singing:

We are a chosen generation
Called forth to show His excellence
All I require for life; God has given me
And I know who I am

At COTN we believe that we were called because children in desperate need prayed. And in response to their prayer, God chose to use COTN as part of how he would answer. It started with the faith of the children. The rest of us are seeking to be obedient to the call that they initiated. And when we are successful in doing so an amazing thing happens. These children orphaned by war, injustice and brutality, become children once again. No longer orphans, they once again live as part of a family. They discover who they are and they are known by others. They belong.

I know who God says I am; What He says I am
Where He says I’m at; I know who I am,
I’m working in power; I’m working miracles
I live a life of favour, Cause I know who I am

When I then travelled to Malawi I was once again welcomed with a number of programs and once again, I was welcomed by name and with warmth. I was known. I had been expected. I was welcome. And once again in Malawi this song was sung and danced as part of that welcome. Later, one of the school choirs, “Citizens of Heaven”, would treat us to their own rendition and they went down a storm when they sang for a big, local church. The COTN choirs are pretty amazing in Malawi and these girls are no exception. At my favourite part, Daphless (pictured above) strains her voice to cry, “Everybody shout out,” and the girls join in with “oh oh oh, I know who I am!”, knocking their chests as if to dare anyone to challenge them. Then everything gets taken down a notch as we hear just who it is that they are…

I am holy
I am righteous, oh
I am so rich
I am beautiful

Orphans? Destitute? Poor? Hopeless? Broken? No. These are young, confident, African women who know that they are the children of God. Daphless steps forward to cheers from the crowd and raps a little more explanation...

Take a look at me, I’m a wonder
It doesn't matter what you see now
Can you see His glory?
Cause I know who I am!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Shouldn't I Be Taller?

Saturday morning in Africa. You have your seat on your veranda, your coffee in hand and some reading material in your lap. These are the things that bliss is made of.

Today’s location is Njewa, Malawi and my soundtrack is Malawian hip hop blasting from a sound system set up to entertain the students of Children of the Nations’ boarding school, the International Christian Academy, as they go about their morning chores. Moments of solitude and real soul rest have been in short supply as I have travelled from west to east Africa over these last few months both because of squeezed schedules and my desire to do as much and meet as many as possible. 

Today is to be different…

My reading material is an old Relevant magazine and I am turning the pages and see a familiar face – Justin Zoradi, founder of the non-profit, These Numbers Have Faces and fellow alumni of DV’s volunteer/intern programme and Capetownship. As I have been living out my thirtieth year of fallen-ness one of the things that I have noticed myself doing is comparing my position in life with that of others. Whether it is the friend with the wife, the house, the career and the kids or the one with some other perceived significance or recognition, I am tempted to stand with them back-to-back and see who is taller – a test I have never done well in. It’s a pretty human thing to do given the perpetual dissatisfaction of a creation made to look upon the divine when they choose instead to look upon the earthen. NGO/ministry types are always at it – quietly comparing each other’s “impact” and judging who is the most innovative, sustainable, indigenous or whatever is the most current measure of success. So I first have to shake that off before seeing what JZ has to say…

What I have always appreciated about Justin is that he saw what scores of us who went on Capetownship had seen before but was not satisfied with allowing it to be a mission trip that he came home from.* Instead he was broken down, re-formed and inspired to make his home amongst the challenges that he had seen. He writes that he was tempted to give up on the vision he had had and I am sure that this was the problem of so many that had gone before – sparks of inspiration got dampened. I might send a brief but accusing glance at our culture’s tendency to politely discourage the audacious, enthusiastic, optimistic attitude of an individual who has the arrogance to suggest that they might be a solution. In Northern Ireland it seems like everyone must start off with the baggage of a prophet in their own town. Thankfully Justin ignored those thoughts that would cry down his vision and These Numbers was born and grew.

What then is the point Justin is making in Relevant which has inspired me to type? Simply that the answers we can personally provide to life’s problems will never be complete. We are but part of the redemptive plan that God has for the world. There is no perfect life, no perfect ministry.

 “There is liberation in understanding that you are meant to do incomplete work… You are the worker, not the master builder… Being the worker means your fumbling progress is a step along the way, leaving open the opportunity for God’s grace to show up and do the rest.” 

Chris Clark, co-founder and President of Children of Nations, tells the story of how his mother once said that God was not in need of great men but rather men who would point to his greatness. As I seek to play my part in raising children who transform nations, this is an important reminder of my own limitations and the idea that although I should constantly strive to do the absolute most with what God has given me, there will be a limit and in that limit I can find peace not dissatisfaction. The Bible’s way of putting it is that God’s strength is made perfect in my weakness.

Justin ends with the story of Cardinel Danneels of Brussels and so shall I. He said:

When I get home after a long day, I go to the chapel and pray. I say to the Lord, “There it is for today, things are finished. Now let’s be serious, is this diocese mine or yours?”
The Lord says, “What do you think?”
I answer, “I think it’s yours.”
“That is true,” the Lord says, “it is mine.”
And so I say, “Listen Lord, it is your turn to take responsibility for and direct the diocese. I’m going to sleep.”

In Liberia they say that God never sleeps. That’s good. Because I'm always doing it…


*Notable exception to this would be Stocki whose vision of how to partner for change was Capetownship itself – a now somewhat forgotten ministry except to those whose lives it utterly changed forever! I also acknowledge that there were a number of Capetownshipers there from the beginning, sharing and supporting in the vision of TNHFs. 

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Guided Tour of Banta: The Update


One of the most popular posts I have ever put up on this blog was a series of pictures showing exactly where Children of the Nations' ministry site is located in Sierra Leone. I was able to show lots of satellite images of the surrounding area including the villages where our children live. However, the images were actually taken before COTN moved to Banta and so I wasn't able to show you where I live! We can now have a look at an updated version of some of those images. The most recent hydraform construction at COTN is not visible yet though - google can't quite keep up with our community's rapid growth! If you click on the pictures you can get a better look at each.

So we start below by focusing on the southern region of Sierra Leone, Moyamba District to be exact. Find the blue lakes of the Rutile mining operation as that is where we will go next.

On the left of the picture below you get an idea of the scale of the rutile (titanium ore) operation - one of the biggest businesses in the country. The lakes are created to allow the earth to be dredged and the rutile extracted. The brown area on the right is the washing plant of the bauxite (aluminium ore) mine - another big employer. Running through the middle is the Taia river which provides the local community with fish and is a great place for a swim....e-coli notwithstanding... The right side of the shot shows lots of the Upper Banta Chiefdom.

North from the bauxite mine, travelling up the mining road, we have Ngolala.

And there it is - COTN's Ngolala Ministry Site, Ngolala Junction Village and Ngolala Village. This area, particularly Ngolala Junction Village, is continuing to experience rapid growth and so if you travelled with me there tomorrow you would see many more houses than what is pictured below.

Below is Ngolala Village, often called the "Old Town". To the north is the football field, to the east is Pa Kobba's palm plantation and the village of Senehun. Many of the children in our Village Partnership Program in Sierra Leone live in those houses pictured.

Below we have COTN - the community gifted us with 100 acres to use for the care of their children. Along the southern boundary of the property we have the village of Ngolala Junction which is rapidly growing up around us. The land rises fairly steeply up hill from the western end of the property to the road which makes up the eastern boundary.

Below is our main "public" area - in the bottom right, by the road, we have our offices and our medical clinic. In the bottom left we have our primary school which has had three buildings added to it since this picture was taken. These buildings house our science lab, remedial classroom, library and nursery classrooms. In the top left we have our Skills Training Centre and to the right of that we have our secondary school classrooms. In the middle we have our football pitch! We have at least 700 children on this site every day!

And this is where our children live - our Children's Home. In the ten houses in the middle live about 100 children and it is one of my favourite places in the world. Surrounded by our farmland (you can see the piggery buildings on the far left), I stay in the house on the bottom left of the Home's horseshoe although a new building is being put up behind the Home. International staff will move in to that house freeing the current house up for the use of our children. On the top right here you see some of our staff houses. Across the road from this is where our new staff quarters have been built as well as our guesthouse.

So that's where it all happens. Where we raise children who will transform nations!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Top Ten

What are the top ten things that have happened with Children of the Nations – Sierra Leone so far this year that I should be excited about? 



ONE – Solar Power

We now have solar panels on all of our children’s houses and at our school.  This means light at night and charge for phones and laptops!  With a new diesel generator and more solar systems on the way we are feeling pretty good about our ability to keep the lights on! 

What's this got to do with raising children?  It means that Fatima can study at night!

TWO – Wells

Working with a partner organisation, we are going to see the installation of wells in NINE local villages this year.  Added to the Ngolala Junction well already dug and another we helped repair recently, this all means clean water for an estimated 3,800 people!

What's this got to do with raising children?  It means that Jack won't have to drink water from an e-coli filled stream!

THREE – New Leadership

We have added FIVE new members to our National Board and ONE new Country Director.  These professional Sierra Leoneans are passionate about what God is doing through this ministry and it has been a joy to see them settle in and plan for the future. 

What's this got to do with raising children?  It means that the gifts, talents, experiences and knowledge of more people is being tapped to provide Massah with greater opportunities!

FOUR – House Farms

We have been planning for some time to get the kids in our Children’s Home more involved in growing their own food, to learn lessons about sustainability, work ethic and teamwork.  This planting season we did it!  Each house has their own signposted plot and will enjoy the fruits of their labour come harvest time.

What's this got to do with raising children?  It means that Patrick will grow up knowing how to provide for himself and that when you work hard you give yourself more of a chance of eating well!


Another way we have helped our kids participate in their own care is through giving our teenagers COTN Money.  Nicknamed “Clarks” after our founders, they then use this at the COTN Shop to buy their basic toiletries and, if they save wisely, other more fun items! 

What's this got to do with raising children?  It helps Hawa learn about budgeting and handling money so that when she is looking after herself in a few years she will be better prepared. 

SIX – Staff Housing

It is not easy for our national staff to live and serve in an area like ours – often far from family and with few amenities.  We are in the midst of building a senior staff quarter which we are hoping will be the first of a number of buildings to provide our staff with a much more comfortable living situation.

What's this got to do with raising children?  It means the staff taking care of Julius will be more motivated to give him their very best!

SEVEN – GO Teachers

Come September we will have THREE international teachers join our school staff for the whole academic year - a wonderful opportunity which will have a really positive impact on the quality of the education we are offering.  The GO Teach program will continue for the next THREE YEARS at least, so if you or someone you know would be interested…you know where to find us!

What's this got to do with raising children?  It means that Amidu, who works SO HARD at school, will be given more of a chance to do well. 

EIGHT – University Places

Next month two of our girls will travel to Uganda to go to university!  These girls have served COTN for the last year in our GAP program and have earned scholarships.  We are also excited to support a former student of ours who we hired as a student teacher at the start of this year to go to teacher training college.  This will bring us up to a total of FIVE students in college and university – amazing!

What's this got to do with raising children?  It means that N'gardy, Susan and Henry step closer to dreams of being able to take care of themselves and their families and gives Hawanatu, Marie and Jacob role-models to look up to and seek to emulate. 

NINE – Spiritual Care

This year there have been so many different opportunities to share Jesus with our communities.  Whether this has been through kids camps, school activities or by praying with and for our Muslim friends and neighbours, it is always exciting to see God at work. We are excited about recent initiatives in our church and bible study programs as well as a newly hired Youth and Children’s Pastor.  Watch this space!

What's this got to do with raising children?  It means that Becky is learning about how much Jesus loves her EVERY DAY! 

TEN – Mokpangumba School

While we are still far from breaking ground, a lot of the prep work has been done which will allow us to begin work on a school building in the village of Mokpangumba.  We have about 80 kids attending school daily and a really committed teaching team but no building! It is going to be really exciting to see that change!

What's this got to do with raising children?  It means that Maseray will have an opportunity of learning in an environment which will help her excel. 

And Finally... 

Sorry - I needed another point to tell you about the two profoundly deaf boys we were able to secure places for at a specialist school for the hearing impaired.  Through this completely life-changing opportunity they will learn to lip read and will work their way through primary and secondary school!

Okay that was just half a year.  Let's see what the rest of 2013 has in store...

What's this got to do with raising children?  

If you want those children to live out stories which will transform?  



Wednesday, January 30, 2013

English Club and Resource Centre

Here for the TOP TEN? CLICK HERE

One of our teenagers, Yusif made a comment a while back about his Uncle Mark that stung a little bit. "Uncle Mark used to play football with us. But then he got too busy." As responsibility increases so does the proportion of time you spend in an office or at a laptop. There is a balance to be struck and I was helped in this during my last spell in Sierra Leone by the launching of two new initiatives - "English Club" and our Resource Centre.

Every Saturday, with the office officially closed, I was able to give my time to our Education Department and work directly with our kids. The mornings were spent at "English Club" - it's simply an extra English lesson for our older secondary students but we made it a club to try to fool everyone in to thinking that learning can be fun! We read together, worked on vocabulary development and played word games. During one class (pictured above) I got to teach a poetry lesson on Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade". It was wonderful to see the kids really get in to the debate the poem inspired about the meaning of courage. The kids all wrote poems of their own and some were really impressive.

On Saturday afternoons I would go up and open the Resource Centre. This is an incredible addition to our education program - a really well stocked library. The kids come and have a quiet place to study books on every subject as well as encyclopedias for further research and novels for when you get tired of textbooks. It was an incredibly peaceful way to spend some time - reading, shushing people like a proper librarian and fielding questions on everything from T.S. Elliot to the periodic table of the elements. Both these programs continued in my absence and the Resource Centre has gotten bigger and better! I really look forward to my Banta Saturdays and am travelling back armed to the teeth with notes on poetry, literature study guides and a huge bundle of science resources given to me by teachers from a Belfast Grammar School!

Maybe learning CAN be fun??

Monday, October 29, 2012

How We Learn

How do we learn?

That is the question that has been on my mind of late. We are trying to educate over 1,000 children in Sierra Leone and we are now at the point where we are really seeing just how well we have been doing – kids are sitting secondary school leaver exams. We are learning lessons all the time and I am determined for us to be a group of people who take our knocks and celebrate our successes but above all else learn from every experience. 

Learn. Develop. Improve. And learn some more.

Recently our Education Specialist and I, along with various other members of staff, have been seeking to learn from the experiences of others and it has been a thoroughly thought provoking exercise. One thing has been clear – everyone we talk to struggles with many of the same things that we do. They share many of the same frustrations and, while everyone is approaching things in their own ways, they have yet to find any silver bullets either. Another thing is clear – there are some exceptional people working in the area of education in Sierra Leone, both national and international people of knowledge, experience and above all else, devotion. Conversations with these people are edged with a sense of potential that sends the slight hint of a tingle up my spine. The Irish Catholic Sister who has been here for more years than I have been alive and shares from those experiences with generosity, honesty and humour. The Sierra Leonean teacher trainer who responds to questions by sitting forward and pointing at you with a smile and a widening of his eyes as if this was exactly the thing he was hoping you would ask. The American non-profit founder with the quirky, slightly bohemian sensibility and the ability to see genuine successes and progress where others might be too near-sighted to find anything other than disappointment. Our own Education Specialist whose slender frame and patient, polite demeanour seem to stand in contrast to the tenacious love and ferocious determination that underpin the steadfast endurance of her service to our children.

Another thread woven in to each of our conversations has been that there are many things which, be they systemic, cultural or otherwise, would seek to impede us and cause us to despair. How then have these people with greater experience than I managed to keep going? When I first met our Irish Sister, she shared the story of a priest who had served here for a lifetime - “some really great work” was her summary. On his deathbed he had expressed his disappointment that, though he was unsure of what they were, he felt that mistakes must have been made because he did not see that things had gotten any better. When asked how she managed to stay clear of the emotions of the jaded, she smiled. Someone else in the room suggested, “The Spirit of the Most High God” and she smiled again. “I hope that that is part of it, yes”, she commented. But she then continued with a particularly honest earthiness I have seen in a number of Catholic leaders saying, “Although when I am in a bad mood that can sometimes go out the window!” She collected her thoughts for a second before turning to me and answering, “It’s the children.”

And so I come back to the original question and the question that automatically follows. How do we learn? And, that being the case, how can we help the children? Our schools are focusing on improving the way we teach English and I have been involved in extra lessons for our older students we are calling “English Club”. I have been learning a great deal from our Education Specialist and another Education Consultant currently serving with us as well as these many other conversations and experiences with students about the structures of a language I always just “knew” and never had to really “learn”. And how do you succeed in building critical thinking skills in others? Anyone who has seen a Sierra Leonean jerry-rigg a vehicle or a generator with a piece of a t-shirt and the hammering of a rock knows that problem solving skills are present but to truly think critically, reflectively, our students need a lot of development. It’s fascinating thinking about how to impart such knowledge and skills on to others, a task which comes with a burden of responsibility that weighs heavily. But we are learning a lot about how to proceed. 

Learning. Developing. Improving. And then learning some more. 

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Sometimes in April

I once wrote a now lost essay in which I tried my best to lay out certain aspects of the Rwandan Genocide and the Sierra Leonean Rebel War side by side in the compare and contrast style enjoyed by academia. A ridiculous challenge of an assignment for sure but my reward would be an incredibly moving research experience. Maybe, given where I have started to spend so much of my time, the impact of that lingers still. And amongst the horror that seemed to intensify with the turn of each page, I learned the names of people who I would now list amongst my “heroes”.

Have you ever heard of Philippe Gaillard? Born in Switzerland in the 50s this literature graduate was head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Rwanda during the genocide. He wouldn’t expect you to recognise his name. Not exactly a huge fan of the spotlight which would inevitably shine his way for a time in 1994, he once commented, “I wish I were never visible again.” His time in Rwanda however would be the first time the ICRC would be active in the midst of a genocide and an estimated 65,000 lives were saved.

How was such a thing done? The ICRC stayed when so many others left and ran a makeshift hospital for the wounded or the "not finished off" as Gaillaird prefers to call them. Only a few of their expatriate staff remained but that was enough to protect the 120 national staff members who were then able to help so many of their fellow Rwandans. As Gaillaird says, “We went, entered and stood our ground, instead of clearing out. We spread out, instead of locking ourselves in. We conversed and, in the hell that was Rwanda, we spoke to all the devils.” The power of dialogue is something Gaillard believes in implicitly, explaining matter-of-factly that, “the best way to save people is to talk with the people who want to kill them.” I cannot imagine the intensity of these conversations, so often at road blocks manned by Interahamwe militiamen like those who had at one point emptied a Red Cross Ambulance and “finished off” all those inside. Gaillard describes a heated exchange he had with one of the genocide’s architects, Colonel Bagosora like this:

I told him, "Colonel, do something to stop the killing. This is absurd. This is suicide." And his answer was -- there are words you never forget -- his answer was, "Listen, sir, if I want tomorrow I can recruit 50,000 more Interahamwe." I took him by the shirt-- I'm 58 kilograms and he must be 115-- I took him by the throat, looked in his eyes and told him, "You will lose the war.”

What Gaillaird shares when he considers the nature of the ICRC’s impact is powerful. Pondering the numbers, he once commented, “Ten thousand people is nothing in a conflict that saw almost a million die in under three months, it is just a millimetre of humanity in kilometres of horror.” But what precious space. Somewhere else he said that, “There is not one millimetre of humanity in a genocide.” And so it was the job of the ICRC to create a millimetre of beauty. As Gaillard himself puts it, “Yes, this is our job, to find beauty, create beauty in the very core of horror”. He invokes Keats, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever." He is quick to re-emphasize the vastness of the horror, the utter barbarism that surrounded everything but there was something crucial about being able to find that tiny space of the still human.

Gaillard tried to create a human space for his staff during the days of killing by reading them poetry – Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell” - at dinner every evening. He said, “You have to find a way to pray.” Talking about the negation of humanity by genocidal horror he comments that, “Whenever you can reduce this negation it is a miracle. And the memory never forgets miracles.” It is these memories now that Gaillard struggles to cope with. The millimetre of beauty which the ICRC and others were able to create. He says now that he will never return to Rwanda. “Not at all because this would remind me of awful things”, he explains. “I don't want to meet again with people we have saved, because it's too strong. It's unbearable. It's too beautiful.”

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