It has been fun for us as we have gone on walks around Kenema to come across t-shirts from familiar places. For example, one day we met a young man wearing a tank top from Idaho Falls Parks and Recreation. This of course from Idaho Falls, Idaho not far from where both LaDawn and I grew up. I wish I would have taken a picture. Another day were driving down Maxwell Khobe street where the main market is located and saw a young woman wearing a BYU Cougar t-shirt. I was so excited I flashed her a thumbs up and I am sure she is still wondering to this day who that guy was in the pickup truck and why he was so excited. As an aside, the street is called Maxwell Khobe after a brigadier general with the same name. Brigadier General Khobe was a Nigerian sent to Sierra Leone as part of the West Africa peace-keeping force during the civil war. He was hailed as a hero here for his leadership and courage. He was a deeply religious man and greatly respected by his troops. “Wherever he went, the troops seeing him surged forward and just kept going.” (From an article titled “Khobe, the Brave: A Tribute to ECOMOG hero Brig. Gen Maxwell Khobe” by Ben Asante).
Anyway back to t-shirts. A few weeks ago we saw a BYU-Idaho t-shirt. It was the second time we had seen the same guy wearing this shirt. This time I had the presence of mind to snap a picture. This past week, we passed a man wearing a Boise State jersey and once again I quickly pulled my phone and snapped a quick pic. Our son-in-law, Brian Conley, grew up in Boise and follows the Broncos, so I sent the picture to him. He immediately texted me back and told me it was Ian Johnson’s jersey (who knew?) and that he wished he had that shirt! Well, if only I had known earlier…..It is fun to watch for familiar schools as we walk and drive the roads here. One never knows what might be found. But I have to admit, my favorite t-shirt is one that we saw about a month ago. A young boy carrying a bucket was wearing it and so I walked up right behind him and snapped a picture of the words written on the back without him even knowing that I had done it. What caused me to engage in such stealth maneuvers? It was a quote from Zig Ziglar and it just seemed so appropriate to the time and the place. “If it doesn’t challenge
you, it won’t change you”. Well I can tell you that we are learning first hand the wisdom of these words. If you have been reading this blog for very long you can pick out some of the challenges that we face here. Food selection, weather, plumbing, electricity, roads, internet, …. Nothing earth shattering and certainly nothing life threatening, but I will say that living in this environment with these wonderful people tends to teach one charity at a completely different level. The degree of gratitude we feel is another example. Our gratitude is not that we live in America in a land of plenty, but that we have been blessed with the gospel of Jesus Christ for generations. It has influenced our children and our grandchildren and we expect that influence to continue.
On Monday evening we continued the pattern of meeting with young single adults at one of the branches. This week it was with Nyandeyama Branch. Unfortunately the rain hit at the wrong time and discouraged all but 6 young men and the two sister missionaries from attending. Despite the difficult weather, we pressed on and had a wonderful evening. In attendance were Moses, Dass, Max, Ansu, Mohammed, Augustine, Sister Achi and Sister Gramu. LaDawn had made red velvet cupcakes with chocolate icing. Yum!
On Tuesday we made some visits with Alfonso Bockerie. He is the Elders Quorum
President in the Kenema Central branch and works as one of our guards. We went out and visited Br. Joseph Pessima and his wife Watta. Joseph works as a principal of a Muslim primary school where he had previously been a teacher. Apparently the parents were not happy with the existing principal so they forced her out and then asked Joseph to take her place. It is easy to see why. Joseph is bright, articulate and very hard-working. Unfortunately the government has not yet certified the school nor “verified” the teachers so he is not getting paid. He is hopeful this will be resolved soon. This is all too common here. The government did a physical verification of all teachers in the country, but there were 7,761 teachers who did not register. Now the government is in the process of either verifying these unregistered teachers or deleting them from the payroll. Some believe that many of these teachers do not exist and that the money is going into the pockets of administrators. I do not know whether any of that is true, only that many of the teachers here are awaiting verification. This has been going on for at least 2+ years. In any case we had a wonderful visit with Joseph and Watta. Because the school is a Muslim School they have school on Sundays and since school just started he had missed church two weeks in a row as he struggled to get everything up and running for the new school year. He promised that he would now be back to church every week, and it was good to know that he began to fulfill that promise yesterday. We also visited Alfonso’s wife Alice. She is a convert of less than a year and a delightful woman. She and Alfonso married in 2001 and Alfonso joined the church in 2015. Alice however took an additional 2 years. I asked her why she decided to join the church. Her response was priceless “When you people preach to me…..!”. She simply said that the gospel has changed her and that was not something she had expected. I know they are both looking forward to being sealed for time and eternity in the Ghana Temple once Alice has been a member for more than a year.
On Wednesday we met with Brother Lawrence Ene, the District Councilman over Family History. We are interested in helping to move the work forward and in order to do so now have access to a mifi with 30 days of unlimited internet. While the network is inconsistent, especially when it rains, the rest of the time when it works it is wonderful. Our hope is to use this internet access to help move the work of Family History forward. Br. Ene suggested we start with IDA Branch where the District Family History Consultant (Tobechi Inmpey) is a member and where they also have a Branch Family History consultant who regularly holds classes. On Sunday we visited the branch, spoke with Tobechi and visited the class taught by Mariama Gendemeh. She did an excellent job. One of the sisters in the class related a story about her grandmother who she loved very much. After she joined the church (her family is all Muslim), she had a dream one night and her grandmother came to her and told her how happy she was for her. This brought her great peace and was just more evidence that her decision to become a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was right. As she has now become engaged in family history, she understands even better why she needs to prepare the information so her grandmother can receive these same blessings on the other side of the veil.
On Thursday we may have had the most unique experience since arriving here in Kenema. We were on our way to visit more members with Alfonso Bockerie when we received a call from President Martin Foday of the Simbeck Branch who asked us to come and “rescue” them. I wasn’t sure what he was saying as he was speaking very fast but we had him on speakerphone and LaDawn understood that someone had died. So we went in the general direction of his instructions and met them on the road. It was essentially a funeral procession of sorts with two “buses” and a pickup truck. The person who had died was the 27 year old daughter of a member of the Simbeck branch. Her name was Nancy. She had been investigating the church but had been quite ill for a number of months. She had passed away Wednesday evening. Our understanding is that even here in Sierra Leone it is expensive to die, and when families have very little money they do everything they can to provide a dignified burial for the deceased. This was no exception. Only the very wealthy can afford embalming, so when Nancy passed away, her body stayed in the home for 24 hours where they prepared it for burial. She was wrapped in what appeared to be white sheets. They borrowed a gurney and hired a truck and put the body on the gurney and in the back of the truck. Friends and family piled in the cab and around the body in the back of the truck. Others were in the buses. Everything was so full, that President Foday was asking for help in taking some of the members of the branch out to the burial site in a village called Tissor.
The village is 3-4 miles northeast of Kenema off the road and into what the Africans would consider the “bush”. The scenery was absolutely gorgeous. We parked in one village and then walked about a half of mile into where the cemetery was located. I was unprepared for what we saw. The cemetery was literally a clearing in a forest with mounds where people where buried. There were no markers, only a stick or branch stuck in the ground at the head of the mound. My guess is that within a couple of years the forest will overrun the graves and the location of any specific individual will be lost. There were two grave areas with cement around them, and one with a cement top. But no headstones.The burial hole had been dug by friends. It was about 4 feet deep. President Phillip Braime, the first counselor in the District Presidency gave a short talk on life, the plan of salvation and the resurrection and then President Foday dedicated the grave. Nancy’s
father, not a member of our church, also said a few words and sang what sounded like a Mende tribal song. Everything was done with such great respect and dignity. Surely we were on holy ground. As they removed the body from the gurney, friends lowered it into the hole, putting alongside one of the walls of the hole. They then used sticks (about 4 feet long) which had been previously gathered and prepared to essentially make a lean-to over the body from the bottom of the hole opposite the body to near the top of the side where the body was laid. They then covered the sticks with large-leafed vines. On top of that they placed the dirt from the hole. It was done in such a way that very little dirt if any fell on the wrapped body. I am also thinking that the sticks would protect the body from any wild animals that might try to dig it up (although there was no evidence of that in any of the other graves). Sisters from the ward began singing hymns and slowly family and friends left the gravesite and returned to the home of the family where a large crowd had gathered for a meal. It was an amazing experience to be a small part of that event.
During the week I had been overseeing an upgrade to the solar installation at the sisters apartment next door. Each day after they would leave they would leave the keys with us and then when the solar guy came I would go over with them while they worked. If I was unable to be there, I had one of our young single adults that I trust go over with them. Finally on Friday we finished the installation. The goal is to have the Sisters’ apartment 100% powered by solar. We bought 4 DC fans and a DC freezer, We also installed all new LED lighting and placed an AC receptacle powered by a 1000w inverter near their table to charge their phones, plug in a keyboard and iron their clothes. The goal is to eliminate the need for both national power (which is inconsistent) and the need for a generator (expensive to run and maintain). We are going to see how this works for the sister missionaries and then President Clawson will determine if he wants to extend this to other apartments. We had a small problem Friday night where a wire shorted due to a bad connection but we got that fixed on Saturday and added a breaker as part of a standard installation and now everything seems to be running well. I have asked the sisters to not use national power or their generator for a month and to let me know if it worked flawlessly for them.
Also on Friday we again went with Alfonso to find a recent convert who had not been to church for a couple of weeks. The man we were looking for named Kemokai Sulaiman. Alfonso did some pretty effective detective work and along with some help from his branch president who had made some phone calls, we eventually found him. It took us about 1.5 hours and stops at two different schools to find him. Alfonso was relentless. It was so good to meet this very good man. Another example of a teacher who is waiting to be verified so he can begin to receive pay for his work. Just like Brother Pessima, Br. Suaiman is articulate, bright and committed to his work as a teacher. He too was at church yesterday with his family. The power of a ministering visit!
On Saturday we participated with President Cobinah in training the Hangha Road and Kpayama Branch Presidency, Relief Society and Elders Quorum on how to get started with the ministering program of the church. At Hangha Road we did not have anyone from the Elders Quorum and only the Relief Society President, but decided to press forward knowing we would still need to train the Elders Quorum later. Before we started President Cobinah talked about how important it is for the leadership of the branch to provide strong roots so that as the branch (represented by a tree he had drawn) grew, the roots would be sufficient to support the tree. It was an amazing lesson on leadership. On Sunday we attended Hangha Road’s branch council and the branch president repeated the lesson to the entire council that President Cobinah had taught the day before. I was impressed! Getting the ministering program working here is the top priority for the District Presidency right now and we will continue to train each of the branches on how to get started. There are some excellent ministering videos on ministering.lds.org, but the people talk too fast for the saints here to understand them. So we downloaded the videos and I brought them into Final Cut Pro and slowed them down 25% so that the words are easier to differentiate. In the case of the role plays on ministering interviews, I even transcribed the script so that the leaders could use it later as a reminder what they had learned.
On Sunday we attended the primary program at Hangha road and then traveled to IDA branch to meet with Tobechi as mentioned above. We then came back to the branch council meeting at Hangha Road. Later that afternoon we went over to the branch next door (Nyandeyama) and I met with the branch president and did a walk through of the building with him and his branch clerk and made a list of the things that need attention. All in all it was a busy, but wonderful Sabbath day.
Okay, back now to the wisdom of t-shirts. I mentioned earlier some of the things we are challenged with, but it is nothing compared to the challenges faced by the good people of Sierra Leone. Is it changing them? Yes!. We love to see children playing and laughing and waving hi to us. We love to great the men and the women on the street on their way to finding enough work or food to survive another day. 99 out of 100 of these people will smile and greet us back. As difficult as their lives are, they don’t complain about what they don’t have, they just make do with what they do have. Sierra Leone is changing. It is slow, but it is happening. As the church grows stronger here and the members are faithful to the commandments of God, this land will be blessed and prospered. The people are prepared and ready for change. They have been challenged and they have been changed. We welcome that same experience in our own lives.