In the government district of Kenema, there are 739 schools. 42 pre-primary (kindergarten), 605 primaries (elementary), 73 junior secondary schools (junior high or middle schools) and 19 senior secondary (high school). The district is much larger than the city, with a population of almost half a million (the city is just over 200k). In asking a few people familiar with education in Kenema, they estimate that 70% of these schools are here in Kenema City. In Sierra Leone, it is legally required for all children from six years to attend primary school and three years in junior secondary school, which equates to a 9thgrade education in the U.S. Unfortunately, a shortage of schools and teachers has made implementation of this policy impossible and as I have mentioned before we have many teachers here who are awaiting verification so they can get paid, and quite a few new schools that are awaiting government certification. This too creates barriers in the education process. Also, getting quality teachers out in the villages is an even greater challenge. In 2010, a ministry of education survey reported that 55% of the schools in the country were in need of repairs and another 38% did not have functioning toilets. While I am confident that these numbers have improved, from what we can see the need for further improvement is significant. Literacy rates in Sierra Leone are below 50%. All of these education woes were multiplied when, during the Ebola outbreak, schools in Kenema were completely shut down between July 2014 and April 2015. It is not uncommon for our young single adults between the ages of 19-23 to still be in high school. We have not found a single school with electricity. Many of the rooms have insufficient natural light and they get quite warm during mid-day. Chalkboards and desks are substandard and it is easy to see why education levels here, even for those who graduate high school are lacking.
During this past week, we have been in the middle of work being done by LDS Charities to improve schools through the donation of desks as well as the work being done by the Restored Church of Jesus Christ to improve literacy in Africa. Needless to say, it has been a very rewarding few days.
On Wednesday evening, Elder & Sister Evans, the humanitarian couple assigned to Sierra Leone came from Freetown and stayed with us for three days. It was so wonderful to have them here. We ran together, we ate together, we laughed together and we rejoiced together! On Thursday, the handover of the desks funded by LDS Charities and made locally to the community began. This was done at one of the beneficiary schools, a primary school run by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. It was a wonderful ceremony presided over by city councilmen and administrators from each of the schools. Joseph Aruna, the district councilman responsible for Public Affairs was the emcee. He did a wonderful job. The plea from the city and district administrators was simply to do more, especially for the schools in the villages. One of the highlights was the singing of a song by the students thanking the church for
the donations. Our hearts swelled with joy! Sister Evans gave some brief, but very moving comments about how these desks are the result of members of our church all over the world, each giving a little of their money to that their brothers and sisters in Kenema might have a better experience at school. It was definitely one of the highlights of our time here. From there we went over to the United Methodist Church secondary school where an additional 40 desks were being donated. We have several of our Kenema District priesthood leaders who work there as teachers and it was good to see them as well.
On Friday, Melissa Hawkley and Dempsey Wheelock arrived. They are part of the team rolling out the new materials associated with the church’s literacy program. They came
to do some training as well as introduce the newer materials that will be used to help those who want to learn to read and write. Most of Friday was spent working through the logistics of how a program might be rolled out in preparation for a trial run at the IDA Branch on Sunday. Saturday afternoon we spent 3 hours along with 11 others being trained by Melissa and Dempsey on how to facilitate a literacy assessment. We did this by experiencing it ourselves as Melissa facilitated us through the process. The idea was that on Sunday we would each facilitate a “family group” during the second hour of church at the IDA Branch. The whole branch would participate.
So, on Sunday we attended IDA’s sacrament meeting. Three very solid talks on Faith, Repentance and Baptism. During the second hour, family households met together.
Where we had single members, we asked them to join an existing family circle. I was fortunate to facilitate the circle of the Jusu Family. Tamba and Massa are the parents. And though they have only one biological child, they have adopted another and they have 7 others who live with them and for whom they have taken financial responsibility. I stand in awe of the charity of this family. All of these children are relatives and range from about 5 to 20. Br. Jusu is a teacher and serves as the Elders Quorum President in the branch. They are a remarkable unconventional family.
The purpose of the assessment is to better understand who in the branch needs help with learning to read and write. The way it is done is magnificent. For this exercise, each person in the group is given a sheet of paper with a picture on it (there are 8 different pictures) along with the same scripture. In this case, the scripture was from 3rdNephi 17:3: “Therefore, go ye unto your homes, and ponder upon the things which I have said, and ask of the Father, in my name, that ye may understand, and prepare your minds for the morrow, and I come unto you again.” We discussed the pictures (individuals and families all reading and studying the scriptures) and then began to talk about the scripture, the context in which it was given, who spoke the words and what it means for us. This created a wonderful discussion in this little family about what they might do to improve gospel learning in their home. They each drew pictures or wrote words about what they might do differently. It was marvelous to see the Spirit of the Lord work in each of their lives as they pondered on this question and began to create a plan. As we finished, the father said he would now begin to have a family devotional every morning with all of the children before they each go their separate ways. So, while the purpose was to access literacy, the result was really a commitment to improve gospel learning in the home. In the Jesu family, everyone could read and write. For the little children, they were all in school and well on their way to literacy. But this was not the case in all of the groups. There were members of the branch who want desperately to learn to read so they can read the scriptures each day. This exercise just brought that desire to the forefront. At the end, a few of them were given
opportunities to voice what they learned during the assessment and what they want to learn in the future. One of the other benefits of the assessment is that it is also easy to see who might be good literacy helpers and teachers for the learners. At the conclusion of the meeting, the branch president had a list of potential learners, helpers and teachers. A significant accomplishment considering there were over 100 who attended. It was a wonderful event.
On Sunday evening, Melissa trained LaDawn, me, President & Sister Cobinah and President Samai (IDA) how to instruct a literacy class. It was a two hour meeting where Melissa walked us through a lesson herself and then we each took a piece of another lesson and walked through it. This training will help us to train the teachers in the other branches as the new materials are received and the program is reenergized here in the Kenema District.
Other Weekly Highlights:
On Monday night, we went to Hangha Road branch and there taught our final first round of young single adult family home evenings on the Book of Mormon. We had 17 people in attendance, as well as a rich spirit of love and gospel learning. At the end, LaDawn gave out cupcakes she had made earlier in the day and everyone went home happy.
On Tuesday evening, Mr. Phillip Bunduka came to our home and spoke to us about the questions he is mulling over as he has been investigating the church. I mentioned Mr. Bunduka in an earlier post, as he is the father of the young man that washes our truck each week. They had a daughter who was a musician that worked with the current President, Maada Bio prior to the election. She was involved in an accident in Liberia and was killed and this saddened not only the family, but the president to be as well. Once elected, President Bio mentioned to Phillip that he might have a job for him in his administration. Recently he received a call about a possible position and it would take him away from home for maybe 2 weeks at a time. He was concerned about how he could be a member of the church if he could not be at church each week. We talked through his concern. With the recent announcement by President Nelson of the church becoming more of a “home centered, church supported” organization, his question was easily answered for anyone who may not always be able to be at home in his branch. Mr. Bunduka continues to mull over his decision about his future and indicated he would soon let us know what he decides.
On Wednesday, we arose early and took the Zone Leaders and Sister Gramu (Sister Trainlng Leader) to Bo to catch a ride to Freetown for the Mission Leader Council meeting. We were back home by 9 am. I had promised the District Clerk I would help him move the District Clerk office from the Nyandeyama building (building that used to function as the District Center) up to the new District Center in Gombu. We had returned from Bo and stopped at Choithram’s “supermarket” to buy a few things and were on our way home when the branch clerk of Simbeck called and said the fan we had had repaired was not working. I told him we would come by and pick it up and to be standing out on the curb so we would not have to stop and come into the building. He was there as promised, put the fan in the back of the pickup and we headed down the road to turnaround and head back home. Just as I was preparing to turn into a driveway to turnaround, I saw an Okada driver with a passenger coming towards me, but felt comfortable I would have plenty of time to turn. Well, just as I completed the turn, I heard a wheel lock up and a bike go down. Fortunately, he did not hit the truck and there was only minor damage to the bike and the rider had only a few scrapes on his leg. Knowing how this works, (the Okada man always expects the white-faced man in the truck to “settle it” with money) I was not happy. I think what happened was the bike driver was not paying attention. When he looked up, he saw me turning and instead of gently going around me, he slammed on his brakes. I did not feel at fault, but those on the bike and the gathering crowd of bike riders clearly felt I was to blame. I told them I was happy to go to the police to let them settle it (I was especially confident after having met the police chief the previous week). They did not like that. Fortunately, one of our district councilman, Joseph Aruna drove by just after it happened, and he managed to resolve it with the driver after about 15 minutes. He paid Le 20,000 each to the bike driver and the scraped-up rider and told me I could go. I later paid him back. After leaving the scene and making our way home, I felt frustrated with my own attitude when it occurred. While I am still not sure what I should have done, I was certainly grateful for Joseph’s help, as he literally saved me from the situation and my own frustration. What I do know is that I really don’t want to be involved in any more accidents involving Okadas!
On Friday morning we were able to take Elder and Sister Evans over to OTC to meet Eku and get familiar with the work they are doing. LDS Charities looks for organization’s like OTC to find ways to help them further their work. It was wonderful to watch Eku’s enthusiasm as he showed them (and us) around OTC one more time. Hopefully there will be some mutually beneficial projects come out of it for next year. Speaking of Eku, after posting the blog last week, Eku called and said he wanted to share his story of how he gained his mobility. I have updated last week’s post with that information, so if you enjoyed reading his story, you might want to go back and take a peak. Friday was a big day in Kenema for another reason. The recently elected president of the country made his first official post election visit to Kenema. The people here overwhelmingly voted for him so it was a bit crazy on Friday as people lined the streets to welcome him.
The last thing I will mention is some excellent welfare training that Elder and Sister Evans presented to the district branch presidents, relief society presidents and elders quorum presidents. It was very similar to what we had done for the Simbeck Branch a month or so ago, but more comprehensive in covering a few other topics. Elder and Sister Evans did a great job and the training was well received. The literacy team provided lunch and we then went into the facilitator training that I mentioned earlier. The only disadvantage of the welfare training is that it occurred at exactly the same time as the baptism of another OTC polio victims baptism.
With the district open house last week and the work of LDS Charities this week, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has received much favorable press in Kenema for the work it is doing. We are so happy to be a very small part of the effort.