Last week was the most unusual week we have experienced since setting foot on Sierra Leone soil. Last week, you see, we were in Paradise!
Each year the mission plans a retreat to give the couples in the mission a short break from the day to day challenges of living in Sierra Leone. We were grateful to travel to Freetown on Thursday to pick up a few groceries and supplies and then on Friday drive to Tokeh Beach to a resort called “The Place”. It was like stepping out of Sierra Leone into another world. One where there was good food, excellent lodging, a clear, clean beach and most of all, time to spend with the other couples in the mission. It was wonderful and we are so grateful for the kindness of the Clawson’s to arrange for this and for Elder Lynn Pack, the mission financial secretary for making all of the logistical and monetary arrangements.
Stepping into the ocean was a treat and feeling the sand on our bare feet brought back memories of our time in the Philippines. The sunset was nice, although haze on the horizon spoiled what might have become a spectacular memory. The chalets where we stayed were very nice. Extremely cold air conditioning, a spacious bathroom and shower and a nice bedroom with lots of space. The bed was a little hard for our liking, but hey, details. We think after three or four nights we might have gotten used to it! We guess we will never know. I took my Mavic Air drone and captured a few pictures from the air to give a perspective as to just how nice this part of Sierra Leone is.
On Friday night we had dinner together and then on Saturday morning we met for about 2.5 hours and shared some ideas about how we might build the kingdom here more effectively. It was a good discussion and gave us opportunities to learn from each other and feed a few suggestions to President & Sister Clawson to take to the Area Presidency that we think might be helpful based on our experiences here in Sierra Leone. As couples, our perspectives are that we will always choose obedience first and then share concerns later in case those concerns might be helpful in the future. President and Sister Clawson will be going to a Mission Leadership meeting in Ghana this week so the timing was good. By about 1:15 pm we were back on the road headed to Kenema. We always love coming “home”.
Because of the retreat, it was a short week for us. On Monday afternoon we met with the IDA Branch in a family history branch activity. This is something we worked on with Mariama Gendemeh and the IDA Elders at the time, Elder Hadlock and Elder Winters. At the last transfer, the Zone Leaders swapped with the IDA Elders. So the Zone Leaders now have IDA and Elder Hadlock and Elder Winters have Burma. With that change we lost some of the transition on this activity. Fortunately we had all written down our assignments and everyone came prepared. We first showed a slowed-down version of the video titled “The Promised Blessings of Family History” and then we went through the 11 blessings that Elder Renlund shared in his April 2018 talk titled “Family History and Temple Work: Sealing and Healing”
The District Family History consultant, Tobechi Inmpey took a few minutes and went over technical details on submitting names. Mariama then handed out pedigree charts and we spent about 30 minutes helping people fill out their own names and the names of the their parents. Some went further with grandparents. President Samai (the branch president) went around the room and wrote down the names of those who were there and made note of those who wanted help to input these names into FamilySearch.org.
We then did something that we have not seen at any activity we have attended since arriving. We actually played a game! LaDawn had prepared 50 Family History BINGO cards with family history terms in each box. We bought some beans and we were set. For the primary aged children, she made a matching game. Both were huge hits! It was so fun to see the people laughing and having such a great time. We have mentioned before that activities here are often more like a sacrament meeting than what we think of as a ward activity back home. We were happy to show them something new. Who knew that getting a “Bingo” or a “match” could be so much fun!
After the Family History event we made a quick stop at home and then drove over to OTC (Opportunity Training Center) where we had an appointment with Eku. We watched two general conference talks with him. The first was President Nelson’s talk from Priesthood and the second was Sister Eubank’s talk from Sunday morning. He loved both of them. He shared with us that he is no longer allowed to read in the Jehovah Witnesses worship meeting because according to them, “he is not progressing spiritually” and is not on track to become an elder. Apparently this is linked to how much time one spends proselyting door to door. We love this dear man and wondered how anyone could be so blind as to not realize what a spiritual giant he is already. When one gauges spirituality on physical activities and effort rather than spiritual insights and sensitivity, they will always get it wrong.
On Tuesday morning we took Abass Kamara and President Samuel Fomba to Bo to receive their patriarchal blessings from Brother Patrick Berewa. Abass will leave on his mission next week and President Fomba (new 1st counselor in the district presidency) has never been able to receive his own blessing. It was a joy to be with both of these good men and to again be with Brother Berewa.
In the afternoon I met with President Paul Aruna (2nd counselor in the district presidency) and Tobechi Inmpey (assistant clerk) and the zone leaders. Our purpose was to try to fix the boundaries that are currently showing on ChurchofJesusChrist.org for the district in an effort to align them more accurately with what they are known to be here. After talking through the challenge for a couple of hours, we concluded that it was going to be a significant undertaking. We were sitting on a bench under a palm tree at the district center and the internet thru our MIFI there was just not very good. Plus it was not conducive to drawing lines on a map with a computer. So we parted with the agreement to meet at our apartment at 6 pm. In the meantime President Clawson and President Cobinah had spoken and turns out that President Clawson had already done all of this work last year and had even drawn the boundaries on a map to submit to the church headquarters. What a relief! There are a few tweaks that need to be made but the bulk of the work is done. President Clawson and others in the district had driven all of the roads and identified where the boundaries were / should be and then “pinned” points along those boundaries on google maps so he could identify them later. There tends to be more members here than there should be that are not attending their geographical unit. Part of the effort to become a stake is to make progress in having people attend their proper branch. This work is part of that process. It is exciting part of this phase of the journey!
On Wednesday we spent the entire day working on a computer program to better manage the Liahona subscriptions here in Sierra Leone. This effort has fallen on the mission in the past and it has become a considerable burden. President and Sister Clawson have been using an excel spreadsheet to manage these constantly “moving” subscriptions (expirations, renewals, new subscriptions, changes in addresses, names, and phone numbers). Sister Clawson would have to devote 2-3 days a month just to get the labels printed and placed onto each magazine and then boxed up by stake, district, ward and branch. And this is with having a member come in and provide assistance! President Clawson had done some previous work to identify an online solution and I told him I would be happy to take a look. He had spoken with a company called SimpleCirc and he felt like their program might work for us. They are publishers and it looks like they may have created their own solution to manage their subscriptions and then decided to sell it. The price is $99/month which I thought was lot of money. The Clawson’s have spent so much time on this that $99/month seemed like a bargain to them. My first thought was we could do something either using Google Docs or perhaps a better design for a spreadsheet. I started working on it and even engaged our son Weston in creating a solution. The more we got into it though the more obvious the significance of the challenge.
I finally decided to go back and talk to SimpleCirc. We arranged a demo on Tuesday evening and we really liked what we saw. On Wednesday we spent all day playing with it and understanding what it could do and what it couldn’t do. There were a number of issues that were not ideal. They didn’t support Sierra Leone’s currency, their duplicate check depended on a combination of name, address and zip code (we do not use the latter two) and we were having a hard time figuring out how to get the expiration date right. I kept sending the guy question after question and he kept answering them – well sort of at least. I was about to conclude that it just wasn’t worth $99/month given the issues we were finding when he came back with this: “I have good news and I have bad news. The bad news is I have spoken to the developer and we cannot add Leones as a currency. The good news is that we are willing to let you use the program for free into perpetuity”. Now that got our interest! Since then we have spent hours upon hours understanding the program and more importantly cleansing the data before importing it – and the data did need some cleansing. Multiple people had entered data and didn’t always understand what Sister Clawson tried to teach them. The good news is that we now have the data in the online database, we have figured out how to export mailing labels to import into Word to print Avery 5160 labels, we have developed a work around for the duplicate check and the best part is that it is free forever!
Thursday morning we left at 8:30 am and made our way to Bo where we met with the Moomey’s and drove “together” in two separate vehicles. When we got to Waterloo, they stopped to make some contacts with hospitals in the area to check out the level of medical care and expertise in case our missionaries might need medical attention. We on the other hand drove to the Lumpa apartment and added an additional 150 Watt Solar panel to their existing array so that their installation would be the same as the other apartments. We then made our way to the mission home and that evening enjoyed a delicious meal that Sister Clawson had prepared. We had a chance to talk to the Clawson’s about our progress on the database and then spent some time after dinner working on it some more
Perhaps the greatest highlight of the day was the graduation of our youngest daughter from BYU. Both MiCayla and her husband Lincoln walked, but Lincoln will have one more semester following his internship this summer with Facebook. We are so proud of both of them! We have had children at BYU since 1999 with the exception of an 18 month period when our oldest daughter Mauren served a mission in 2002-2003 and the fall semester of 2008 when Garen left on his mission and Weston was not yet home. Other than that we have had someone there year-round for 20 years. How we love BYU and the very valuable degrees our children have worked very hard to receive.
We have already talked about our amazing Friday and Saturday.
On Sunday we attended the Burma Branch because we still needed to gather their information for their 2018 branch history. Their branch historian is Musa Amara and we are very impressed. It wasn’t until the 2nd half of the year that he really got started on the history, but it is far and away the best we have seen throughout the district. To keep the histories consistent we went through the sacrament meeting announcements for the full year, then took what Musa had put together and created a digital copy of it and placed it in a PDF. We had some pictures we had taken of events in the branch and they had a number of pictures on their bulletin board from last year so we took pictures of them. As of now we only have Kailahun Branch remaining and they will work on finishing it up tomorrow. It will be good to have this done and we hope we have created a template that Brother Bundu (District “high” Councilor) can use to pull it all together next year when we are no longer here.
While there we also went over the items that need correction in the branch in order to enter them into the Facility Incident Reporting tool (FIR). We had done this with President Konneh (branch president) back in October, but the FM Group marked them all as duplicate and closed them without taking any action. When Elder Imo was here for District Conference two weeks ago (he is the Area FM Manager), he discovered that this had happened and made sure that the FM Manager here in Salone understood that it will not happen again. The good news is that we hope to make some real progress now, the bad news is that we have to go back and re-input everything. A small price to pay if it actually works!
From Burma we went over to Simbeck and did the same thing with the items needing attention in the branch that had been closed to confirm if anything else needed to be reported. While there we drove a few chairs over to President Foday’s home where they were holding the 40 day “feast” for his family to honor his mother who passed away in March. We were fortunate enough to meet several of his brothers and their wives as well as some aunts and uncles. Such a warm and inviting family.
From there we came back home and worked on branch histories and inputting issues into FIR. About 3 pm a group set up some speakers and a small area for “dancing” about 50 yards outside of our compound. The speakers were aimed towards us and as they started they cranked it up so loud LaDawn and I could not even speak to each other inside our apartment. The “music” was very unsettling as the beat was heavy and the rhythm was repetitive and depressing. We have suffered all afternoon with it, finally pulling out our noise cancelling headphones and listening to alternative sabbath day quality music and media – which helped a lot It is now almost 11 pm and it is still going. (It ended up going until 1 am). To make matters worse there is a man on a microphone nearly yelling into it. Sleep is hopeless until it stops. I went over once and asked them to turn it down….which they did for at least a little while. Our sadest reflection is that the people that are out there are also being brought down by that music, and they don’t even realize it. We have said it before, Satan has his hooks in many of the people here and he does is not giving up easily even as more and more of them choose light over darkness.
Often paradise is in the eye of the beholder. One man’s paradise may be another man’s nightmare. But for us this week, we experienced a small taste of what Sierra Leone could be. To see that kind of development, even on a small scale gives us hope that great things are still ahead for this country. There is much work to do.
There is yet another paradise that we yearn for, work for, pray for and have faith for. It is the paradise of God. Eternal life with Heavenly Father in his heavenly kingdom where we can continue to progress to become more like him throughout eternity. His true church has been restored to the earth through a prophet of God. We continue to have living prophets and apostles on the earth today. How we joy in the knowledge and testimonies we have of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are grateful to be here at this time with this people as we work hand in hand to help make Sierra Leone into a paradise where Zion can flourish and the people can prosper as they come to know and keep the commandments of God.