Death is all too common here in Sierra Leone. This was brought home in a big way this week as we were asked to help carry the body of a 12-year-old girl who had mysteriously died in her sleep, from her home to the cemetery in the back of our truck. Kadie Feika was an active vivacious young woman, looking forward to her 13thbirthday. She lived with her aunt here in Kenema to have access to education.
Her family lives in a village 12 miles from Daru (a small town further east of Kenema). We cannot imagine the shock of those parents receiving a phone call saying “your daughter is dead”. The family is Muslim and the burial was a simple affair. All of the women stayed back at the trailhead where we stopped the vehicles. The unmarked gravesite was about 150 yards into a tropical forest 4 miles south of Kenema in a small village not far from the Moa River.
As I walked on the small path to where she was buried, I could see numerous mounds, now overgrown by the forest, where others have been buried. None of the graves are marked. The men carried her in a cloth and gently laid her in the hole, removing the cloth as they did so. The hole was dug with precision and care, with “shelves” on both ends so they could lay perfectly cut trimmed tree poles about 3” in diameter on the “shelves” without coming in contact with the body. They covered that in small branches of trees with green leaves attached to keep dirt from covering the body as they filled the hole with soil, forming a mound.
Muslim prayers were offered with very few words spoken outside of the prayers. The whole process took about 15-20 minutes. It was a grim reminder that death here is no respecter of age, gender or geography.
The World Health Organization published health and mortality rate statistics for Sierra Leone in 2018. To bring the point home about how common death is here, we thought we would share just a few statistics.
- 1.36% of live births end with the mother dying during childbirth.
- Only 60% of births are attended by trained professionals
- 11% of children born die before the age of 5
- 30% of the population is at risk of malaria (the most common cause of sickness and death)
- 3% of the population has tuberculosis
- 12.5% of adolescent girls between the ages of 15-19 have given birth
- Life expectancy at birth is between 53-54 years of age
- Healthy life expectancy at birth is 48 years of age
So much of the death and health risks could be eliminated with education, better sanitation, and better medical care. Raising the people out of poverty through industry and opportunity will be the key to combating the low life expectancy. This will require a significant reduction in corruption at all levels of government. When people get sick they often cannot afford to get proper medical care. Often doctors themselves lack equipment and deep medical knowledge. We can see things are improving, but it is still too slow.
On Monday, we were still fully engaged in Literacy. We met at the Dauda Town branch building and trained all of the teachers in the district who have been called except for 2 who were unable to attend.
The training was based on a wonderful new Teacher Training Guide and new Teacher Training workbook. Cason and Melissa did the training, using various literacy videos that were filmed during their trip to Ghana and Sierra Leone last November. Sister Bingham participated in the training as if she were a teacher, learning alongside everyone else. The day was long, starting at 9 am and ending at 4 pm, but very helpful in terms of giving the teachers a full understanding of their role, the materials, and how to help the learners progress.
Juliet Hawa Gbanie, a member in Bo who often caters meals for the mission was kind enough to agree to cater lunch for all of us. She made her “famous” Juliet’s Stew. With Brother & Sister Bingham here Melissa wanted to make sure that the food was both good and safe. Juliet’s food was both of those things, although good does not do justice to the delicious flavor of her stew. Elder & Sister Moomey kindly agreed to be her transportation to get her and the from Bo to Kenema and then back to Bo. The lunch was definitely just one more highlight of the day!
After completing the training, we came back home and began to worry about how we might get fuel for the generator and the truck. On the way to Dauda Town that morning we dropped by the Total Station and they were out of both Diesel and Petrol (gasoline). We had already heard there was a shortage in both Freetown and Bo, especially of Petrol. There was a very long line of Okada’s lined up at the NP Fuel Station as well. We stopped to ask if they had diesel and their reply was the same as Total’s. It was actually a bit of a fuel scare. Our truck was empty and we were going to Tongo the next day. We had two Gerry Cans of Diesel left, so we put one in the truck and saved the other for the generator (which was also near empty). We called President Cobinah to see if he knew where we might get diesel. He made a few calls and indicated that someone told him Total now had diesel. Brother Bingham and I loaded up the Gerry cans and headed to the station. We were relieved to find out that indeed while there was no Petrol, they did have diesel. We filled up the truck and the Gerry cans and headed back home, relieved to know we would have enough fuel to go to and from Tongo the next day as well as run the generator to cool down the house.
Monday was Sister Bingham’s birthday, so after dinner we had cake and ice cream. LaDawn made a chocolate box cake we had purchased and then used Sister Moomey’s chocolate icing recipe to top it. She also added a few sprinkles to give is some color and extra love. We repurposed the Happy Birthday banner our kids sent for LaDawn’s birthday last year and we had all the makings of an official birthday celebration. The cake and ice cream were a special treat!
On Tuesday we left for Tongo about 10:30 am and arrived just after noon. We first went to John Charles home where Sister Bingham was able to meet John and his mom Kadie as well as Rebecca, Grace and Abdulai.
It was such a beautiful setting there under the mango tree. Sister Messie (the world’s greatest member missionary) met us there and Adama, one of our progressing investigators, was also there. It was a nice moment.
From there we went over to the chapel and Sister Messie, with some help from Melissa, led a gospel literacy discussion. We had 8 learners in attendance. It was so fun to see how exciting it was for some to even write a simple word like “book”. There is no better place for gospel literacy to flourish than Tongo. The need is great!
By the time we got back into Kenema, the rain had begun to fall. We had planned to attend Home Evening with Charles and his family, but worried about the rain. I called him and he said it wasn’t raining at his home, even though it was raining at our apartment. We knew we couldn’t let the family down, so we piled into the trucks and made our way over to their home.
By the time we arrived, it had started sprinkling again so we all crowded onto their tiny porch and participated in a marvelous lesson that Charles taught from Gospel Literacy Book 3 about the sacrament and the covenants we make. He was amazing. To think that a year ago he could not read a single word and to see him now teaching his family is nothing short of a miracle.
At the end of the lesson, Sister Bingham taught them “Button Button, who’s got the Button?”. They loved it and caught on extremely quickly. I think they would have played it all night had we not insisted that we needed to leave. Sister Bingham left the American nickel that she provided for the game so they could play again and again. We are sure they will!
Wednesday was a bit of a rest day. We had all been going, going, going for the past 5 days – we knew we were tired – and figured all of us could use some down-time. The Bingham’s spent the morning at the Paloma Hotel and we were at our apartment. We had a chance to go for a walk in the morning, which we really appreciated. Also in the morning, Dennis Samai came over and he entered some new Liahona subscriptions into the database and then we sent a report of all the subscribers in to Sister Clawson at Ghana’s request that she then forwarded on to them. At 2 pm, the Bingham’s came over and Sister Bingham, Melissa and Cason did some planning and debriefing in preparation for their planned events in Bo and Kissy (Freetown).
At 5:00 pm, we all went over to the Opportunity Training Center where Brother and Sister Bingham met Eku Scotland and his family.
We spent about an hour there, including a tour of the facilities and meeting 3 of our church members who work in the blacksmith shop (Keifala, Aruna and Lamin). When we returned to our apartment, we printed out the story we wrote about Eku and shared that with the Bingham’s as well so that they would have the full story of his life. It was a wonderful evening.
On Thursday morning, Melissa, Cason and the Bingham’s left Kenema and headed to Bo. We headed to a combined Hangha Road and Kenema North District Council Meeting, conducted by Elder Ihentuge. Elder Fajardo led an excellent discussion on companionship study. We appreciate these good Elders so much as they work hard to help establish the Church to an even greater degree here in Kenema.
As we were on our way back to our apartment, Justin Gandi called and that put us into motion to take Kadie Feika’s body to the cemetery. We got back from the cemetery to our apartment right at 4 pm and as we sat down, I noticed a meeting reminder pop up on my laptop. We had agreed to be in Dauda Town at 4 pm to help with inputting family history names! We made a quick phone call to the Elders and left immediately.
We and the Elders worked with Maxwell Foday, Zainab Sesay, Musu Moiwo and Sarah Brima. Tobechi worked with Robert Anthony. There is such joy in Family History! Right now Kenema is on fire with submitting names to the temple. The missionaries are working hard to help members as is Tobechi Inmpey, the District Family History Specialist. Great things are happening!
On Friday I took the Zone Leaders back to Tongo. We had missionary discussions with Adama and Hawa as well as a new man that John invited named Ibrahim. He said he enjoyed it very much and wants to come to church. While it is always good teaching under the Mango tree, the highlight of the day occurred at Sahr Lahai’s home. Sahr had been gathering some family history names with help from his brother. While Elder Allen and Elder Dube taught Sahr’s wife (a first!), John Charles and I helped input names for Sahr into FamilySearch. The internet in Tongo is hopelessly slow, but we managed to successfully enter his family information. We also taught Joseph and Sarah (siblings) on our way out of Tongo (they live in the very last house before leaving). Joseph is progressing very quickly. He really gets it and is spiritually motivated.
We got back to Kenema about 4:30 pm, which was just enough time to gather our training materials and projector and head to the district center. This is where the IDA branch meets.
We had been asked by President Cobinah (district president) to pull together priesthood and auxiliary training for the branch council and their presidencies. We had the district relief society president, district Sunday school president, district “high” counselor, district Primary president, district YW president and district YM president and his counselor. We had brief opening exercises and then broke out into organizational groups. I stayed and taught the YM since the District YM president is new and had not been trained. He is now ready, we hope, to lead the next training for young men leaders in the branches. At the end we came back together and had a short debrief about what they learned. We had every organization represented except Sunday school, and the counselor in the bishopric went to that training. The whole evening was excellent and we all were edified.
On Saturday morning we drove to Bo to pick up some groceries. After our wonderful visitors last week we needed to restock on a few items. The calendar was clear so we took the opportunity to go.
In the afternoon, at 3:00 pm we went with the Hangha Road missionaries (Elder Rydjeski and Elder Edun) and visited with Elizabeth Massaquoi. She had gathered names back to some of her great grandparents. With Elder Rydjeski inputting the information and LaDawn and I helping to sort the information to get correct dates, we were able to get it finished in just over an hour. During that time she was able to submit 13 names consisting of 43 temple ordinances. She was thrilled and so were we as we could feel the spirit of Elijah and the joy she felt as she brought this exalting ordinances to her family beyond the veil.
At 5 pm, I drove to the District Center to attend the District Council meeting. Unfortunately we only had 6 of the “high” councilors in attendance, even though 12 have been called. President Cobinah was on his way back from Bo after working there for a few days, and so President Aruna conducted the meeting. He did a very fine job. We had some very good discussions about branch conferences and some upcoming leadership changes in the Hangha Road Branch. I always enjoy the time I have with these good brethren as we discuss important steps to move the district forward.
On Sunday morning we attended the Hangha Road Branch. We knew they would be calling a new branch presidency and wanted to be in attendance at this momentous occasion. While it is never easy to be released and see others called in your stead, we honor President Domowa’s service to the branch and his raised hand of support as a new branch president was called. One thing we can always be sure of and that is that whatever calling we have, we will be released at some point (even an apostle is released when he dies).
The new branch presidency consists of Tamba Jusu, Abass Lansana (former EQ President), and Elvis Laundeh (former 2nd counselor to President Domawa). All three had a brief opportunity to bear their testimonies. Abass was on the program to speak, so he made his especially short. President Jusu said something that we thought was both simple and profound. “When we speak about the Hangha Road Branch, we are talking about us – all of us”. In other words, a branch is only as good as the members make it. The first speaker with Sister Bernadette, and she spoke on Charity. She said, “When we are filled with charity, we will not choose iniquity”. The second speaker was the chorister, Sister Yeabu Gbassie. She spoke on the law of chastity and the extreme importance of keeping ourselves morally clean. Abass was the final speaker and he talked about keeping the sabbath day holy. As has been our continued experience, these sacrament meetings are just excellent.
In the afternoon, Edward Kemokai came over and we spent about 90 minutes working together to get his online missionary recommendation form filled out and submitted to the branch president (his father). Edward is a kind-hearted, gospel loving young man. We rejoice with the mission president who will be fortunate enough to have him assigned to his mission. He has already baptized his best friend, Mattia, and he has so much more to offer the hundreds of people he yet will meet and influence for good.
While physical death is all too common here, there is another death that is even more prevalent throughout West Africa, and the entire world. It is spiritual death. Spiritual death is the result of choosing sin over righteousness and iniquity over good works. Physical death results when we choose loud music over quiet contemplation and unholy places instead of sanctifying experiences. The good news is that there is a remedy for both physical death and spiritual death. We testify that Jesus Christ is the son of God. Through His atonement, he has overcome both physical and spiritual death and provided a pathway for each of us to follow.
We will all overcome physical death through the resurrection that will come as a free gift to each of us as we prepare to stand before the judgment bar of God. Overcoming spiritual death is a choice that we must make. Through the sacrifice that Jesus Christ chose that night in the garden of Gethesame, we can repent of our sins and be born again. We see it happen continually here. It can happen for all of us. Spiritual rebirth is happening to this entire nation. We can feel it. How grateful we are to be a small part of this great effort as we continue to work hand in hand with leaders, members, investigators and friends to build up the Kingdom of God here in Kenema!