Sunday, December 8, 2019 is a day that for the saints and friends of the church in Tongo will forever be remembered.. After more than a year of laying a very sure foundation, patiently built upon the truths and doctrines of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Tongo Branch was officially formed and a new branch presidency called.
Solomon Jen Kongoley was called as the branch president with John Lowell Charles as first counselor and Bob Raymond Steven as second counselor. Bockarie Konuwa was called as branch clerk and Amara George Kongoley as the Elders Quorum President. We rejoice in this important milestone with the members in Tongo. To now be a fully functioning unit of the church reporting directly to the stake president, is indeed a significant achievement. While Brother Kongoley will be leaving at the first of the year for a new position in Moyamba with the Government Hospital there, we are grateful that he will be the one to organize the branch over the next three weeks. No one knows the members better than Solomon. He has been magnificent in his role as the priesthood leader in Tongo. Truly it was the Lord who sent him there to do this great work.
Sunday morning (yesterday) we arose early, leaving the house at 6:20 am. We first picked up Rebecca and Grace Koroma who came to Kenema on Friday and requested a ride back home. We then stopped near the TAS store in IDA and picked up President Cobinah. We had to backtrack a bit to find Brother Francis Kamara, the stake clerk, but by 6:40 we were on our way. It was an extremely foggy morning which lasted all the way to Tongo. The good news is that they have graded the last 5 miles of the road (from Panguma junction) into Tongo and that saved us some time. We arrived at the chapel around 8:10 am.
President Cobinah had a few interviews he needed to complete before the meeting so our timing was a little earlier than necessary, but it worked out great. While President Cobinah was doing interviews, Brother Kamara was gathering the names of the members from Solomon Kongoley to be transferred from the Burma Branch into the new Tongo Branch. When we asked him what the count was for the members, he indicated it was over 30. Truly a phenomenal amount of growth in a year considering missionaries are only there 5-6 hours a week.
Right after the opening song and prayer, President Cobinah stood at the pulpit and announced the dissolution of the Tongo Home Group and the creation of the Tongo Branch. Never have we been more happy to raise our hands to sustain this action. Following testimonies by the new Branch Presidency, Lasana Massaquoi and Musu Lahai gave short but excellent talks on the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. LaDawn and I were both invited to share our testimonies and then President Cobinah spoke for the remainder of the time about the importance of staying faithful to the gospel and to the Church. It is always wonderful to be with the saints of Tongo!
There is now more work that must get done, this time by the facilities management group. They will need to provide a computer, a generator, a flat screen TV, speakers, microphones and all of the other things that accompany the formation of a branch. In addition, they will also need to work on the building to secure the doors and windows better and hopefully wire it for a few lights. It is truly an exciting time to see these changes and growth in a village we call our own.
We have continued to have trouble with the Dauda Town solar installation and we are struggling to understand why. On Monday, Junior finally removed one of the panels because it was showing too much power. This could explain why we have burned out so many controllers in that apartment, but there is no plausible explanation how a 255 Watt panel can put out more volts than the 24 volts it is rated. For now we have removed the panel (it is a panel made in Germany) and I will test it independently this next week. It is baffling for us. As long as we have good sun, 3 panels can charge the batteries, but if there is any overcast at all, there is not enough power in 3 panels to allow the batteries to be used all night. This is something we need to figure out over the next three weeks.
President and Sister Clawson are now the project managers for the Global Gospel Literacy program, essentially replacing Melissa Hawkley. We want to thank Melissa for her significant contributions in getting gospel literacy off the ground here in Sierra Leone and Ghana. She has put her heart and soul into the implementation of this program and we hope her legacy will live on for many years to come.
One of the last projects she is working on is helping to deliver a new learner and teacher book focused on teaching learners the sounds of the letters. It is by far and away the most needed aspect of the program. We have seen a draft of the new materials and are excited to see how quickly it can help a learner know and remember the letter sounds. The trick this last week was figuring out how to get them printed. The initial idea was to have a printer in Freetown print them. In Adobe reader there is a print option to allow the printing of a booklet. This means that if you are printing a booklet (2 pages per one sheet of paper), the page on the left hand side will be page 1 and the page on the right side will be page 92 (or whatever the last page is). This allows for quick double-sided printing and then the booklet can be folded and stapled or else cut and bound with a spiral or plastic binding. Sounds simple enough, but nearly impossible to get it done here in Sierra Leone. The Clawson’s asked if we could go to Bo and speak to the printers there. Elder Moomey found a printer (B’s Printing) that said they could do it, so on Tuesday we drove down to Bo and spoke to the printer. The woman in charge indicated that she had the equipment but wasn’t sure how to print it. The version of Adobe Reader she had was a lot older than the one the Clawson’s were using and so the print options were different. After working with her for about 10 minutes, we found the option and she could see how it would work. But then the unexpected happen. She started looking at every page in the preview and explaining how those pages with pictures would cost more than those without. The page with the most color would be $2 and those with just words would be $.80. I told her she was too expensive and left. I am pretty sure she has no idea what her costs or margins were. We eventually found another place called “De Wizzards”. They definitely understood what we wanted to do, but their binding machine was broken so they would have to outsource that portion of the job. And while they weren’t as expensive as “B’s”, each booklet would still cost about $8.50, more than double what they paid in Ghana earlier this year. In the end, the Clawson’s contacted Elder and Sister Boone, new Member Leader Support missionaries who will be leaving the MTC to come to the Sierra Leone on Monday. They have agreed to bring an extra box with them with the booklets printed at BYU Publishing. Pretty sure the quality will exceed anything that could be done here and even with the extra luggage cost will be significantly less expensive. Nothing is easy in Sierra Leone and now we have one more item to add to the “difficult” list.
One of the other benefits of going to Bo on Tuesday was picking up some of Juliet Gbanie’s famous “Juliet’s Stew”. Mixed with rice it is absolutely delicious. We called her when we left Kenema, and while it didn’t look like it was going to be possible to buy some from her, she went out of her way to make a batch and then meet us so we could get it. It is soooo good! We managed several delicious meals from it. Palm oil, onions, chicken legs and some amazing seasonings with just the right amount of peppe to give it a kick.
Most of Tuesday and Wednesday were spent working on a video for the Christmas multi-zone conferences at the request of President and Sister Harper. While it is not difficult to pull together, it does take time to perfect it to the point of show-ability. Once we have shared it with the missionaries, we will post it to the mission FaceBook page as we expect parents and returned missionaries will enjoy watching it. For now we will keep it under raps! By the way, Cecil B. DeMille has nothing to worry about!
We also did some family history with both Kpayama and Dauda Town elders. Mattia Moseray in Kpayama and Ahmed Swaray in Dauda Town. Neither appointment latest longer than 30 minutes, but it was worth the time to help these faithful brethren extend these blessings to their kindred dead. We are deeply concerned about what happens with Family History once we leave. Hopefully the Lord will inspire priesthood leaders to continue to provide a way for this work to continue.
Ahmed Swaray (left) with Elder Daniel and Elder Sylvanus. Mattia Moseray (right) with Elder Paongo and Elder Isiguzo
On Thursday, we attended the Hangha Road District Council where Elder Kennelly is the district leader. The discussion for the meeting was led by Elder Uko and centered on the Plan of Salvation. We had a very nice discussion about why life is so hard at times. We were all grateful that Elder Isiguzo had the courage to ask this question, as it led into a marvelous discussion about how we can learn about ourselves when we have afflictions. These afflictions then lead us to repent and become more like the Savior. Without hard times, there would be very little progression in our lives. We also talked about why was the Savior was so persecuted. He was the Son of God and did not so much as commit a single sin, yet he was eventually put to death for the doctrine he taught and the blessings he brought to the Jews. Truly “the Son of Man has descended below them all” (D&C 122:8) that “he that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Alma 7:12). We all came away determined just to be a little bit better in our lives and deal with affliction in a more positive manner.
After returning back to our apartment, Christian Lawson, Michael John Steven and Mary Mansaray came over. I needed to scan Michael John’s and Mary’s passports so we can arrange to get yellow fever cards. All three of them are working on getting mission papers submitted before we leave. I already had a scan of Christian’s passport. Later in the week on Saturday, Michael John came back and was met by John Martin Sesay. John Martin is now on the High Council and will be the person working with pre-mission young single adults in terms of helping them as they prepare for a mission. He will help them navigate the online submission process as well as provide guidance as to how they are to get their passports, police clearances, medical checkups and yellow fever cards. For just over 2 hours, John Martin and Michael John worked on filling out Michael John’s mission papers, a learning process for both of them.
While in the U.S. getting everything required to serve a mission is fairly routine and painless, here it is difficult. Access to a computer and the internet as well as familiarity with the process are all stumbling blocks. John Martin is a wonderful man who will be perfectly positioned to serve in this calling as a member of the high council.
Back to Thursday afternoon. President and Sister Harper had planned a video conference Couples Council for 2 pm but it was more like 2:20 pm before we were able to get connected with everything working. Topics ranged from the Christmas Zone Conferences to the schedule for the Boone’s who are coming to the mission tomorrow. We also talked about exterminating the missionary apartments for insects and we discussed how things will work in Kenema once there is no longer a couple here. Overall, time well spent. The Burris’ could not attend and the Moomey’s came late due to another conflict. We always joy in being together, if only virtually.
On Friday, Joseph Aruna, now the Bishop (instead of Branch President) of the Dauda Town ward came over to our apartment where we showed him how to open the missionary recommendation papers for Mary Mansaray. Since this is not something that happens very often, it is hard to remember how to do it. We took some screen prints that we will put into a PDF and provide to the Bishops and Branch Presidents for future reference.
We also had an opportunity to place three more of Ashley’s dolls this week that she lovingly made and sent to us to distribute to the “girls of Sierra Leone”. On Friday, while we were out for our walk, we presented dolls to Amie and Wyatta. These are two beautiful girls that we often refer to as our African grandchildren. We met their family while out walking and now make it a point to greet them each time we see them. We have spoken often of this wonderful family. Our next gift to them will be a Book of Mormon and a Restoration pamphlet with an invitation to learn about the Church. The third doll was given to Kumba, a little girl that lives across the road from us. She, like many Sierra Leonean girls, is a hard worker and can often be seen carrying wood, sweeping around their home, or helping her mother cook. She was so excited to receive a doll as we have never seen her have anything with which she might play.
Friday evening, we went over to see Eku again. Most of the discussion was centered on what he wanted to do given the concerns that his wife Martha had expressed regarding the timing of his baptism. She was afraid that if he baptized before the JW Convention in Bo on December 27-29th that she and the children will be ostracized for not telling the JW Elders of her husband’s decision and they would not be able to go and enjoy the fellowship. Eku felt very strongly that he wanted to press forward with his baptism so that we could be involved before leaving Sierra Leone. It was a bit of conundrum for both of them. He wanted us to meet again on Saturday with him, Martha, Gloria and Marion. We set the appointment for 5:30 pm and then prepared to leave. As we were preparing to leave, I felt a prompting to tell him that if he needs to wait until after the convention we were okay with that, after all, this was not about us and we would love him regardless of the timing of his baptism. Not sure it helped him much in the moment, but it was something that he thought about over the next 24 hours. When we returned on Saturday evening, everyone was in a much better mood. Marion (their oldest daughter) was not there as she was attending a wedding to represent the family.
Eku, Martha and Gloria (Eku’s daughter) were together as we discussed what they would do. Quite honestly, we were only there for moral support, as we did not want to be the ones to pressure them one way or the other. We shared our testimony of the truthfulness of the Church and told them we would be supportive of whatever they decided. I reinforced that if Eku waited until after the convention it was okay with us and that someone else could baptize him. That seemed to resonate with Martha. In fact, it was something they had already discussed. Martha agreed that if he waited, that after the convention she would take the missionary discussions and come to the Church with the entire family. This seemed like a much better solution despite the fact that we would be gone. We then set a date of January 11th for Eku’s baptism and January 8th for the day that Martha would start to take the discussions. The Spirit of the Lord confirmed that this was the right answer. Eku also decided he would like Bishop Joseph Aruna to baptize him as he came to know Joseph well during the work on the Latter-day Saint Charities project benefitting OTC. We were able to later confirm with Bishop Aruna that he would be pleased to perform the ordinance.
Saturday was cleaning day so I spent the morning inside the apartment writing up an agreement between Dennis Samai and the Mission for maintaining the missionary apartments in our absence. We have been talking about finalizing this for some time now and since Dennis was able to get his company registered last week, the timing was right to put together a final proposed agreement. Later in the day, Dennis came over and read through what we had been discussing, made a few suggestions and then we sent it on to Markus Wallace (Mission FM Manager) and President Harper. Getting this agreement signed is an important step in making sure the missionaries are supported once we have left.
At 3:00 pm, we had scheduled Gospel Literacy Teacher Training for Nyandeyama Branch and Hangha Road Ward. Jamilatu Sesay, Tity Lansana and Ada Blango were trained and Sister Favour Tucker, our stake Gospel Literacy Specialist was also in attendance as she will be doing this training in the future. LaDawn did most of the training this time, as the phone wouldn’t stop ringing and Junior Bendu came by as well. Junior and his guys were planning to go to Rutile on Monday morning to install solar at both Mosenesie and Moriba Town and needed the money included in their bid to buy fuel for transport. He had also been to Dauda Town because there were having some struggles again with their solar so we talked briefly about that. I left the apartment at 4:40 pm to go help Dennis Samai move some bags of cement. LaDawn concluded the training at 4:45 pm.
The cement story is an interesting one. In August, Dennis purchased 60 bags of cement and paid for them. Because it was still the rainy season, the shop owner told him he could take delivery after the rain stopped. When he went there on Saturday to have the cement delivered, the shop keeper wanted an additional Le 300,000 as the price of the cement had increased. Dennis refused to pay him because they had an agreement and the cement had already been paid for – and now the shop owner wanted to break the agreement and extract more money from him.
When Dennis refused to pay him the additional monies, the shop owner refused to deliver the cement as previously agreed. Dennis then called to see if I could help him transport the bags, which I was happy to do, but with the appointment with Eku already scheduled, I could only help him with 42 of the 60 bags before I had to go. I have to say, I was pretty impressed with Jacob and Ahmed. These were the young single adults who were helping him. Once we loaded it up and drove to the delivery site, they would carry these 50 kg (110 pound) bags of cement on their heads at a torrid pace, something I could never do. Our little Toyota pickup did a great job carrying these 2200 pound loads. We were grateful that nearly the entire way was paved, making it much easier (and faster) to get to the delivery site.
There are so many good things happening right now in the new Kenema Stake. We are doing everything we can to work hand in hand with stake, ward, branch and mission leaders to put in place processes that will keep things moving as though we had never left. As the Church continues to grow and branch out, we are so grateful to be witnesses to the impact the Church has on new converts as well as seasoned leaders. It is also an important reminder to each of us that we too must branch out. We have to get out of our comfort zones and do just a bit more to build our own testimonies and desires and then to build Zion. The Second Coming of Jesus Christ is imminent and the Lord needs a prepared people. We are so grateful that we left the comforts of home and family to spend this time in Sierra Leone and have a front row seat as the gospel comes to Africa in these last days.