As I bid farewell to Sierra Leone for the fourth time in five years, I feel as if my life is becoming a revolving doorway. I am always saying hello and goodbye to people I love and care about and perhaps that is to remind me of the transient nature of our human existence. It doesn’t mean that I am not attached to people and places but I believe it serves as a reminder that this life is indeed transitory. We all have different responsibilities at different times in our lives but a higher calling to responsibility tends to make us better human and spiritual beings- especially when we expect nothing in return.
This time, my trip to Sierra Leone was short- only five months. In many ways however, I feel it was more productive than last year, when the Ebola crisis slowed everything and everyone down and the emotional anxiety took its toll on all of us. Despite the set-backs and obvious delays, the Orthodox mission thanks to Fr Themi and the charity Paradise for Kids has enabled the building projects to continue, with a new office building, a retaining wall in readiness for the kindergarten and orphanage at Tower Hill and another orphanage on the way in Waterloo.
The work Fr Themi mapped out for me upon my return post Ebola was very clear. I was to take charge of the college and continue working with the Orthodox youth fellowship program. The college boasts three year levels of student teachers and this year will see the graduation of our first cohort of teachers. Whilst the Ebola crisis resulted in 6 months closure, we have been able to fast track in order to catch up (by reducing the academic year break). As we continue to improve our standards and curriculum we are gaining respect from the academic community in the country. The college is now widely recognized as the only college providing expertise specifically in early childhood education. So much so, that the national examination board has requested our help in drafting the national exam questions for 2015! This year I had the privilege of lecturing art and craft subject, supporting our local lecturers as well as taking on the administrative role of vice rector (which I hope to continue upon my return). It is an exciting nation building college but remember we are always in need of funds and teachers/lecturers from overseas to give our students local as well as global perspectives on education.
The Orthodox Youth Fellowship (OYF) is another program close to my heart as I have supported these young people for some years now and have witnessed their physical and more importantly their spiritual maturity. The all-girl choir has provided a voice to the females and a role within the church that they have embraced with enthusiasm. The altar boys continue to grow in numbers and some are now readers in the church.
The OYF leadership program established last year has provided structure and specific roles for the elected committee members to ensure discipline; responsibility and transparency. The devastating floods this year, meant that some of our OYF children lost all their worldly belongings but thanks to kind donations we were able to respond with bedding, clothing and school supplies. We were also able to help every single member of OYF (30 students) with their school fees this year thanks to Fr Themi and some kind donations from friends and family given to me before I left.
My work also extended beyond these two projects. My involvement at the Orthodox pre primary school at Waterloo and the communal way we worked to create classroom make-overs with parents and teachers was a wonderful experience this year. In addition the church continues to thrive and this has been also been an enormous blessing for me as I have felt a stronger sense of belonging and acceptance.
I was also able to support individual parishioners experiencing personal, psychological and physical challenges, as well as get to know the new younger children who have become regular church goers independent of their parents/guardians since Ebola. I am amazed at how these children; some as young as 8 years of age, wake up early, wash and dress in their Sunday best (some borrow church clothes from their neighbours) and come to church every Sunday without any adult support or supervision. The sound of their holy noise in church is such a blessed reminder that we too must become like children.
There are indeed so many blessings that come from mission/volunteer work but as I have said several times before, each of us is called to serve in different ways and at different times in our lives. For me, I am getting a sense that mission work is a long term commitment. In Sierra Leone, I have seen the image of Christ in every suffering face and circumstance I thought possible. I have wiped away tears of despair, held babies who miraculously have survived despite all odds and I have witnessed the way hopelessness turns to hopefulness, through a kind word, a prayer, a touch, a medicine or a bag of rice.
I have the opportunity and the freedom here, to talk the talk as well as walk the walk without keeping my faith under cover or being judged as a Christian `do gooder’. Here, I am learning to give with no expectations and when the opportunity arises, I am able to empower others to develop their full potential through social enterprise, in the hope that they will one day, pay that forward.
For me, the happiness I feel despite the world telling me otherwise…. comes from the less I have and the more I can give. I am learning to understand that in this life, despite all its complexities, hardships and disappointments we can indeed experience transient fulfilment -in the hope that it will carry us into the next journey …of everlasting life!