Mission: Sierra Leone

Posted on 10/15/12. 

“The journey begins months before you leave.” A wise friend told me this would be the case when I signed up for a mission trip to Sierra Leone, and I had no idea how true it would be. The journey started months before I left, and is still happening today. (Most of this is adapted from the journal I kept.)

Fundraising and Preparing to Leave

God started working on my heart months before I left for Sierra Leone. I could feel such a strong presence that grew more and more as I bonded with my team and made preparations to leave. Fundraising was the biggest component of growth. It was a crucial part of this trip for me. Here’s why:

  • The fellowship created by involving others and having them invested and praying.
  • Sharing my faith with others. This lead to so many talks with friends before the trip. God did some amazing things with this.
  • My attitude of service on the trip – much stronger than if it were only my money.
  • Trusting God to pull through and provide. I almost wrote a check myself… and then I got an amazing email from a company called Threadflip who not only sponsored a clothing sale I did (100% of proceeds went to Sierra Leone), but they also offered to make up whatever money I didn’t raise! I just love that story.
  • Learning to work through opposition, and to press into it and learn from it rather than shying away.
  • Spreading awareness of volunteerism and of hardships in third world countries.
The people that strongly opposed my fundraising and traveling to Africa was difficult to process. But it helped me grow and dig deep before the journey even started, and for that I am eternally grateful. One of my favorite experiences this year was fundraising for Sierra Leone and all the experience gained from it! 

Traveling to Sierra Leone

Let the fun begin! Or, rather, let it begin after two long days of travel. We left on July 21, 2012 and took a 2-hour flight to D.C., a 6-hour flight to London, a 6-hour flight to Freetown, a 1-hour ferry ride, a stay in a hotel, and a 12 hour drive the next day (in "puta-putas," picture below). Needless to say, the travel to get to Banta was brutal. The trip there was fairly easy (the excitement of arriving helped), but the trip home… there really are no words. We skipped the hotel part and did the entire thing without stopping (40 hours straight of travel, no hotel). It was rough.
Where we stopped and ate lunch
Our journey home
I passed out in Heathrow airport
My feet as we left Orlando airport
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about the first moment we set foot in Sierra Leone. The Freetown airport  - you exit the giant, fancy plane (our flight attendants wore suits with matching hats and had fancy accents) and walk over the tarmac into a building that is the smallest airport building I have ever seen, and hit by a smell I have never smelled.

We were greeted by Uncle Magnus and his team loaded the 19 of us, our luggage and our donation bags (details on the 1,000+ flip flops we donated here) into puta putas. The hour drive to the ferry was like most of what we saw in Sierra Leone – families living in mud and straw huts, along the side of the road, very similar to many of the Caribbean islands I’ve visited. We took a ferry ride which I loved, the view from the roof deck was gorgeous, and then we were in Freetown (pictures of Freetown and the ferry are below, and were taken by teammate and professional photographer Ethan).

We stayed in a hotel in Freetown, and the next day we traveled to Banta, where we would stay in the COTN (Children of the Nations) camp with the children. The camp is only about 80 miles away, but it took us 10 hours to get there. This is due to the conditions of the road, since most of it is not paved and we also kept stopping (I think we were saying hello to a few families, picking up supplies, and we stopped for lunch). You couldn’t sit up straight in the van, and the seats are small metal benches. We played 20 questions and mafia to pass the time.

Where We Stayed

It was late at night and dark when we arrived at the COTN camp in Banta. We stayed in the brand-new guest house that they just built. No running water or electricity of course, but there was a living space in the middle with a girls room off to the left, and boys room off to the right. We stayed in bunk beds with mosquito nets around them (everyone was on malaria medication and the 98% DEET I brought ate my watch, flip flops, and anything plastic it touched). Our bathrooms looked just like an American bathroom with shower faucets and all, but without the running water. To bathe, we filled up buckets with rainwater and used a ladle to pour the water over ourselves. To “flush” the toilet, you throw a bucket of water in it. I was surprised at how easy it was to live without running water!

The guest house where we stayed
Team photo

The continual rain and dampness in the air was another story, however. It was chilly with rainy weather the entire time, and I developed a mildew problem with my hair that only got worse as the week went on. There were no dry towels in the house, the towels wouldn’t dry because of the rain, and my hair never fully dried, so it started to stink. I Febreezed my hair (I also used Febreeze as perfume, hot I know), I washed it every single day, I tried everything. The minute I got to Heathrow airport on the way home I stuck my head and entire body under the dryer for 15 minutes. I have never been so happy to see a warm dryer before.

Dry clothes were also hard to come by, and I didn't have anything dry to wear on the last day. Those “I have nothing to wear” moments in front of a packed closet? I had a totally different relationship with clothes in Sierra Leone. My only sweatshirt got soaked in the rain and didn’t try for 4 days, I didn’t pack enough skirts (I had planned to wash and re-wear, but after washing they never fully dried), and I was literally out of clothes and just wanted to be warm!! A crazy feeling to know that this is what so many people experience daily. And a good reminder to donate your clothes to Goodwill and other organizations that send clothing to third world countries. Thankfully, I had a friend who let me borrow a skirt and a sweatshirt, but it was a strange sensation to be without clothes in the necessity sense. A learnable moment.

Another learnable moment was seeing the home where the kids stay. They are 10 small buildings, and 10 kids and one “auntie” (guardian) lived in each. They are very nice buildings, but our guest house was like a castle in comparison. I hated that we are so spoiled that they feel the need to put us in a nice guest house. I also had to keep reminding myself that while the kids seem very happy and are well taken care of, that this is a permanent situation for them. They don't have parents, they have no chance of adoption, and zero privacy from their roommate. Banta is a very happy place, but shares a certain sadness, too. 

A mountain in the distance was visible from our front porch on this rare, sunny moment!

Where the children live

The back porches where the kids hang out and cook dinner (and plant hair)

Nail polish painting parties in the dark
Me and Agnes painting nails
The kids also loved playing Uno

What We Wore

Speaking of clothes, I’ve had several people ask about what we wore. We had a strict dress code and modesty means a totally different thing in Sierra Leone. Women sometimes walk around topless, but it is extremely passé to show the shape of your bottom half. So we wore long, loose skirts or shorts, modest tops and then close-toe shoes to keep our feet safe from the rough terrian. It was muddy so I was constantly covered in mud (especially from picking up the babies – their feet would rub all over you). I wore long skirts with a t-shirt, sports bra, and Crocs every time we visited a village. During COTN camp, I wore loose Bermuda shorts or men’s athletic shorts, sneakers and a t-shirt. I left most of my clothes and all of my shoes in Sierra Leone when we left.

What We Ate

I also have to mention what we ate. The food was absolutely delicious, there just often wasn’t enough of it. (Not unlike the people around us in Sierra Leone, so I’m definitely not complaining.) I was starving almost the entire trip (one meatball per person one night for dinner, for example). I don’t know how the guys were holding up, because even with the huge amounts of snacks and tuna fish I brought, it was tough. Another learnable moment here – eat what you are given with no complaining, and be super-thankful for every last bite. I certainly was.

My stomach shrank, my body shrank, I was like a different person food-wise when I got back. But then I got some interesting news. I went to the doctor for a severe throat infection and they found I had Type 2 Diabetes. I have been hypoglycemic my whole life, but essentially the eating conditions were so bad that my pancreas had completely given out. Things are back to normal now, and I will still say that every moment was still worth it. Just a crazy side effect I never thought would happen.

Our beautiful cook rolls out dough with a glass bottle
Making fresh peanut butter with some of the kids and teammate Scot
Delicious meal made from cassava leaves and rice

Our kitchen

Kids Camp at Ngolala

So… now that you have an idea of the living conditions, let’s get to the really important stuff. The work we did with the kids!!! I will let the pictures speak for themselves:

The path to Ngolala
The path to Ngolala
Francis, middle, wants to be a doctor when he grows up

The kids gathered for camp in Ngolala

The first morning was rough. We barely got any sleep and it was a struggle to be chipper. But our team was committed to giving a children’s camp (think Vacation Bible School) in nearby village Ngolala (pronounced "Gwala") for three days, so it was time to rally. And then... the first moment a Sierra Leonian baby ran over and asked to be picked up… I melted. This is a picture of that moment, above. I swear a switch got flipped in my heart and I was totally in love. I spent the next few hours taking pictures and helping with arts and crafts with my team. The first sign of a camera and the kids are begging to have you “snap me snap me” and knocking each other over to get in front of you, so that’s where most of these pictures came from. I was in total awe of what I was seeing and that I was really in Africa. Totally surreal. 

We did all the things you would at a usual summer camp – we started with praise and worship, we separated the kids into two groups by age and did arts and crafts in one group, and sports in the other (we brought equipment with us). We stopped for a snack, for lunch, performed a skit for them. The meals were interesting times. I loved being able to provide a meal for the children, and our hearts would break as they would try to sneak away with their food. Their families had instructed them not to eat, but to bring the food back to them so they could eat it and although we tried to discourage it, a few of them managed to slip away. Add to that the tradition for them to feed us family-style (picture below) before we leave the village, and it was an interesting combo. I was so uncomfortable the first meal – I didn’t want to take their food. But Sierra Leone culture is so giving, so much about sharing, and to not take it would have been incredibly rude. We were instructed to take a spoon, and at least eat one bite. The food was delicious. Most days it was really spicy which I love, and everything is served with rice. So yummy!

Ngolala was an amazing experience and I left a piece of my heart with that village. The babies were the best ever. They can barely walk, but they roam the village freely and hardly ever cry. When one does cry, someone picks them up, so we did the same. I would have 2 babies in my arms at a time all the time, but they always stop crying when you pick them up. They also don’t wear diapers and wander off to pee right outside the hut, or as one little boy, he just peed a nice little arc in the sky while he sat on a bench and ate his snack lol!

I wondered when we first got to Ngolala – did the people really want us there? Were we just invaders or were they happy to have a camp for their children? Those doubts went away quickly, as I cannot tell you how loving and thankful the locals were to us. Even from the adults who did not speak English, there were so many unspoken connections with them, and with the children.

Team lunch while in Ngolala

Youth Camp at COTN

After 3 days of camp at Ngolala, we immediately started another camp, but this was a youth camp, so the kids were 13 years or older, and they came to us. Some of the kids that live at the COTN camp participated, but many others traveled to join us. There were about 200 kids and they stayed in the school house on mattresses on the floor together. They love these 4 days and nights and look forward to it all year and the excitement was palapable!

With teammate Steph
Putting on a (hilarious) skit for the kids
With our group leader, Daisy
With Jebeh, who lives in a neighboring village
Giving my speech with help from interpreter (and local legend) Father Abraham
The main "room" where we held praise and worship and sermons
Playing in the soccer tournament
The campers were divided up into 4 “houses” – the red house, green house, yellow house and blue house. The camp was a competition between the houses, and the children earned points for the soccer tournament, crafts, weaver ball, tug of war, and the talent show (one kid rapped “Black and Yellow” talk about an uncomfortable moment, I don’t think he knew what the words meant, BUT one of the adults spoke to him about it after). The focus of the camp was definitely Jesus though - we had tons of praise and worship, speakers (I somehow volunteered for this and wound up giving a short speech on Jesus as our sacrifice), and at night we had “cabin time” with an assigned group of kids. My friend Lindsay and I had 6 girls, and I loved the talks we had about what was on their heart and what they want to do when they grow up.  In between camp activities, we also snuck down to hang out with the little kids (who live at COTN) who weren’t old enough to participate in camp. We had nail polish painting parties on several nights – which were SO much fun and the girls absolutely loved it (we brought all the supplies, pictures up above).

I remember my own personal experiences with camp growing up so fondly - both VBS as a little kid and youth camp as a teenager. I was so happy to be able to give these kids the same types of experiences. They spend so much of their time doing chores and going to school and it was great giving them the chance to just be kids for a few days. They wouldn't have been able to put on such a camp for the kids without the 19 of us to run it (we planned out the activities in advance and brought the supplies with us). It was an awesome experience!

A Trek Through the Jungle (My Birthday!)

This school in Mokpangumba needs help! Find out how you can help here.

Besides the two camps we put on, we had two other days in Banta. One day was my birthday and wound up being the coolest jungle experience ever! We hiked to a village called Mokpangumba, which was a few miles through some serious African jungle, up hills, through water, and my favorite part – a ride in a canoe (a tree dug out, in other words) over a big river. We saw huge red ants, and giant red centipedes that are so poisonous that if you touch them, you will die. The kids in the village were ready and waiting to recite all kinds of scholastic things to us in their adorable school uniforms. It was a quick visit because we had to make the trek home before dark, but we managed to snap some pictures and love on some kids, pictures above.

Beyond the amazing experience of visiting Mokpangumba, my teammates brought a birthday card with them and they sang to me. Then the girls who work in the kitchen surprised me by singing to me again (pictures below), adorning me with paper rings, giving me the most beautiful silver bracelet, and making a delicious cake for the team (brown sugar and butter frosting, I’ve gotta re-create it sometime!). I was once again overwhelmed with the generosity of the people of Sierra Leone. I was stressed that I didn’t have something of value to give back, to say thank you for the bracelet, but as our leaders explained their culture is totally different than ours and they don’t expect anything in return. We also had a dance party with the kids that night, and more nail polish painting. Suffice to say it was the BEST birthday ever, I can’t imagine a better one!

Birthday cake! So yummy
Rest Day and Reflection

The last day was our “rest” day. I visited the sponsorship office and chose Tenneh as my sponsor child. I wanted a girl from the COTN camp (you can also sponsor children from neighboring villages) and Tenneh and I immediately connected. She wrote me notes throughout the week and is both the shyest child and a riot at the same time. There are pictures of her below. We never talked about her story while I was there, but when I received the official paperwork a few weeks ago, it included info on how her parents died (in the war), which only made me more thankful I had chosen her. Deciding to sponsor a child is a lifelong commitment - I will financially support her all the way through college, and I hope to have a personal relationship with her for life.

On the last day, we also spent as much time as possible with the kids. Marie, a sponsor child to a friend back home in the states, was always glued to my side, and on the last day she got really quiet and I could tell she was upset that we were leaving, which totally slayed me. The kids also performed a goodbye song/receital for us and I was a basketcase crying through the whole thing. I wrote this in my diary that day:

I read “Unearthed” this morning and it made me really sad. I feel like I have a lot of perspective right now about what is important but as I read how it will feel to be back in the hustle, it made me sad. I know its going to be hard to hold onto this feeling for very long. So may things that I thought were important seem trivial (makeup, showers, clean clothes) and other things have never felt more important (toilet paper, enough food). I feel even more passionate about my long term goals (a magazine that is realistic, adopting some kids) but things in the short term seem ridiculous (answering emails, shopping). I know I am going to immediately get caught up again though. So what was the purpose of this mission trip? I hope to go on more mission trips someday, to spread the word about Sierra Leone and get others involved. And to love on some kids for a long time. I hope I made a lasting impact and that the impact will be lasting on me, too.”

Holding a baby chick
Another thing that can’t go without mentioning are my amazing teammates. I was nervous to go on this mission trip not knowing anyone, but it wound up being a blessing! I have friends for life, every person on my team was so much fun, and it was ah-mazing to be myself, away from the public eye, uninhibited for the first time in a long time. I felt like I was in high school again – my goofy, ridiculous self. We formed a small group when we got back so we meet once a week for Bible study and of course lots of reminiscing about Africa.

Africa BFFs, love these girls
Adjusting to Real Life

The last sentence in my Africa journal reads: “I feel like I have been hit by a truck physically, emotionally and spiritually. Time for rest and restoration.”

It took me awhile to dissect what had happened, or to even be able to write or talk about it. I cried non-stop the first week (as did many of my fellow teammates). I still feel like I’m recovering, or maybe I will never recover and that is the point. I was surprised at how rough of an adjustment it was when got home. They call it reverse culture shock, I call it being able to see the matrix now. I’m not angry at how spoiled we are in the U.S., I just feel very silly. I still haven’t been able to bring myself to do a shopping trip with a client, even though I have a very long waiting list. And yet at the same time I’m dealing with sadness of how easy it was to get back to real life as if nothing ever happened. I’ve had some very intense flashbacks – during a fancy conference meal, at a friend’s birthday downtown – that have left me a sobbing mess. But mostly…. It just feels normal. I honestly I don’t know if there will ever be words to explain what happened in Sierra Leone. One friend put it “I don’t know if I left my heart there, or if I finally found it.” That is the closest I’ve come to explaining it. It was a beautiful experience.

My beautiful sponsor child, Tenneh
Me and Tenneh

How You Can Help

Sierra Leone is a country that has been ravaged by an 11-year civil war, leaving so many children without parents and no chances of adoption. They need our help, and here is how you can get involved:

  1. Sponsor a child. I’m happy to talk with you personally about any of the children I met who need sponsors. The camp in Banta is a very happy place, but at the end of the day these children do not have parents. And they never will, as adoption is not something that happens in Sierra Leone. Pledge to help financially and spiritually take care of them by sending money and writing them letters!
  2. Donate to COTN. If you prefer to not commit to one child, then consider donating to COTN directly. I can say with absolute resolve that this is a great organization to donate. They are doing great things in Sierra Leone. Check out this inspiring recap of the more than 1,000 flip flops our team brought with us and how they used them. 
  3. Go on a mission trip. Consider visiting Sierra Leone and give the gift of time, and of building relationships with the children and staff. Having visitors lifts their spirits and provides much needed resources and manpower.
  4. Help out locally. There are plenty of kids who need our help here in the U.S., too, so consider volunteering your time or money to a local charity!
Thank you SO MUCH to everyone who donated. I carried your love and your prayers with me in Sierra Leone, and your fellowship means the world to me. THANK YOU!



ps. For further reading, check out this amazing documentary on another Sierra Leone orphanage, and watch the "Won't You Be My Love" music video below!

Matthew 28. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”