It’s amazing where life takes you; the people that are peppered across your path. Never would I have thought that one day I’d be sitting at a sturdy kitchen table with two missionary priests from the Philippines, high up in the leafy mountains of Sierra Leone, West Africa.
But that’s exactly where I was last week, eating sweet potato leaf stew and discussing the challenges of global development … and human emotion.
Father Patrick and Brother Joeven belong to the Xaverian Mission, a religious community inspired by the life of St Francis Xavier, one of the first Jesuits. They live in a village called Mongo Bendugu, in the district of Koinadugu – one of the poorest and most remote areas in the country. A district in which Catholic Relief Services is working in nearly 200 schools to improve buildings, provide nutritious meals for children and teachers and to train those teachers in better quality learning methods.
If I needed proof that CRS takes its work off the beaten track, I had it. We were past the world of electricity and running water. Even past a radio signal or a cell phone network. To get to the Mongo chiefdom, we traveled 8 hours from the capital Freetown on some of the most breathtakingly difficult roads I’d ever seen. One colleague described it as “like driving in a washing machine”. My shaken bones would agree.
But what we saw as we made our way was breathtaking too. We drove through verdant greens and morning mists, by hissing cicadas and brightly colored butterflies, past villages with conical palm-roofed huts. A monkey would make a dash for it across the road. Pygmy goats with their jiggling tails were in less of a hurry. And the cow munching on a mango simply didn’t want to move. It felt like another world.
A world with its own harsh realities though. Like the belief that persists in many families that it’s not worth sending a girl to school. One young teenager I spoke to told me how her father had refused to pay her secondary school fees, hoping instead to find her a husband to relieve the financial burden that the girl represented. Her mom didn’t agree, and instead increased her own work in the fields, selling the extra produce to try and cover what the girl needed. I asked another young girl who was 12 years of age, “Do you think that men and women are equal?” The answer came back without hesitation, her head a little bowed. “No.”
When faced with such beliefs and traditions, as a woman from the developed world, it’s hard to know what to think or how to react. I can’t help but feel pained – but I also know that wading in condescendingly is not the way forward either. I take some comfort in knowing that CRS projects so often target women and girls (as well as helping men and boys) in order to empower them in often very basic ways. The education projects I visited in Sierra Leone fed all the children at school, but selected just girls for the “take home rations” – meaning that there’s an extra reason for families to send a girl to school and that she herself becomes a kind of provider and so, hopefully, gains more respect.
Father Patrick and Brother Joeven also help out in the schools near where they live. Patrick teaches Math to the older kids; Joeven likes to be with the infants. That’s alongside serving the needs of the parish – they set up Mary, Queen of the Apostles a few years back. Each morning they ring the makeshift bell (which is, in truth, an old gas canister!) to call people to the 6.30 Mass. The challenges are many in this area of extreme poverty. It’s not an easy life, they confide to me.
Though in this far-off corner of the country there is still openness, joy, tolerance. At a village meeting hosted by CRS, a few dozen men and women gather to hear the latest on how the village can move forward. It’s a predominantly Muslim area so we open with a Muslim prayer and also a Christian one. I’d never witnessed this before and was touched by how beautiful a gesture it was. Instead of the all-too-common suspicion and mistrust between religions, here was a real coming together.
I’m asked to make a little speech, which I do, through an interpreter. A dog rushes in and makes me jump, which raises a laugh! The elders present me with kola nuts, symbols of life and love. At the primary school we visit later, the kids are assembled to sing us a welcome: The Unity Song. Their little voices pull together in the refrain “We are all one!”
Conversations with motivated teachers and tireless CRS staffers who really do go that extra mile help me to believe that there will be a bright future for these kids.
Back at the mission house, I fall asleep to flashes of lightning and rumbles of thunder, and wake to a chorus of cockerels outside my window. At the breakfast table we talk about what it’s like living far from our families in cultures so different from our own. “We miss home,” Father Patrick admits, “but this is our vocation, what God called us to do. You only have one life, so I say, live it to the fullest. Give your life. Make a difference.”
After breakfast, I witness another new sight. The Jesuit’s two dogs lying blissfully on the kitchen floor while the cat rubs up to them for a cuddle. A veritable love-in! And then a chicken wanders in.
Father Patrick laughs. “Everyone’s welcome here!”
Helen Blakesley is CRS’ regional information officer for West and Central Africa. She is based in Dakar, Senegal.
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