I’m an Australian girl with Greek heritage, who, much to my grandmother’s dismay, has moved my life to the small West African country with a colourful history – Sierra Leone. “Come back soon”, my grandmother has begged repeatedly. “If you come home, I will pay for a flight to Greece for you! We will go together!” As tempting as that cheeky bribery sounded, my decision was firmly made. Sierra Leone was where I wanted to base myself at this point in my life. Little did I know that I would soon come into contact with an inspirational man with a very similar family history.
One Friday afternoon, I was spending time in Freetown with a friend. We happened to be in the area where I had heard there was an Orthodox Church.
This idea baffled me! An Orthodox Church in Sierra Leone? I don’t know why I was so surprised, religion is deeply embedded in Sierra Leonean culture and Sierra Leone is an amazing example of religious tolerance, with almost an equal amount of Muslims and Christians of many different denominations living peacefully and respectfully.
Insert, the beautiful Orthodox Church and compound on Syke Street, Freetown. We arrived at the address and I was baffled for the second time that day – the Sierra Leonean man at the gate spoke near perfect Greek! What a delight, being able to hear and speak Greek with this man! I had a good feeling about this place instantly!
The mysterious Rev Themi was not around at this time, but the guys urged me to return the next day. It seemed only natural that I would.
The following day, I returned to the Church ready to meet the Father and hear his story. I knew he was also from a Greek background, but that was not where the similarities stopped.
Like my Grandfather, Reverend Themi was born in Alexandria, Egypt (which just happens to be my middle name!), and also like my Grandfather, he immigrated to Australia – the lucky country – in the 1950s. They both based themselves in Melbourne, the city with the biggest population of Greek nationals outside of Greece! The whole story was just too coincidental.
While talking, Reverend Themi said to me “I think I have a job for you”, I was no longer baffled. This whole encounter now felt as if it were meant to be, something was happening, as if God had planned it from the start.
The following week, I met with my soon to be colleagues at the new, very impressive Orthodox College in Freetown. My background as a Dietitian was perfect to fill the role of nutrition lecturer for their Higher Teaching Certificate course in Early Childhood Education.
Was this really a chance encounter?
I don’t think so either…
The Life and Death Cycle in West Africa
Since my arrival nearly two months ago, before we were blessed to be connected to the Government House line, the electricity supply to the Mission House and the College had been erratic.
This situation brings about many challenges, impossible to charge phones and computers, no lights, no Power-point presentations, no photocopying, no internet, no fans and so on.
There have been times when I have been in pitch dark and only with the aid of a solar torch, which Fr. Themi hands out to everyone staying at the Mission House, have I been able to go about my business. So when the power goes off during the day Fr. Themi has the generator working only during College hours or if it happens late afternoon he starts the generator at 8.00pm. We have to be very economical with the usage of the generator as it runs on diesel and that is very costly! Unfortunately for this entire month the generator has not been consistent and we had it overhauled which has taken weeks to complete and much, much, money!
A few Sundays ago I was sitting on the verandah in the afternoon, playing with our newly acquired pup ‘Oscar’, when the two men who had been fixing the generator came to see Fr. Themi.
Everyone wants to see Fr. Themi!
One of my tasks here is to be the middle person and find out who and why they want to see the good Father. I asked if I could assist in any way. Their response was that they wanted to see the Father. So I rang Father, he asked me if they had brought with them the detailed invoice for the work on the generator. They had and therefore wanted their payment.
Whilst waiting for Father to come down one of the men casually told me that his sister had passed away. I told him how sad that must be for him and her family and asked how old she was at the time. He replied 65 years old. I then asked him what she died of. He responded that he didn’t know. I asked him if she had been living in the province away from Freetown. In my mind I thought that her death had occurred sometime ago. He then told me that whilst sitting and waiting for Father, he had just received a phone call from one of his brothers who told him their sister had just passed away and that she was in the mortuary.
When Father came down I explained to him what had just happened, Father asked him if he could do anything to help and that he would pray for his sister and the family. After the two men left I asked Father if that was the usual manner in which such news was shared – very casually!
He told me that death here is an everyday occurrence and that death is accepted as a matter of fact. Actually in the mind of her brother she had lived beyond her life expectancy as 41 years old is the average mortality age for women. (Men 39 old years)
Father went on to say that recently a beggar came to see him and that he had told him that he had a dream in which he was told that he would die soon. A woman came to him and told him either in a dream or in reality that he would pass away and be buried. The beggar lived during the day on the side of the front steps of our unfinished Church at Tower Hill with his flimsy possessions.
Daily Fr Themi would look after him with food, clothing and some money, just recently, he, asked Father to bury him because he knew he was going to die soon.
Father explained to me that there are two sorts of funerals, one for the poor called a paupers’ funeral and one for those who can afford it. The poor are buried in a common grave, no casket and no memorial service. This beggar realised that Father would give him the dignity of a proper burial.
Needless to say that he passed away and Father performed the Funeral Service. His name is Alie Mansaray and he was 52 years old. He was a polio victim and was in a wheelchair.
For days before the funeral his family and friends would visit the Mission House to ask for money for the grave site, the coffin, death certificate, embalming and mortuary costs. We even had to find clothes in order to bury him in a dignified manner.
It is such a sad situation and there are so many of these stories that should be shared!
The following day as I was leaving the College after my lecture, one of our drivers was sitting outside the compound. He called to me and told me that his eldest daughter had just passed away. Again when I asked when and how, his answer was that she had been sick and that she was in the mortuary that very day. She leaves behind three children all below the age of ten. Now he becomes the carer, the family are surviving on his salary as one of the Mission’s driver.
All these tragedies in one weekend! Life is a struggle and these stories are everywhere here. Life, death and births are occurrences that are accepted as daily events without exaggeration, just part of the life and death survival cycle in this part of West Africa!
You see, 90% of Sierra Leoneans were affected by the war. Once the rebels entered a city or village every family had a tragedy touch them. Fathers and mothers were killed or tortured in front of the children. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins were either burnt alive or arms and legs chopped off, machetes used to carve signs on people’s bodies and all the while children and other family members were made to watch. Homes, centres, schools, hospitals were all burnt down in the villages. Bodies were strewn everywhere in the streets in the capital city and in the villages. These were everyday sights and after a while a dead body was just a dead body except for the ravenous dogs and the birds!
These young children are now the young adults we are educating in the College. These are the orphans who are trying to get on with life the best possible way which is through education. They all must have emotional scars but do not show them. Some cannot afford the low fees and struggle to pay in instalments , come up with part of the fees, or whatever they can give to stay in the College. They know this is their only chance to become independent and join the workforce in order to make a better life for themselves and their family.
The Orthodox Mission in Sierra Leone is making such a difference to people’s lives and being a very small part of it makes me realise how much we have back home, how much we take for granted and how little we trust in God.
My challenge is to listen and help without becoming emotionally involved. Something I need to learn if I am to become effective in this daily struggle. So I pray to God to give me the strength and grace to do His works as He would want them done.
Mary Adams 17/3/2013
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