Over Christmas I met an extraordinary woman and her husband through the International Church. Cami has been living in Sierra Leone for fourteen years doing ministry with and among the poorest of the poor in Freetown. The ministry is called Word Made Flesh. It is an intentional Christian community that prays together, eats together, and serves the Kroo Bay community together.
Kroo Bay is in the city center. I drove through it early on on my way to the juvenile prison. It’s a community of people who live in homes often made from scrap metal. There is a stream that goes through it that is essentially where all the trash that people put in the gutter gets washed down to. It’s murky shallow water that is piled high with plastic, rotting food, old clothes and shoes, you name it. Sometimes the water looks like a florescent blue. At any given moment you see pigs, dogs, egrets and often barefoot children digging through it to find some scrap that’s useful to eat or use at home.
I’ve expressed some concern since learning of where and how I’d be serving (in the Bishop’s office and UM University doing leadership training and education) that I would be too removed from the poor. I believe wholeheartedly in the work I’m doing and how important this kind of development and education work is to building a more empowered and hopeful society. But like pastoral ministry in the US, if you’re not careful you can find yourself three steps removed from the ones that Jesus so deeply loved. I’m passionate about connecting with the poor. And I don’t want to lose sight of a call to know and love and be community with people who struggle and suffer in that way.
So when I heard of what Word Made Flesh does, I asked Cami if I they need volunteers.
Now that things are back in the swing Cami and I decided it might be good for me to have a tour to get an idea about what the ministry does on the ground. I told my driver on Friday that I was going to have a tour through Kroo Bay the next day. He clarified that I actually said Kroo Bay and I said yes, Kroo Bay. I think he was sure I was confused. And so while we were on our way through town to get more kitty litter (aka sand), he took a detour to drive me through the center of Kroo Bay with it’s metal shacks lining the street. When we were there, he said, “This is Kroo Bay. This is where you’re going to tour?” I said, “Yes. I’ve been here before. I know where we are.” I don’t think he quite understood why I would want to go there. Especially because he sees where I live. So far removed from that kind of life.
We made it back the next day and met Cami to take a walk through. We got to a street that was full of stalls to sell all kinds of food stuffs. Cami is pretty popular around there, so she found someone that she knew and was checking in on them. While she was chatting I took my phone out to get a photo of the street market. It was bustling and really beautiful. There were some women oiling fish and the fish were all dried (I think?) in the shape of a circle. I took a photo of the booth and then immediately thought, Oh I probably should have asked their permission first. About that time one of the women saw the camera phone and said rather forcefully, “No pictures.” I apologized for having the phone and made a big show about putting it up. But she kept on, “No pictures here. No pictures.” I said, with my empty hands up, as friendly as I could, “OK, no pictures. I promise.” And then as I walked by she said, “We will beat you up here for taking pictures.” I think they’re tired of being pitied or enduring the disrespect of ogling outsiders. I get it. I wouldn’t much appreciate that either. Truth is, I feel a little strange about writing this blog about it. But I’m writing it anyway in the hopes that it will illuminate the dignity and ordinariness of life there.
Wi Go Waka (sound it out…you’ll get it)
After we went through the market, we walked into the heart of the Kroo Bay neighborhood. It was remarkable. A whole system of homes and walkways with no roads to be seen, except the one road that goes right through the middle. No cars, no motorcycles, not even bicycles get through there since the ground isn’t level due to being in the valley of the Freetown hills. It’s purely pedestrian. You’d never know from the street how much life and energy and community is in there. The walkways were very narrow and felt a little bit more like walking on peoples’ property. Often the walkways were two and a half or three feet wide and on both your right and left were front doorways to homes. I say doorways because many didn’t have doors. Just cloth to keep the bugs out that would blow in the breeze. I felt like I was violating people’s privacy and walking on their personal property. But Cami reminded me that they don’t have the same mindset around personal property and privacy that we do. It’s all just land and we all just live on it.
It was a winding path we took, first to get to the evangelical church in the middle of a bunch of clustered homes. We had to walk on tires filled in the center with sand in order to get to the church because even in the dry season, flooding is a problem there. People expect that their homes will be flooded every year up to a few feet or more. Not ideal, but what other options do they have? The church was small but so vibrant and colorful. Beautiful. Word Made Flesh does a weekly Saturday program there where they can sometimes gather as many as 250 children. This is one of the reasons that “Aunti Cami” is so much a part of the community. She’s seen almost a whole generation of children grow up there. Everywhere she went they would shout “Ale Ale” (as in Alleluia…it means Praise the Lord) which is the name of the ministry.
Next we walked by the clinic where medical members of the International Church come and do a weekly clinic. And then right after that we encountered my favorite thing about the whole neighborhood. It was the very thing that made me realize that life is just life here—and people are just people.
There in the center of Kroo Bay was a great big clearing for a soccer field. And on Saturday morning it was crowded with people…both players and spectators. It was very orange and very dusty. But it reminded me of the community that was formed around soccer fields when I was little. All three of us kids ( back in the 80’s when it was just three of us) played soccer, so if I wasn’t playing I was running around with kids that were there, like me, to watch their brother or sister play. That soccer field was a place of laughter and comfort and family when, after the death of my mother, things were pretty painful at home. And I’ll be honest, I was a little envious of the community that must come so naturally when you live like that. How often must they run off the day's challenges and frustrations together in that place?
We had to walk straight through a game in play to get to go forward, right in front of the goal post with players coming our way. Cami walked slowly (cause life is just chill here) and I did a little jog to get out of the way. To get to where we were going, we had to cross a bridge over that trash stream. A woman likely in her 60’s passed over it before us with no problem. But for me the bridge was the most anxiety-provoking part. At one end, it was angled at such a slope (with no handrails) that I was sure it was going to slip on the sandy concrete and slide right into that trashy water. It wasn’t the first time on that walk that I chided myself internally for wearing the wrong shoes. (It also wouldn’t have been the first time since moving that I fell on my rear walking the streets here.) Cami of course was wearing just flip flops and did just fine.
Ale Ale House of Hope
Finally we made it to the Ale Ale House to get a tour of where their ministry entails mostly education support (financial scholarships and tutoring) along with community building. We passed two homes before we got there that Cami pointed out are inhabited by members of the Word Made Flesh staff, including the Executive Director. They live in Kroo Bay not because they financially have to, but because they want to be among the people in ministry. This is a beautiful and important ministry. And I’m glad to get to be a part of it. You can learn more about what Word Made Flesh does here. And here's a video produced by them.
Just to paint a picture, here is a list of quick facts about what so many people face here**.
Minimum wage is 500,000 Le ($66) per month. Anything less than that and people do not have to pay taxes.
Many teachers make 300,000 Le ($39) per month. Not enough to live on. It’s a similar situation for nurses as well, if they get paid at all.
70% of youth/young adults are unemployed or underemployed (According to the UNDP-United Nations Development Programme).
Two-thirds of Sierra Leoneans live under the poverty line (According to the UNDP).
59% of adults are illiterate (According to the UNDP).
Rent ranges from something like $4 per month in Kroo Bay to $3000+ per month in some places. Anecdotally I have heard that there is a significant gap where affordable housing is concerned. Dave Ramsay says that you shouldn’t spend more than 25% of your take-home income on housing. For a teacher making 300,000 Le per month that is 75,000 Le (about $10).
Every child has to pay school fees, even to the public schools. The cheapest school fees that I’ve heard of are $30 per year. When you add in books and a school uniform it goes up to maybe something like $100 per year. If you are a single mother on a low teacher’s salary ($39*12=$468 annual salary) with three children, it costs estimated $300 per year to send all three kids to school. That leaves approximately $168 to live on for the rest of the year. Take $10 per month’s rent out of that and it goes down to $48 to live on for the year.
It costs about $140+ per month to get internet that meets US standards. That’s more than twice an entire month’s minimum wage.
It took me a few days to write this post. After finishing it and reading it over I’m realizing that I’m giving two perspectives here. One is of abject poverty and the challenges that come with it. Struggle upon struggle upon struggle. The other is one of rich community and a mindset of togetherness that I think we can learn from. Something to be envied or something to address as an issue of human wellbeing and empowerment? Truth is, what I saw there wasn’t either one or the other. It’s both. Poverty isn’t the worst thing. And there is dignity in any life. And yet, the Bible consistently critiques the rich (which by world standards, most people in the United States are) and calls them to do something to empower and care for the poor.
Truth is, there are many forms of poverty in the world, including a deep poverty of spirit that comes with materialism and often with wealth. We are all poor in some ways and we are all rich in others. I think we have something to give one another, and it starts with generosity of all kinds of resources…time, money, spirit, hard work, advocacy, community, spiritual strength, kindness. The list is long and wide. Everybody has something to give. I want to live a life where I give and receive freely…in God’s economy. I don’t think I know how to do that. But by God’s grace I want to learn.
**I’m piecing things together from conversations with locals and expats over the course of my two months here along with a little bit of data I found online. Some of the figures come from my own math and so are just hypothetical estimates. But they give you an idea of what people deal with.