Sierra Leone Trip II (Jan 31-Feb 14)


Sierra Leone Trip II

Part I of III - Travel days (Jan 31 – Feb 2)
I’m sitting in London in a hotel (since I had an overnight layover this time) and I am amazed by two things. One, even though I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the UK over the past few years with EMI, I am once again reminded how different the cultures are. As with many cultural differences, they are subtle and many times difficult to even describe, but they ultimately serve to make you feel very out of place. So when I travel to the UK, I typically try to be quieter, less obvious in what I say and do, and just try to blend in. I do become somewhat of a target for being taken advantage of though since if things don’t go as I think they should, I am very unlikely to buck the system.
For instance, if a sign says something is one price and when I get to the counter they charge me for more, I will probably just keep quiet and pay because I don’t want to be that obnoxious American demanding my rights overseas! (Not that all Americans are obnoxious of course, but like it or not that is the stereotype and I don’t want to reinforce it.) In today’s case, fortunately, the nice middle-eastern woman who helped me at the market in Heathrow airport notified me that the sandwich I’d chosen was not a part of the meal deal, so I was able to go back and select one that was a part of the deal. That’s nice because I’ve learned to take advantage of any ‘deal’ I can find in the UK – with the exchange rate of 1.6+ dollars to the pound, it is easy to spend a lot of money here without realizing it.
The second thing that stands out to me is how much of a mindset shift I have to undergo to go on these trips. The moments leading up to leaving are nothing short of mental torture for me. My anxiety, sadness and homesickness levels all skyrocket to the top and I am left in this state of mini-depression. I can be completely convinced in my heart that the trip is what God wants me to do, but still struggle with my mind not wanting to go. When those two don’t agree, I’ve learned that my heart should be listened to so I follow what it says, but it makes for a very tumultuous inner struggle.
I have no idea how long God will want me to do these trips, I really don’t. But I’m learning that though anxiety is bad, the idea of saying no to our ‘flesh’ in a big way from time to time is a healthy thing, even if it makes us terribly uncomfortable. I hate it and everything in me tells me I don’t want to go…except the peace I have inside that this is what God has called our family to for this time in our lives. Then once I’ve left, even on the road to the airport, 50% of the anxiety is gone. That part doesn’t make as much sense to me, other than once I’m gone I feel like the clock has started ticking towards when I get back home to Alisha and the boys!
So even though the travel process isn’t a direct part of the ministry of EMI, it is definitely the biggest growth area for me. It’s a 3-times per year tearing away of my own agenda, where my security in my family and home is replaced with the security of living in God’s will for my life. Of course, that’s actually the security I live under 24/7, it’s just that I’m able to fake being in control most of the time otherwise. For me, God sees fit to remove the veil 3-times per year. Perhaps if I learned to live that way all the time he wouldn’t have to keep doing it for me 3-times per year! As usual, the overall travel was a long haul – about 50 hours from my front door step to our guesthouse outside of Freetown.


Charting out a plan after just arriving off the ferry in Freetown.
Also, for the first time on one of my trips, one of the volunteers’ bags didn’t make it on the flight, so he was left with just the clothes on his back. He had a great attitude about it – I think I would have been more freaked out!
There were so many familiar images this time, as we took the same ferry across and met Mark Palmer from Mercy Ships on the other side. I kept blocking out the Ship from my mind because everything in me felt like that was the next step! But I reminded myself that I’m very much looking forward to seeing the country this time, and staying on the ship would have made that impossible.
When we arrived at the guesthouse, it was much nicer than I expected – they had power, dinner waiting for us, and an upstairs dorm style room with nice wood beds formed into little cubicles. I stayed up very late getting the unlocked, go-anywhere internet ‘stick’ I bought on Amazon.com to finally work. I did succeed finally, so I was able to email home and let them know I’d arrived.


Good to be back on the bustling streets of Sierra Leone!

Day One (Feb 3)
I actually slept through my alarm and was the last one awake at 7:20am. I scrambled to make it to breakfast downstairs. We did our typical team testimonies, heard a bit from Mark about the project Mercy Ships is undertaking in having us come, and then hit the road for the 2+ hour car drive to Makeni.
After checking into our guesthouse – again, surprisingly nice for this rural of a town – we decided to head straight out for the hospital. We right away ran into a little wrinkle in the plan. The site we had all mapped out and prepared to assess was no longer the hospital! The hospital had moved last year. So after driving around town for a bit, we finally found the new hospital campus a few miles from town. The changed site actually turned out to be a blessing, since it had only be in operation for under a year, there really wasn’t a whole lot that had broken down just yet.
However, we were led around by the worker who works on site as a representative of the contractor who built the hospital. This man shared with us that they had still not been paid for building the hospital. Apparently, the local government officials keep putting the payment off. The contractor is worried that if the building or systems are allowed to break down, his chances of being paid are very low. So, he is paying out of his own pocket to have this man keep things working on site.


The new hospital site in Makeni


The civil engineering team discussing the Makeni water system with the builder's representative on site. Since he had built the site, his knowledge was invaluable to us.


The water system at the new Makeni site was actually very nice. However, because there is insufficent power on the site, the pumps aren't able to operate enough to fill this nice tank system. Also, the pumps that were installed were likely from America, which means they were built to operate at a different power frequency. Consequently, they keep burning out and need replacement. It's startling that a hospital that has been in service less than a year already has such basic utility problems even though the solutions to those problems are relatively simple.


The electrical team (L to R): intern Ross, volunteer Ruedi and volunteer Bill - once again, we had an all-star team! Bill and Ruedi each have over 30 years of experience, yet they worked together very well as a team. It was a great example to the rest of us "young guys" to see such seasoned veterans working together so well.


Structural volunteer Barry with intern Ross

The man shared with us that since Makeni was the former headquarters of the rebel army (RUF) in the civil war, many of the former rebel leaders are now in prominent government positions here. As such, he said the officials are operating according to their own rules and agendas. Of course, this was just one man’s story and who knows if it’s even partially true. He said he was a Christian though, and he seemed very interested in finding out that we were as well.
But it was amazing to me to think that some of the people who committed such atrocities against the country of Sierra Leone have somehow been able to garner for themselves positions of political power. And though Makeni appears on the surface to be somewhat mellow and a typical medium sized African town (reminds me of Jinja, Uganda, a bit), it carries a significant history with it in the devastating war of the past two decades, largely due to its convenient location next to some of the diamond mining areas.
Since we were so productive today and the hospital is so new, it looks like we will press on to Bo tomorrow, a day ahead of schedule. I am really enjoying seeing this country after having read so much about its history after the last trip. Of course the movie Blood Diamond was set here, but the books ‘A Long Way Gone’ and ‘Blood Diamonds’ tell a gripping account of the events from two very different on-the-ground viewpoints. I highly recommend both to anyone interested in West Africa’s recent, volatile history.
One other quick thing – on this trip, we’ve been able to purchase SIM cards for our iphones (unlocked) and computer internet ‘sticks’ and thus virtually have internet access 24/7! It’s amazing the advances in technology over the past couple of years. The speed is not bad though still comparatively slow, but being able to keep up with email during the trip is an enormous blessing. I also am available to Alisha by phone at anytime if she needs me back home. I am convinced that the cell phone (and now phone internet) system of pay as you go is so much better than the proprietary jumbled mess we have to put up with back in the U.S. To remain neutral, I won’t mention AT&T’s name specifically. Ha!

Day Two (Feb 4)
Today, we went back to the Makeni site to finalize our observations there. By noon, each of the disciplines had seen enough, so we pulled out of town a day earlier than expected. The ride to Bo was 4 hours, heading back west towards Freetown for an hour and a half before turning south to Bo. Fortunately, the roads were nice so we didn’t have to battle the usual potholes. It was pretty warm still, in large part because the air conditioner in the car we were driving in stopped working on the first day. It was interesting to see the country side – similar to Uganda but not lush since it’s the dry season. One big difference though is that the landscape is riddled with palm trees of every size and shape. It really is beautiful, and looks very much like what you would think the jungles of Africa look like.


The palm trees were so beautiful, even though the countryside was pretty dry. Sierra Leone gets a ton of rain during the wet season - the wettest time of year (June-Oct) gets close to 30 inches of rain per month!

Hearing from Pastor Moses in the car much of the way was a real treat. His on-the-ground account of the war was so interested. Though he had a couple of close calls, thankfully he and his family all survived without being tracked down by the rebel group who were torturing and killing any and everyone in their path. More about Pastor Moses later in the trip.


Mark Palmer, our Mercy Ships' host, and Pastor Moses, who also works with Mercy Ships on the ground. These guys traveled with us and were a lot of fun to have around. We joked that they were like an old married couple because they liked to give each other a hard time.

We arrived in Bo around 5pm and got checked into our rooms. In some rooms, the beds were bigger than a king size, so to save money and stick together at one hotel, some of us decided to share a room and the large bed in it. I shared with John, the other EMI staff member who came on this trip.
The team this time consists of: me; John Agee, another EMI project leader and civil engineer; intern Ross Yeager, a just graduated electrical engineering student from Colorado Springs; Austin Hewitt, a civil engineer who came on the trip in September as well (it’s a huge blessing to have someone come back this time to help with continuity in our work); Aaron Koonsman, a civil engineer from New York; Bill Baldwin, an electrical engineer with 30+ years experience; and Ruedi Tobler, another electrical engineer with 30+ years experience as well as many EMI trips under his belt and numerous trips to Africa, including living in West Africa for 3 years at one point in his career. It’s a great team and they made quick work of the hospital in Makeni. The next 4 days will be the meat of the trip as we assess the two larger hospitals.


No trip to Africa is complete without a picture with the local kids around all clammoring for your attention. One thing is universal in Africa, regardless of which country you're in: African children love having their picture taken!

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