Locals call this ribbon cut through Sierra Leone’s jungle a road. The worst gravel road in rural North America would seem like a highway by comparison.
The rocky, river-slashed “road” eventually peters out and continues as a footpath leading to a wide, crocodile-infested river somewhere near Sierra Leone’s border with Guinea.
Over this river hangs a most amazing suspension bridge. The people here used fronds of local plants to weave a hammock bridge that spans 200 feet of river. The bridge is supported not by cables but by vines from mighty trees on either bank.
With no boats in sight, this bridge is the only way across.
Help from Within—and Without
When the Christian Reformed Church began its ministry in Sierra Leone in 1979, missionaries settled in two different regions. One was among the Krim people in the south of the country; the other was among the Kuranko people in Koinandugu District in the north. The Krim work ended in 1991. The Kuranko work is—in some ways—just beginning.
Joseph Sesay is 47 years old. He is Kuranko. He has been with Christian Extension Services—a holistic ministry started by the CRC and now staffed completely by Sierra Leoneans—for 22 years and now heads the ministry in Koinandugu District.
When Sesay sits at his desk in the CES office in Kabala, he faces a wall-sized map of Koinandugu District that shows even the smallest villages of Dondoya, Maworna, Yisimaia, and Heremakono. Little pins of varying colors signify where CES is working in the fields of literacy, agriculture, preventative health care, evangelism, micro-enterprise, and more.
Also represented on that map are tens of thousands of people CES has impacted. These are the people who are the bridge to Sierra Leone’s future.
A Nation Aflame
The United Nations ranks Sierra Leone at the bottom of its “Quality of Life” list. By almost all measures, it’s a difficult place to live. The average life span of a man is between 33 and 45 years.
Sierra Leone is an extremely poor country with incredible disparity and inequality in distribution of wealth. Ironically, the country is rich in gold and diamonds, a fact that contributed to the nation’s dysfunction.
When Charles Taylor, former president of neighboring Liberia, and Fodoy Sankoh, a Sierra Leonean photographer, were classmates at a guerilla training school in Libya, they cooked up a scheme to get this diamond wealth. Thus were born the “blood diamonds” of Sierra Leone.
Taylor gave Sankoh room in Liberia to begin a rebel movement called the Rebel United Front (RUF). The movement capitalized on massive unemployment and the people’s dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in Sierra Leone. It soon deteriorated into a horrifying orgy of bloodletting by roving bands of rebels.
To keep its ranks full, the RUF abducted young boys and girls and forced them to kill their parents and other relatives, ensuring that they would never be accepted back into their normal lives.
By the time the war ended in 2002, tens of thousands were dead and nearly 2 million refugees crowded into neighboring countries. With the support of United Nations peacekeepers and international financial help, the RUF and Civil Defense Forces were disarmed, and thousands of former combatants returned to civilian life. Many of the former child-soldiers are now unemployed, however, and tension in the neighboring countries of Liberia and Guinea adds to a sense that the peace is tenuous at best.
“The rebels stayed in my town for four years, eight months, and 24 days,” says Sewa Marah Kondeh, a man in his early 30s with a contagious smile. Like most Sierra Leoneans, he knows the exact date when brutal rebels entered—and left—his life.
Marah lives in the small town of Foria, located deep in the jungle of northern Sierra Leone. He has hopes and aspirations for his children and his wife. His smile disappears though, when he remembers “rebel time.”
“My father and I spent eight days in the bush, hiding. We moved constantly. Only at night would I climb mango trees, and that’s what we lived on.” Women and small children were at less risk, so Marah’s wife and other kids stayed put. However, women were regularly rounded up and forced to pound rice for the rebel soldiers. “They could pound all day, with no food, no rest. Then they were sent home to no husband and very little food.” Marah’s wife, Isatu, begins to tell her own tale but stops, unable or unwilling to go on.
“We Must Forgive”
A North American would call Foria a village in the jungle. To local residents, it is a town on a major road. It’s also a microcosm of what the Christian Reformed Church has been doing in this country.
Marah is a life-long resident of Foria. A proud father of four sons, he speaks with optimism about the future. “We prayed for peace. We prayed that the rebels would leave. And they did. It happened. This has deepened our faith.”
A visitor asks: “But what about all those rebels who were here and now roam the streets of Freetown, the capital? The rebels who are free in this country? How do you handle yourself when you see them again?”
His answer is simple and direct: “We must forgive and move on. We just leave it in the past.”
Marah’s words ring with gospel influence. The simplicity and directness of his answer is astonishing, considering what happened to him, his wife, and practically everyone in Foria. It’s also astounding in its Christlikeness. Because Sierra Leone is a Muslim nation (70 percent of the people embrace Islam) this attitude is a beautiful testimony to the work of CES and the Christian Reformed Church.
Although Marah never received formal training in church leadership, his close association with CES and its approach to the gospel impelled him to step into the gap during the war. At great personal risk, he walked to churches in the area to preach. He and another man encouraged and strengthened believers and called unbelievers to repent.
He quotes the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) as an answer to why he did this and continues to do it. “We are appointed by God,” he says. “In this church in Foria, only me and Anthony [another lay leader] can read.”
Christian Extension Services is a product of its times. The devastation that is Sierra Leone today has forced the staff of CES to focus primarily on helping people to survive and recover from trauma no human being should ever be forced to experience. All over Koinandugu District, this reality is confirmed as Kuranko people say—without hesitation or prompting—that if not for CES, they or a loved one would now be dead. When “rebel time” hit and most organizations fled, CES stayed.
Now that the war is over, people like Marah look to the future and the needs of the church. To meet that future, up-and-coming church leaders must receive training. There are currently 33 churches in places like Foria, Alikalia, Kulanko, and Solia. Their leaders need training in reading, writing, evangelism, preaching, counseling, and more.
In some villages the majority of people are Muslim. In all of the villages, people are still learning, in Marah’s words, “to forgive and move on.” The one thing that can help them to do that is the message of Jesus Christ.
Time to Build
CES’s faith-based approach to improving society has earned it credibility in Sierra Leone. And because CES didn’t turn and run during 11 years of “rebel time,” people now trust it more than ever.
People respect this organization, with its roots in the CRC, but they don’t know how to identify it. Believers in CES churches ask, “Are we Catholic? Are we Baptist? Are we Reformed?”
Through the nightmare years of civil war, some of these issues were put on the back burner as matters of survival and simple faith moved to the front. Now that the country is at peace, it is time to build the church, to expand God’s kingdom, and to establish an even greater healing presence in this volatile region.
Plans are under way to work closely with the Reformed Church Among the Tiv in Nigeria—a daughter of CRC efforts there. This will free up African church leaders to leave Nigeria and go to work in Sierra Leone. CRC missionaries Paul and Mary Kortenhoven will continue to transition out of Sierra Leone as Nigerian Christians—the products of much earlier missionary efforts—move in to coach, train, and establish a church that will not be shaken.
Bridge over Troubled Waters
The hammock bridge at Yii Konto Yankeran was made in secret. Elders of the community wove it at night and guard the details of its amazing construction with care. The people trust that the graceful bridge suspended over croc-filled water will be strong enough to hold them.
So who can weave a bridge to a peaceful and prosperous future for Sierra Leone? Those who have submitted their lives to God hold the secret. They are the ones who can help their brothers and sisters span the crocodile-infested waters of trauma, animosity, and hatred with a strong bridge woven by God’s grace.
This is the only way for Sierra Leone to cross into a successful future.
This is the bridge Christian Extension Services is building.
To the Ends of the Earth
Lesslie Newbigin, a Presbyterian missionary to India and one of the great missionary spokesmen of the past century, once said, “A true congregation of God anywhere in the world is at the same time part of God’s mission to the ends of the earth. It is the duty and privilege of every part of the church everywhere to be involved not only in the missionary task at its own door, but also in some other part of the total worldwide task.”
Christian Reformed World Missions has been helping Christian Reformed churches fulfill the Great Commission since 1871. Today, more than 250 missionaries serve in 25 countries, planting churches and discipling people in a variety of ways.
Your participation is a crucial part of World Missions’ efforts to tell the world about Jesus.
Pentecost Sunday, May 15, is the day when synod asks each church to focus particular attention on the work of Christian Reformed World Missions. Your prayers and offerings are appreciated as we, as a denomination, continue to reach the world for Christ.
For more information, contact Christian Reformed World Missions at
phone: (USA) 800-346-0075; (Can) 800-730-3490;
email: (USA) firstname.lastname@example.org; (Can) email@example.com.