Bishop John Cafod Diary – Part 1, Sierra Leone

Wednesday 31st October 2018

Bishop John is currently on a trip to Sierra Leone and Liberia. We will be sharing his diary in two parts. The first part of the diary published below shares his thoughts on his travels in Sierra Leone.

Cafod Trip to Sierra Leone – October 2018

The country is officially called the Republic of Sierra Leone and is in West Africa. It is bordered by Guinea to the northeast, Liberia to the southeast and the Atlantic Ocean to the southwest. It has a tropical climate, with a diverse environment ranging from savanna to rainforests. The country has a total area of 71,740 sq km (compared with U.K.s 242,500 sq Km) and a population of 7,075,000. The country’s capital and largest city is Freetown (population 1,050,301).

Sierra Leone is a constitutional republic with a directly elected president and a single house legislature. The president is the head of state and the head of government. Since Independent in 1961 to present, Sierra Leonean politics has been dominated by two major political parties, the Sierra Leone People’s Party and the All People’s Congress.

Between 1991 and 1998 Sierra Leone was gripped by a brutal civil war in the country. Sierra Leone has had an interrupted democracy since 1998 to present. In January 2002, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah fulfilled his campaign promise by officially ending the civil war as the rebels were defeated by military force with the help and support of Ecowas, the British Government the African Union, and the United Nations.

Sierra Leone is a Muslim-majority country, with the overall Muslim population at 78%; though there is an influential Christian minority at 21%. Sierra Leone is regarded as one of the most religiously tolerant states in the world. Muslims and Christians collaborate and interact with each other very peacefully, and religious violence is very rare.

As always, I am looking forward to the trip while aware of the complex and violent history of these nations. It is always a privilege to travel with CAFOD and to see something of the great work being done to provide some of the world’s poorest people with sustainable livelihoods. I hope that the diary I send will give you at least a glimpse of the benefits of CAFOD’s work


Day 1 – The Journey

We have arrived, but it has been quite a long day.

The flight to Brussels was full and very cosmopolitan which is to be expected of a flight to a European transport ‘hub’. This was rather confirmed by the lengthy announcement, shortly before we landed, giving the departure gates for a number of connections to major cities. Not surprisingly, Freetown was not mentioned. There was a distinct change as we gathered to board the flight to Freetown with just a handful of Europeans mixing with a large majority of Sierra Leonians and Liberians as the flight was going on to the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

We were very fortunate with the sunshine during the six hour flight and from my window seat I had some spectacular views of the mountains of North Africa as they gave way to the endless stretches of the Sahara desert with its own mountainous sand dunes. These were lost to sight by a sandstorm and then the last part of the flight saw the transition to the green and fertile countryside of Sierra Leone.

The arrival at Freetown was both beautiful and rather shocking. The tiny airport was crowded but we were quickly through baggage reclaim and customs to be met by Kayode, the CAFOD representative here for both Sierra Leone and Liberia. We were ushered on to a bus which took us just a half mile to a ferry and we had a half hour crossing to the city of Freetown. It does seem very strange that the capital city’s airport should be on the far shore of what is said to be the third largest natural harbour in the world. Just about all the users of the airport take this ferry from the city as the alternative route by road requires no less than three hours drive around this natural harbour. It was a lovely introduction to Freetown with its South Atlantic coastline and lengthy sandy beaches. We were met at the ferry landing by a CAFOD car and brought to a small hotel called “Swiss Spirit” which is comfortable and clean with a warm welcome. The hotel’s welcoming letter was careful to say that the hotel provides, among other things, 24 hour running water. We have had two short power cuts since we arrived three hours ago.

I also suggested that the arrival was rather shocking. The poverty here is all too evident. From the gate of the airport there have been shacks and hovels all along the road. There is really no divide between the rich and the poor and hovels lean against better housing (though, to be honest, we have not really seen any good housing so far). The road surfaces, even by the airport and the ferry, were potholed and barely fit for purpose. As in so many African cities, commerce is on the streets with endless lines of stalls and people selling just about everything from food to furniture, to toys and household items. Perhaps the business section of the city will have modern buildings and good roads. But there seems to be no city plan and the traffic is completely chaotic. Another very obvious problem is garbage and particularly plastic waste. The shore line was strewn with plastic bottles and cartons, just as the sides of the roads. We have also been warned about the increase in street crime, with pickpocketing and theft of luggage and, in particular, mobile phones.

But to end on a sense of beauty. The people seem to smile a great deal and are tall and elegant, wearing bright coloured clothes as both men and women stride along with large bundles and loads balanced on their heads. The young people are smartly dressed in school uniforms and there is a real sense of life in the streets.

Tomorrow we have meetings with the CAFOD staff, before meeting the British High Commissioner and then the Archbishop of Freetown.

Day 2

The hotel is on one of the better roads that we have seen in the city and there is plenty of traffic but it was not a problem during the night. Rather more annoying were the occasional dog fights, as there are (as in most African countries that I have visited) stray dogs everywhere. With about half the population Moslem there were the morning prayers from about 4.30am but there does not seem to be a mosque close by so the chanting was quite faint. I have always enjoyed the experience of the call to prayer. Wandering street sellers were advertising their goods before 6am and some have hand-held microphones. The city woke up early, long before it got light and, of course, with the constant battle between numerous motorcyclists and cars, there is the abundant use of the horn. Watching from my window, the traffic is chaotic with the emphasis only on avoiding an accident! It is hot, even in the early morning, and will reach 30 degrees. It is quite humid as the rainy season gives way to the dry season.

From what we saw from the ferry yesterday and in the drive to the hotel, there are very few high rise buildings though there are the concrete shells of new buildings, some of which seem to have been abandoned. There are plenty of trees and greenery in every possible space. We will see more today.

The first appointment of the day was at the CAFOD offices just a few hundred yards from the hotel. The statistics of poverty here are truly appalling. They included:

Of the 189 nations on the poverty scale (called Human Development Index) Sierra Leone ranks 184. The population is 7.1 million. 63% of the population are under 25. At present 67% live in rural areas but there is a growing migration to cities. The country has a reputation for corruption. On the Gender Equality Register, Sierra Leone is 145 of 155. Teenage pregnancies account for 34% of all pregnancies. There are increasing numbers joining the migration to Europe, known here as the “Temple Run”. 77.5% are trapped in multi-dimensional poverty. The discovery of iron ore in 2011 signalled a new possibility for development but that market suddenly collapsed and with the outbreak of Ebola, the economy declined rapidly. Inflation is running at some 15.3%. Child mortality is at 156 deaths per 1000 births. There are 2.2 physicians per 100,000 people and 16.6 nurses and midwives per 100,000. (The Ebola crisis claimed the lives of some of the few doctors and nurses). Only one in three of the population can read. 4.2million have no access to clean water, that is, 60% of the population. 5.6 million have no access to sanitary toilets. The statistics run on and on. Only 1 in 3 can read.

The atmosphere since the April General Election has apparently been much calmer and positive. We are told that the place is much safer than previously. There is a concern that education is improving but employment opportunities are not keeping up. That means that there is a fast growing generation who are more articulate and frustrated. There seems to be a fear that, while the new government has created order, it needs to establish some radical policies and establish itself as bringing development for the people.

We also heard about three areas of CAFOD’s work.

  1. Food and livelihood security. This should be easily possible as there is an abundance of fertile land but corruption hampers good agricultural methods and poor access to markets means that food is hoarded and much wasted. There are programs for training young people in setting up small businesses and in training and apprenticeships. Education is improving but not providing the appropriate skills. There is also work being done to create forms of credit unions that provide people with small loans that can be taken in times of need (school books and uniforms, sickness, a wedding) and repaid over time. These unions also allow for the finance for the start up of small business ventures.
  2. Rights and participatory governance. This includes educating people in their rights and how to claim them in local justice. It also assists in helping people establish local governance and participate in political processes.
  3. Emergency preparedness. These are programmes concerning basic levels of hygiene called WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene). It assists in providing boreholes for fresh water, particularly in rural areas, and teaches responses to flooding and mudslides and how to reduce the risk of dangerous events. We heard about a fascinating practice that, on the first Saturday of every month from 7am and 12noon, no shops are open, no traffic, no workplaces and the whole community in every town and village is expected to clear drains and garbage so that flooding can be better avoided. Can you imagine that happening in the U.K.?

The next meeting was a business meeting with the British High Commission. The UK has given a lot of grants to the country and been responsible for the training and good management of the army. We moved on to lunch with Archbishop Edward Charles of Freetown. He lives a little outside the city so he travelled into town and we met at a small hotel. He was very easy company and I learned a lot about the Archdiocese and the Church here in Sierra Leone. He has been Archbishop for ten years. The Archdiocese is now quite small (the Diocese of Bo having been created in 2012, taking a large part of the land from Freetown). The area is densely populated, with about 2 million of the 7 million national population, and about 70,000 Catholics. He has 25 diocesan priests and 15 religious priests for 19 parishes. There are nine seminarians, so that does not compare with the large numbers of seminarians in nearby Nigeria. The relations with the Moslems is excellent and there is plenty of shared activity. We have a lot to learn from them.

From lunch, it was a visit to the Ambassador of the European Union, a very welcoming and friendly Belgian called Tom Vens. That was a very encouraging hour with discussions about Brexit and how it will be necessary to work to maintain the very good relationships that CAFOD has had with the EU and with the various Caritas groups in Europe. He was very impressive.

The EU Embassy is half way up the highest hill in the city and we went on to the summit to see the view. We passed the very heavily fortified US Embassy with its very present security guards. The city sprawled out below us. There seems to have been little city planning and people have simply built on land as they pleased. There are very few high rise buildings – most are one and two storey and, as I was told yesterday, there is no sense of a division between the hovels of the poorest and the homes of the slightly more affluent. I still have seen very few places of luxury. From the top of the hill we also saw the scar of a mudslide down a neighbouring hill in August 2017, which swept many houses away and claimed many lives

Tomorrow will be a day of travel as we visit some partner projects. We are expecting a full six hours in the car so we will be reaching into the heart of the country and spending the night in the city of Bo. These are my favourite moments with CAFOD, when we get well away from any tourists and meet the people in remote places and see the real benefit of CAFOD’s work among the poorest people. It is in places like this that I have found the greatest welcome, kindness and generosity, among the people who have almost nothing and are working to establish their own livelihoods.

Day 3

Two things stayed in my head overnight. I was on my own in the car with Jacob, the driver, for a short journey between meetings yesterday. He told me of the impact of the Ebola epidemic on his own family. He lost his brother, sister-in-law and their three children in a matter of days. It seems that families were struck down because the virus was so contagious it spread within family units before even the first person showed symptoms. Many thousands died. I was also told that the epidemic was made worse because there was a government ruling that bodies had to be burned, something that had never been part of the religious practices of these people and some infected bodies were hidden to avoid cremation, meaning that contagion remained present.

I was also speaking to the Archbishop and his priest secretary. We were discussing the size of his Archdiocese. He had said that there were 70,000 Catholics but the secretary corrected him by adding a nought, to make it 700,000. All the statistics concerning Freetown are vague as there is little reliable information. The secretary was suggesting that Freetown has probably doubled in size to over two million because of the civil war when people thought this was the safest place to be, and then never went back to their villages when the war came to an end.

It will be good to get beyond Freetown today and we have seen a great deal of Sierra Leone. We set off on time but had to deal with the rush hour traffic which is quite something. There are few good roads in the city and all the side roads are merely dirt tacks, some of which have a serious gradient. One of the lovely things to see was the thousands of children heading for school. Each school has a distinctive uniform; many are very bright colours so there were groups merging together along the road towards their schools, all immaculately turned out despite the poverty from which so many must come. What was not so encouraging was seeing the many children who were still in the streets long after the school day had started, without uniforms, settling down to various tasks like selling goods in the markets or helping labourers.

We were soon away from the steep hills on which Freetown is precariously built and onto the central plain. We took a left after about an hour and travelled north for another hour and a half which brought us to a town called Kambia. Here we met with some staff of a CAFOD partner called Kaddro. They described their work which is closely related to the Ebola epidemic and its aftermath. We set out to visit their projects.

The next forty minutes or so were almost entirely off the main road. The track was just hardened soil and gravel but there were plenty of potholes and erosion. Arriving at a village called Kunthai with a population of about 500. For me, this is one of the special CAFOD moments, being in a place where few visitors have ever come and from which the community have rarely travelled. It is local Africa. We met the village chief who was happy for us to see all the projects in which Kaddro had been involved. There were a lot of smiling people to welcome us.The first stop was the school; a simple two room concrete building in which there were about sixty children. There were two blackboards but no sign of any books or resources, the walls were bare. There were no desks  and the children were seated on benches. But they were so happy and proud of the first village school. There was equal pride in the first three toilets, situated close by.

We saw the borehole in the centre of the village that has revolutionised their lives, providing clean water and avoiding the need to walk the mile to the river for contaminated water.

We then walked into the thickly forested area surrounding the village to see the four beehives that produce eighty litres of honey every ninety days. Good healthy food with excess amounts for trading. The final showpiece was the “dry floor”, a concrete square about 20 feet by 20 feet for the drying of various grain and seeds and rice. This allows for the much faster drying process and much less waste. Some women were turning the seed. We were told that new farming techniques have made the village self-sufficient for food production and able to trade surplus food in the market, which is unfortunately several hours walk away in this very remote place.

We moved on to Malikia Village and saw their dry floor and their new rice processing machine which cleans the husks from the grains of rice and leaves it ready for cooking. We also heard of farming techniques which substitute compost for fertilisers.

The last stop was Lokoya village. There we attended the community meeting of the credit project. The story of this village was particularly sad as it had been hit by the Ebola virus. The village was quarantined, which meant that no-one was allowed in or out while the virus was live. Many people died, leaving many orphans. We were there to see the latest project which amounted to a village bank into which the villagers put their savings and from which they can draw loans. There is a special fund kept for emergencies and we were told that a child had been able to have life-saving medical treatment because the fund had been able to transport her to a hospital in Kenya for specialist treatment. The system says a great deal about “community” and a sense of common care for one another from which I think we might learn in our very individualistic comsumerist society. There is a weekly meeting at which all transactions are recorded. The money is kept in a box by one family but there are three locks with the three keys kept by separate people.

After a debrief back at Kambia we were on the road to Bo in the south of the country. Kambia is in the far north, close to the border with Guinea – so close that we saw military personnel watching for smugglers and I got a text from Guinea to say that I was on their network.

The statistics are no longer very reliable but it is evident that the majority of the whole population is centred on four or five cities, Freetown being by far the largest. The countryside is sparsely populated, as we have seen today. In the forty minute journey from Kambia to the three villages we saw no other cars or vans and only a handful of motorbikes. We passed very few houses and no factories or industries. The three hour journey to Bo was along a very quiet road, yet it is one of the few important inter-city roads.

The journey today has given abundant evidence of the beauty of this country. What a fertile land, with rich red soil which will grow just about anything. This should be a “bread basket” but corruption and poor training and marketing resources have held it back.

A few other things to note. For Mancunians, Vimto is alive and well in Sierra Leone with big posters advertising it, and it is readily available in cans and as squash.

One trade which seems to show great skill here is woodwork in all its forms. We have seen some very beautiful furniture in varnished wood and wooden floor and ceiling tiling. There are some fine pieces of art work and I am hoping to add to my collection of small carved pieces which I have collected on my African journeys.

This would seem to be a religious people. Archbishop Charles spoke about the mutual respect between Christians and Moslems with inter-marriage causing no difficulties. There are churches everywhere. Many are single evangelical churches with names such as “Redeeming Church of God” and “United Brethren in Christ”, but there are also Methodists and Baptists and Wesleyan. Catholicism is strong and the Archbishop spoke about the need to build more churches but was emphatic that they are not to be grand and expensive! There are also plenty of mosques.

We meet the Bishop of Bo tomorrow and also have a field trip before returning to Freetown.

Day 4

As we arrived yesterday we did not really get much of an idea of Bo as the hotel is in the first part of the city that we entered. The main road that had brought us to Bo seemed to run directly on to the centre but we turned off onto a mud track, full of street-sellers and arrived at the hotel. There were certainly no signs of a modern business city centre, even though this is apparently the second city of the country. Again, there really is no sign so far of good or modern housing. The streets are lined with single storey huts which serve as both shops and homes for the shopkeepers. We should see a little more of the city today as the projects we are visiting lie on the far side of the city.

I have mentioned the religious tolerance here. It is so good to hear about it and know that this country has a longstanding tradition of mutual respect – indeed a sense of mutual celebration. This does not, however, seem to flow into ethnic harmony. About sixteen ethnic groups inhabit Sierra Leone, each with its own language and customs. The two largest and most influential are the Temne and Mende. The Temne are predominantly found in the northwest of the country, and the Mende are predominant in the southeast. A priest from the Mende people was chosen to be a bishop but he was appointed to serve amongst the Temne. The priests and people would simply not accept him and, eventually, he was made an auxiliary bishop among his own people, some six years ago. An Italian bishop has been in place as the administrator of the Diocese. I heard, too, that some priests of one ethnic group will not visit, let alone minister to, people of another group. I think Pope Francis would have something to say about that!

We had our first appointment with the Bishop of Bo, Bishop Charles Campbell. What a very easy going gentleman. We had a good conversation but I am baffled by the statistics that we get. He says he has thirty diocesan priests, with fifteen religious priests and three orders of nuns. That would be a fact, I am sure. The Diocese is large, covering about a third of the country but he said that he thought there would only be about 20,000 Catholics in the Diocese, and only 2,000 in the city of Bo, which has over half a million residents. Things do not add up.

Bishop Charles has a surprising background. Despite his very Scottish/Irish sounding name, both parents were Moslem and he converted about the age of eighteen, having been impressed by the teachers in his school who were Spiritan priests and brothers. His father was not opposed to his conversion but told him that, if he didn’t develop a good prayer life, he would demand that he came back to Islam. The family did not oppose his ordination to the priesthood and they attended the ceremony. He was teaching in the seminary when he was appointed the first bishop of the new Diocese of Bo, in 2011. Two years ago his mother made her pilgrimage to the Haj, in Mecca, and photos were taken when he met her at the airport when she returned. It all went viral on social media. In fact, another of the five bishops here has a Moslem mother. He was good company and it was good to meet him.

At the meeting we were introduced to Sr Bernadette, a Missionary Sister of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary. Her congregation is a CAFOD partner and we were to travel to meet with her projects. She is quite a lady. Originally from Nigeria, she has been here twelve years and is clearly well respected for getting things done. She was a catechist but enjoys her development work as it takes her back to her farming days as a child. We set off to the first of three villages.

Our journey took us through Bo and I asked to see the centre of the city. It turned out to be a large market place, teeming with people. There were no municipal buildings or sense of importance. I am sorry to say that Bo has no redeeming features at all and is little more than a large shanty town. Most of the side roads are simply the soil and gravel spaces between buildings and just about every building was in poor condition. Even in Niger the more important cities had business and banking centres and good roads but in Bo there was nothing to be seen. There were actually few cars, most being the 4×4 vehicles needed by the NGOs to get to their rural projects. The traffic was, however, clogged with motorbikes and people.

It took the best part of an hour to get along an unmade road to our first stop, Gibima Village. Once out of Bo we saw no cars or trucks, just a few motorcyclists and pedestrians. We were certainly back in rural and almost inaccessible Sierra Leone. The welcome was warm and we heard little speeches about the work of Sr Bernadette in organising a borehole which has transformed lives. The previous water source was a stream some distance away with badly contaminated water. Their present need is a road to get the produce of their successful casava plantation to a processor and to market. We drove on the see the farm. This village has combined in a partnership with a local village and started a 33 acre casava plantation. We travelled onto to Phalla Village and saw the villagers clearing the ground around the ripening casava in this joint project. It is a remarkable plant of which I knew little more than the name. The fruit is white, and rather like a carrot in consistency. It can be eaten raw or, as will see later, in various forms. The leaves are a good vegetable and the plant stems are useful as pliable wood for building. The farm was bursting with the plants. The working of the successful relationship between the communities was explained and there would seem to be very good collaboration. Their main problem is getting the produce to market, along the track we had used. There can be a crop every nine months for some types of casava and even six months for others allowing two crops each year. The workmen were all using machetes. I asked to hold one and it was a really terrifying instrument!

The last visit was another half hour away but this was not even along a track, just a footpath which was barely wide enough for our vehicle. At one stage we had to get out while the three vehicles in our little convoy negotiated a makeshift bridge. I had memories of those bridges in the Amazonian area of Brazil where we had actually been forced turn back because they were in a state of collapse.

We finally arrived at Kpacema Village. They have their borehole and toilets and some eighty women have started a cooperative for the processing of the casava and vegetable cultivation. There was a simple shall of a building about sixty feet by thirty with three or four very rudimentary machines for grinding the casava and drying it. This little factory is run by six older women. But the range of produce was striking.The manager of the cooperative, a retired lady, explained the process of treating the casava in different ways to produce flour (a perfect substitute for wheat flour), a rice form, a form for porridge and then showed us a range of things that she cooks that resemble snacks and puddings. They can sell it in kilo bags which are affordable to local homes and also in sixty kilo sealed bags which can be transported as air freight or on ships. It was a remarkable cooperative. The whole process needs to be achieved within one day of harvesting in order to retain the quality.

Our field trips in Sierra Leone are at an end. The journey back to Freetown was estimated at three hours but that includes going as fast as possible at every opportunity. This is one of the few tarmac roads with surprisingly little traffic and we were travelling fast, but there were always those pedestrians walking along the road and needing to cross it. Also, rather frightening, were the few places where the road widened to three lanes but it was not always clear which direction had the priority in the third lane. But our driver seemed quietly confident throughout.

Tomorrow I will celebrate the English Mass at 8am in the local parish so I need to have my homily prepared. I hope that there will be music as I have thoroughly enjoyed and been uplifted by African liturgy.

A final note. Everywhere we have been there have been crowds of beautiful, smiling children. The smallest are often being carried on their mothers’ or grandmothers’ backs. They smile and wave and crowd around us full of curiosity. They have been a delight. The schools we have seen, including the high school we saw today are really just empty spaces without resources. The schools I see in Salford have walls covered with information, projects and knowledge. Here I have not even seen a desk! They say that education quality is improving but it is still at a fairly rudimentary stage.

We have probably seen Sierra Leone at its most fertile, at the end of the rainy season. No doubt it becomes quite different as the dry season progresses but it is clear that this could be a highly productive agricultural region. The infrastructure is not in place for marketing the produce and the government has little tax revenue for the building of roads. Over 90% of people are not registered for tax on their buying and selling activities on the street.

By the way, it rained four times today. They were short very heavy downpours and badly affected the tarmac road we were on. The last occurred just after we arrived back at the hotel and was a violent electric storm. I dread to think what they did to some of the sand and gravels tracks that we have had to use so much. The streets cleared quickly and people huddled under the shelter of the street stalls. Quite a sight.

Day 5

I was not disappointed by the church and my hopes of a good African style liturgy. We arrived at quite a small church but it filled to its capacity of about 200 and there were probably nearly as many outside, sitting in the shade, ready for the 8am Mass. It was already hot. The singing was loud and assisted, almost drowned at times, by a very enthusiastic group of musicians including a drummer with a full set of drums. The various parts of the Mass were sung with very lengthy versions of the Gloria and the Our Father but people were engaging both with singing and movement. There were two collections and for both the congregation came forward, as if for communion, to place their contributions in a box in front of the altar. There were lots of notices which indicated a lively sense of community with people sharing information and lists of prayer intentions. The whole event took about one and three quarter hours but it was full of energy and, once again, packed with people of all age groups, with plenty of very well-behaved small children.

The young Moslem lady looking after the dining room in the hotel had promised to keep breakfast for us “as long as you pray for me” and we were able to have a rather late breakfast and a couple of hours free time (more or less our first) before leaving for the rather complicated return journey to the airport. We had a forty five minutes flight but the journey from hotel to hotel was over seven hours. The reasons: The ferry is not a continual service. Passengers must catch the ferry for their particular flight. Leaving the hotel at 2.15pm, our ferry was at 3pm. It took 40 minutes to cross the water to the airport side, and we slowed twice to avoid considerable amounts of glass and plastic trash floating on the water. So our day has been taken up by just the Mass this morning and the move to Liberia. But we have arrived.

It was dark even as we landed so we saw little along the very straight road to Monrovia. There is clearly the same evidence of poverty but, at first sight, there does seem to be a little more quality to at least some of the housing. We have seen just one or two grand public buildings under construction, and from the signs there is no doubting the presence of Chinese investment. But we shall see more tomorrow.

Part 2 of Bishop John’s Cafod Diary covering his visit to Liberia will be posted soon.

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