Sierra Leone Goes Sustainable

by Mommy Emily

It’s November 2016. I’ve left my three little ones with their Oma and Opa and Dad on the farm in northern Alberta, snow piled high. 

I’m flying, alone, to a country in West Africa, a tiny country made infamous by Ebola, diamond excavation, lengthy civil war, child soldiers, extreme poverty, devastating mudslides, and witchcraft. It’s a country bearing one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world — 70% of males and 80% of females unable to read. A country in which human sacrifice is still practiced, as well as female genital mutilation. 

Yet, as I’m soon to discover, it’s also a country rich in kindness and love. After all, a candle in the night is so much brighter than in the day. 

“You want for eat rice?” is the daily invitation in this country, where you haven’t truly eaten if you haven’t eaten rice. It’s a country where the children are full of smiles and laughter, and the villagers shower you with gifts of goats and chickens and fertility milk, and everyone, including the village chiefs and imams and even witchdoctors, crowds around you just to be close to you. 

I fly in faith, never having met the man I’m about to meet. He’s a man made known to me after our board spends 40 days in prayer and fasting, asking God for a house and land. Yet, as I would jokingly say later, “We forgot to specify that the house and land be in Uganda!”

Not even a week after the 40-day fast ends, I receive a message from a friend of mine in the non-profit sector: “I’m going to throw something crazy out to you only because I know you will pray about it,” she writes. “I have a connection to a dear pastor in Sierra Leone who has a building and land that he wants to be used for the Lord’s work. Would you consider a program in Sierra Leone?  Pray and keep it in mind. I’m looking for God to move in this opportunity. It came to my mind last night so I am being obedient and passing it along.”

We pray about it, and in late spring of 2016, we send our then-National Director of Uganda, Mommy Esther, to Sierra Leone, to plant the vision of The Lulu Tree. We send her first because it is our great desire to see Africa help Africa. She goes and plants the vision in the heart of Rev. Sonnel Kamara and his wife Mommy Christiana. 

And here I am now, to water it. 

A thick jungle heat hits me when I arrive at an airport situated in the middle of an island. It’s a heat like a cashmere sweater drenched with rainforest perfume. I enter the tiny airport, crowded with sweaty bodies, and wait in line with the other foreigners.

After what seems hours, I finally meet Sonnel, who rescues me from a mob of very eager young men wanting “tips” for carrying my bags. I’m taken across the strip of Atlantic Ocean in a taxi boat, then through town in Sonnel’s jeep.

We pass through one of the poorest cities I’ve ever seen, a city alive with night-life, children and chickens and mangy dogs wandering the streets, street vendors — mothers with babies lying beside them on blankets — selling their purses and shoes and fruits under moonlight.

I arrive “home” to Sonnel’s and Christiana’s tiny house and Mommy Christiana enfolds me with loving arms, leads me out back in the dark to the outhouse/shower-house shared by them and their neighbors, gives me a “torch” or flashlight, and I scrub down with cold water. Then I return in the dark to a warm meal and fall fitfully asleep, my first night in Sierra Leone.

The next day they take me to Bethel Home, a beautiful building they’re constructing in faith — the Lord having told them to care for abandoned and orphaned children, having no children of their own. They introduce me to Frank, a young boy they’re already caring for, and then they take me the 8-hour drive to Kamassaralie village, Sonnel’s father’s village, a place he’s been coming to for years, a people he calls family.

During the war, Sonnel sold bags of water on the beach to support himself and Christiana. He also served as a police officer, then became a pastor, overseeing 40 churches. But this farmer’s heart has remained in the villages. He kept helping as he could, taking the little money he had to assist his people. Land was given to him by the chiefs to use, and his heart was to educate the villages in agriculture. Land rich and fertile, yet unplowed due to lack of tools and motivation. Islam held power with its schools and witchcraft held power with its herbal cures, and the only church was a Catholic church, yet Sonnel had befriended the imams and the witchdoctor and the priests, and all he needed was a hand up.

And so that’s simply what we’ve done. Over the past four years, the Lord has linked our hands together, and it’s been the miracle of the loaves and the fish — we send a little, and Sonnel, through divine wisdom and skill, does a lot.

Fast forward to one year ago, my last trip to Africa before COVID. I’m with Sonnel in the villages and he shows me the 7 rice and cassava farms, lined with fruit trees, made possible by two new tractors (one donated by the government of California, another purchased locally); he takes me to the new birthing clinic with the nurses’ apartment and the waiting room, the new church in Kamassaralie as well as six other new churches planted in surrounding villages, many of which double as schools for village children; he introduces me to men and women impacted by the microloan program, to the teenage girls rescued from Female Genital Mutilation, to the nurse equipped with medicines so people no longer need to go to the witch doctor; and we travel to some of the 18 neighboring villages which have received bed bug spray, new bathrooms, and food from him, in addition to the gospel — Sonnel having packed his Jesus movie, the DVD player and his speaker on a motorbike or across Lil’ Scary river in a hewn-out canoe.

And now, as of November 2020, because of God’s making possible the purchase of 35 cows, Sonnel’s ministry has become what we always prayed it would be — self-sustainable. We will still continue to support him for the foreseeable future with training supplies for his new Harvestime Bible School, allowing him to equip dozens of pastors desperately in need of discipleship. We will still continue, Lord willing, to visit, and to encourage.

But even as we’ve asked Sonnel to travel to Guinea once COVID lifts, to plant the Lulu Tree — just as he already did two years ago, to Liberia, going in faith, not knowing who God would lead him to, we are here simply to extend a hand up. Not a hand out. We are here to see Africa help Africa. And by God’s grace, it is being done. To Him be all the glory.

The best gift we can give our African partners is to clasp their hands in faithful friendship and to clasp our own hands in faith-full prayer to the One who is the Maker and Sustainer of all things. Even in infamously dark places, He shows up and changes everything, and we watch in awe as the candle just keeps shining brighter and brighter.

(Stay tuned; in coming months we’ll share how the Lord is bringing self-sustainability to Uganda, South Sudan, and Liberia)