On February 5, Michelle and I boarded a plane from Ghana and flew to Sierra Leone to spend four days providing financial training to the priesthood leaders of the fifty LDS congregations around the country. We stayed and traveled with the local mission president Kevin Clawson and his wife, Toi, who have been living in Freetown since November of last year. Our trip was among the first from the Area Office since the country’s borders were closed in mid-2014.
During the spring of 2014, the Ebola virus spread like wildfire from Guinea through Sierra Leone and Liberia, raging out of control for months. Finally, at the end of 2015, through a series of improved health practices and educational initiatives, better medications and treatment, the last embers of the disease were dying out and Sierra Leone was provisionally declared Ebola-free earlier this month. The World Health Organization identified over 28,000 Ebola cases, with 11,000 deaths in those three countries. Half of the cases and nearly 4,000 deaths were in Sierra Leone.
The worst ever Ebola outbreak, and the first in West Africa, started innocuously in neighboring Guinea when a child from a bat-hunting family contracted the disease in March of 2014. In May, Ebola crossed into Sierra Leone when a traditional faith healer who had been treating cases in Guinea returned home infected and died. It quickly flared up that spring and summer, owing in large part to misguided healthcare procedures and local funeral practices, which include rubbing the corpses down with oil, dressing them in fine clothes and then having those at the funeral hug and kiss the dead body, which is riddled with high concentrations of the disease. As the crisis deepened, local health facilities were swamped and became breeding grounds for the disease, health workers were among the most affected, the government made several colossal missteps and the rest of the world mostly threw up travel restrictions to keep it “safely” contained within the region.
We talked with several of the locals about how they personally managed through the crisis. They noted that in many respects, it was very similar to Sierra Leone’s civil war that ran through most of the 1990s; local gatherings were banned, many local businesses and the schools were shut down and people holed up in their homes, scrambling to grow or secure enough food to wait out the crisis. That is not an easy task anywhere, but it becomes particularly difficult in a nation where the per capita income runs about $600 per year. I tend to concur with the historian who referred to Sierra Leone’s citizens as “the world’s most resilient people.”
During a visit to West Africa in 2012, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland paid tribute to the people of Sierra Leone, noting that “Because they’ve had such a bloody, war-torn, brutal recent past, that’s one of the reasons the gospel is taking hold so dramatically. They’ve seen what life ought not to be, and now with the missionaries and the members testifying, they’ve seen what it can be. Heaven has been able to turn it into a blessing, and they’re lifting themselves out of political disarray and civil strife.”
So how are the world’s most resilient people doing as they emerge from this latest crisis?
One good indication comes from two events at the mission home in Freetown that immediately preceded and followed our visit to the country. Thanks to Elder and Sister Terry, friends, neighbors and fellow missionaries in Accra who work on technology and literacy, who were ahead of us in Sierra Leone and shared these photos.
About one hour before we arrived at the mission home, the members held a baptism for fourteen new members who had just joined the Church. This missionary work is symptomatic of what was happening here, even without the missionaries.
On the day following our visit, the first twenty-two full time missionaries, reassigned to Sierra Leone from neighboring missions, arrived at the Freetown mission home to begin service as the vanguard leadership. More transferred and newly called missionaries will begin arriving over the next few months, building back up to a full complement of about 180 missionaries, following an absence of eighteen months as the borders were about to be closed and all missionaries had to be reassigned to other countries.
The local members are beyond thrilled to have the elders (and two sisters) back in their midst, but as we discussed the arrival with them, were reminding themselves that they need to keep up the energy they maintained during that interruption, and continue to share the joy that the gospel brings to them.
On a personal note, everywhere Michelle and I went during our four-day visit, we were embraced by the most charming, humble, and Christ-like people and leaders. To a person, the 200 leaders we trained in our four-hour sessions were excited to be there, overjoyed at our presence and anxious to learn and improve.
As we sat in a sacrament meeting on Sunday morning in Bo, Sierra Leone’s second largest city, about four hours inland, listening to the testimonies of the faithful saints, one young woman stood and spoke about how we each need to ensure that we are always standing on holy ground. As she spoke, I got the distinct prompting to reread my patriarchal blessing, which I had received back in 1973, about a year before I was called to my first mission.
One paragraph in that blessing refers to missionary service, noting that I would be called to serve among “a people precious in the sight of the Lord,” and that that service would be a “source of great joy in my life.” In my teenage wisdom, I remember thinking that I had just gotten clear warning that I was headed to Latin America. And sure enough, I was called to Brazil and saw those promises amply fulfilled. It wasn’t until my 61st birthday, in the midst of these humble West African saints who had suffered for years through trials beyond my wildest imaginings, that I realized that there is still a lot more mileage in that promise the Lord gave to me over forty years ago. I was indeed standing on holy ground in the midst of people that are incredibly precious in His sight.
The one comment that sums up Sierra Leone for me was delivered by a man in the congregation who bore his testimony that morning, recounting the blessings that the Lord had continued to shower on him and his family throughout their lives, concluding by exclaiming, “I am so much happy.” I offered a silent prayer to the Lord for helping me to catch a glimpse of the joy that comes from focusing on things that matter most.