One last update – photos from the trip are now online! You can see them on Picasa here. Enjoy!



Hello devoted readers,

My dad and I are back at my apartment in Cambridge after an odyssey of more than 32 hours, involving nine vehicles (an SUV, a boat, two buses, three planes, an “AirTrain,” and a taxi), five airports, three security checkpoints and three continents. We finally parted ways with our team in Brussels, some of us headed to Newark, others to D.C. and Chicago for even longer journeys than ours. Many hugs and tears were exchanged.

Our last day was an easy one. We started with a visit to the Sierra Leone National Museum, which has a gallery with masks, costumes, and art from around the country, and where we got a solid lesson in the country’s history from our guide. Then took a drive across town to Aberdeen to have a relaxed meal at a beachside restaurant called Family Kingdom. It was good to have some time to unwind and hang out before the long journey home.

I’ve been relishing some of the small comforts of the United States, like an Italian sub in the Newark airport, a glass of tap water, a genuinely hot shower in my apartment. And it was fascinating to drive through Boston after so much time in Freetown. I’m amazed by things I’ve never noticed: the number of electric lights, the height of the buildings, how orderly and quiet the traffic is. Needless to say, I’m exhausted. But I thought I’d post one more quick update before I go to bed, since I didn’t manage to in Brussels. It’s a lot easier typing on my laptop than tapping away on my iPhone, which I’ve been doing since we left.

I’ve been focusing on the Bradfords in this blog, but the other members of our team deserve some time in the spotlight. We owe a tremendous thanks to Don and Marilyn Griffith for organizing this trip and making it such a great experience. Everyone was amazed by their energy, positivity, and ability to make things happen. We appreciated Don’s wry sense of humor, sermons, and teaching moments with lessons he drew from scripture, and Marilyn’s easygoing nature, sensitivity, and constant attention to the people around her, team members and locals included. We could not have done it without them, and they did a fantastic job of putting up with us and helping us make the trip as fun and productive as it could possibly be. They’ve been organizing mission trips to Sierra Leone for ten years, so they know their way around intuitively and at times seemingly effortlessly. And John MacDonald, the other non-Bradford working with us, was an excellent teammate who impressed us with his inexhaustible work ethic and optimistic attitude, and graciously tolerated our constant requests for him to play cards with us.

I have nearly five thousand photos to sift through on my camera. Once I separate the wheat from the chaff, I’ll post the good ones somewhere public and include a link here so anyone can take a look. For now, good night!

– Luke

The end.

Somehow, we’ve ended up at our last day in Sierra Leone. We fly at 7 tonight.

The past two days have been filled with hard work at Ginger Hall. On Wednesday, Dorcas was able to give her Days for Girls presentation to a group of students and teachers there, while I hung out to take photos. The girls were very happy to receive their kits and enjoyed the physical self-defense part of the presentation. Dorcas had two teachers to translate into Krio for her to make sure the girls really understood everything.

Apart from that, we’ve been all hands on deck working on windows. The core crew of locals included Pa Koroma, the head custodian (who Dorcas nicknamed “Thinking Man”, and whose name we frequently sung to the tune of “My Sharona”), Prince (or “Tall Guy”), the son of a teacher, Junior, another volunteer, our drivers Victor and Kabi, and Reverend Henry.

The guys from the glass shop showed up at the school to cut panes on Wednesday morning. Initially they didn’t want to use my dad’s and Hannah’s measurements of all the panes, and instead held up sheets of Plexiglass to the metal frames and marked their sizes by hand. Their cutting method was to heat a windshield wiper blade over a small charcoal pit and then melt slowly through the Plexiglass. Luckily Harry and my dad were able to convince them to measure and mark the sheets with a pen and cut them with a saw, which took a very long time but was much more precise than the melting method. All the panes are 43 1/2 cm wide and 27 1/2, 28 1/2, or 29 cm tall, numbers that are now permanently burned into my brain.

In addition to cutting the panes, we had to massage and roll the glazing putty to get it soft enough to work with, and chip any remaining bits of glass and old putty from the frames. Then find a pane for a particular spot, slip (or jam) it in, press lines of glazing putty around it, and clean up the edges with a putty knife to make them straight. There are 704 panes total so there was no shortage of work. I bounced around doing different tasks. My least successful effort was at sawing the Plexiglass, which I attempted only once and created a half-inch crack immediately, and my best was at peeling the paper skin from the finished panes, which I could usually do in a single clean pull. Harry is a wizard at all things manual, and was the team MVP at sawing and glazing, who we’d be lost without.

They were long, hot days of work. We were mobbed by kids, who got very excited whenever I pulled out my camera, and at times would surround me, touch and pull on my arms, and repeat my name again and again (though many of them thought it was “Leo.”) They all wanted their picture taken, saying “Snap me! Snap me!” If they got to be too much for me, Pa Koroma would come and make them scatter by brandishing his stick. They were also eager to help us, and by the end they were peeling the panes and helping us pick up trash.

We had a touching closing ceremony before we left the school yesterday, with many thanks from Leonard and gifts from the head teachers. The kids lined up in front of the school’s balcony and sang and applauded for us. We could barely get to the cars, they were so wild and eager to surround us. The gratitude of the students and teachers was wonderful to see, and I feel good about the amount we were able to get done, though it’s nowhere near finished. Reverend Henry is taking on the responsibility of finishing the project, and has all the materials he needs.

Then back to the old 5-10 for a final dinner. Leonard stopped by with his wife Daisy and gave us more generous gifts, beautiful, colorful Sierra Leonean shirts and bags, before we said our tearful goodbyes. We had a communion service led by Don after dinner (my first communion), dipping bread into Vimto and trying to hear over the raucous noise of the Pentecostal church next door. We’ve just finished our last breakfast and are almost packed up and ready to head out, for an easy day of shopping and lunch in Freetown before we head to the ferry. Expect an update from Brussels as we kill time during our layover and I try to process all that’s happened on this trip. It’s sad to be leaving this amazing country, after all the fun we’ve had and friends we’ve made. What an adventure. Thanks for reading, and bye for now!

– Luke

A rich and full day.

I’m typing this out on the long balcony at the hotel which serves as the hallway, our traditional hangout spot after dinner. My dad and Jeremy are smoking pipe tobacco and typing up covenants for our Ginger Hall projects, and Hannah is creating a key that indicates the different sizes of windows we’ll need for each classroom.

This morning we had an early breakfast so we could head to the chimpanzee sanctuary. Breakfast at the 5-10 is a now familiar mix bread, butter, Laughing Cow cheese, Nescafé instant coffee with powdered milk, and either an omelette or canned beans and a pair of hot dogs.

The drive to the Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary took us well out of the city, up through rolling hills covered in dense jungle and dotted with less frequent metal-roofed houses and gated compounds. The last step of the journey was a dirt road through the trees and finally an incredibly steep grade that we crawled up in four-wheel drive. We didn’t have a huge amount of time because of our plans at the embassy, but our guides took us through the sanctuary to see two groups of chimps in enclosures, and to a raised viewing platform in an open area where they wander more freely. All the chimps they have are either orphans or pets that have been rescued. I was surprised to learn that there are only 6,000 chimps in the wild in Sierra Leone. It was fun to see the chimps, hear their strange sounds, take some pictures, and dodge a few rocks they threw at us.

Then we headed off to the US embassy, which is also perched on the side of a hill. It’s a big, blocky concrete compound, and on the inside it has the clean, sharp, corporate vibe and decor that’s so common in the US and that we’ve seen nowhere in Sierra Leone. We were joined by Dr. Gess, Roger the UMC missionary, and Emily. The ambassador, John Hoover, was a calm, well-spoken man who impressed us all and especially Dr. Gess with his knowledge of the country despite  only having been here for just over a year. He gave us a handout with bullet points about the American role in the Ebola crisis, admitting that the US government has gotten a bad rap. (What the US did and did not do about Ebola is not within the scope of this blog.) And he answered all our questions about other sides of US involvement here. Along with medicine, his focus is on power, water, and waste, and ways to bring US companies to the country to invest in infrastructure. He expressed his appreciation for what we’re doing here and we were all glad we had the opportunity to meet him.

Minus Emily, we headed to the Crown Bakery for lunch with Reverend Henry. After a feast of kebbeh, hummus, sandwiches, jollof rice, Vimto (a fruit-flavored soda) and more, we split up: one car to head to the shop to talk about Plexiglass and putty, the other to go straight to Ginger Hall to keep smashing. I headed to Ginger Hall. The welder was there working on window latches with a portable generator. I got back into my heavy gloves and started breaking and prying again, and even gained a little more skill using a hammer and screwdriver to chisel away difficult chunks of hardened putty. It was another great day of work from our team and local volunteers. During the breaks I took a lot of photos of kids in varying states of excitement and shyness. Construction on the new latrine has also begun but we’re staying out of the way.

Nearly all the windows are now gone. Tomorrow we’ll have the Plexiglass and the man to cut it on site, and will see how many windows we can finish.

We headed back to the 5-10 for our traditional shower, courtyard beer, quick round of cards and then dinner. After a balcony session in which my dad read several of my blog posts out loud for the group while I slowly wrote this one, I’m ready for sleep. As Harry said, “That’s what you call a rich and full day.”

Tomorrow, more work at Ginger Hall, plus another Days for Girls presentation by Dorcas (with kit distribution!) which I’ll be documenting. Good night!

Singing and breaking glass

It’s hard to believe we’re leaving in four days. The trip so far has been a bit of a blur, every day packed with activity and always, always with something new to take in. We are pushing to see and do as much as we possibly can before we go.

We’re back at the familiar Hotel 5-10 in Freetown. Yesterday morning we had our last breakfast at Doha’s, joined by a few early-rising wedding guests who looked like they were feeling the consequences of a night well spent. Then we headed off to church (with a brief detour after I realized I still had the hotel room key in my pocket.) This was the same old church in Bo that Dorcas, Joel, Julie and the rest used to go to sometimes when they lived in Manjama.

The service was a special one, with a graduation ceremony for about a dozen women from the UMWO Skills Training Center nearby, who had completed a course either in tailoring or in fabric dyeing. It was full of excitement, a dozen songs and hymns, and passionate sermons (and, I’m told, was much longer than a typical church service in the US.) The German missionary family we met at the orphanage was also there, and both our family and theirs were given special mention and thanks. Dorcas, Joel, and Julie were given the honor of handing out  prizes for kids in the congregation for completion of some part of Sunday school.

Then a long travel day through the wilderness and villages from Bo back to Freetown. There’s a fuel shortage so we weren’t able to get gas in Bo, but stopped along the way to buy some which we poured into the tank through a funnel. At every stop there were women and kids trying to sell us pineapples, oranges, sweet rice powder, and yams. I woke up from a nap to find we were back in the traffic and action of Freetown: hillsides covered with colorful metal-roofed houses, shops by the side of the road selling wooden beds, foam, auto parts, stone pillars, etc., beauty “saloons,” taxis labeled West Ward and East Ward, vans with cryptic or religious painted slogans on their silver-tinted back windshields: “Oh Lovers,” “Enemy Shame,” “God Is Great,” “Nice Four.” Then back to the 5-10. As we arrived, we sang the song we’ve sung the most, the one that every Christian in Sierra Leone knows (and pardon my attempt at Krio spelling): “Tell um tankee tell um, tell Papa God tankee. Tell um tankee tell um, tell Papa God tankee. What he do for me, we gon’ tell um tankee. What he do for me, we gon’ tell um tankee. Tell um tankee tell um, tell Papa God tankee.”

We relaxed in the courtyard a bit before dinner and were rejoined by Emily, the health journalist and newest (possibly unwilling) member of our family who came with us to River Number Two beach. She told us about her time in Freetown interviewing Ebola survivors and we told her about our time in Yonibana, Bo, and Manjama. At dinner, Abu Bakarr (a local who has been with our team, working with John) brought his brother and wife and sang some beautiful songs for us.

This morning we headed back to Ginger Hall to begin our work there for the week. We were unsure what to expect after leaving some loose ends last week, but were happy to find that Reverend Henry Macavoray had done his homework and was prepared for us. He had put together a budget for the project to replace all the broken and missing windows at the school. This included finding a welder to add latches to the windows and repair the school’s gate and a damaged railing, and locating the only shop in Freetown and maybe the country that sells the Plexiglass windows we wanted. We gave the welder the money he needed for materials and met with the team, Reverend Henry, Jemima, the other head teachers, and Mr. Kamara, the school’s community organizer, to discuss the project. We weren’t sure we could fund the whole thing but decided to start anyway and discuss the financial details tonight.

So we spent the day smashing and removing the partially broken panes of glass in the windows of the second floor classrooms, as well as the ancient rock-like putty that held them in place. I was not as adept at chiseling with a hammer and screwdriver as some but I enjoyed shattering and pulling gigantic shards of glass from the frames, wearing heavy gloves. We were quite a curiosity to the kids who walked by on the path behind the school, who probably wondered why we were destroying the few windows they  had left. Everybody was involved: the whole team, Reverend Henry, the school’s custodian, even a few volunteers who showed up to work with us. The work picked up pace over the afternoon, a carnival of smashing, pulling, chiseling, prying, brushing, and sweeping to get these frames empty of glass and putty so they’d be ready for the new panes.

It was exhausting work and we went back to the hotel sweaty, covered in dirt and tiny bits of glass, bleeding from small cuts, and still not sure how much of the project we’d be able to fund and finish. We showered and played some cards, had another excellent 5-10 dinner with our familiar server Nancy, and then discussed our options. I was happy to learn from Don and Marilyn that the team’s resources for the trip are not yet depleted, and with their go-ahead we decided we had enough to fully fund materials for the windows if we can get a guarantee from Reverend Henry that the school will finish installing them if we run out of time.

Tomorrow we’re visiting a chimpanzee reserve and the US Embassy to meet the ambassador, so it should be an exciting morning. Then meeting Reverend Henry for lunch at the Crown Bakery and heading back to Ginger Hall to work in the afternoon. But right now it’s time for me to get to bed, where I’m sure I’ll be dreaming about pulling shards of glass from endless metal frames.


Wow, what an emotional day.

We’re on our second night in the lap of luxury at Doha’s Hotel. I’m blogging from my room, listening to the pounding dance music from the Lebanese wedding that’s happening here. According to my dad, Dorcas, and Julie, Lebanese immigrants were the wealthiest people in Bo when they were kids, and, judging by the glamor of this wedding, not much has changed.

Last night we swam, played some cards, and had a late dinner at the hotel out by the pool. Jeremy managed to break his bed by laying down on it, and our hotel staff kindly nailed it back together within a few minutes. Then he and I joined Victor and our other driver Morie for an expedition outside to check out the local nightlife. We hung out for a while at a bar that would have been at home in any college town in America, except for the beer selection and racial demographics (all black except us.) We hit the dance floor and again shocked the locals by having a sense of rhythm.

This morning we had breakfast at the hotel and then went to the UMC secondary school in Bo so Dorcas could give her Days for Girls presentation for a group of head teachers and administrators. It was the first time I’d seen her complete presentation, and it was awesome to watch. The level of enthusiasm from female teachers for these kits was astounding. Covering sex ed topics for an audience with a very different culture from your own is no easy task, but Dorcas has been doing an excellent job and the reactions have been incredibly positive. The only controversy was over who would be getting the educational materials she’s leaving here.

Then, the day’s main event and one of the high points of the trip: a visit to Manjama, the village where my grandparents lived, where my dad was born and raised until he was 12, just a few miles outside of Bo. The clinic and maternity center that my grandmother founded is still running. We stopped at the clinic, which is up the road from the village itself, and introduced ourselves to the few staff there. Within a few minutes, we found ourselves surrounded by people from the village, including the chief, Rankin, who was extremely excited to see my dad and his sisters – he remembered them from his childhood, when they played together. “We’ve been waiting for you a long time,” he said. His introduction began a surreal experience that I’ll remember forever, as it became clearer and clearer just how much my grandparents meant to these people and how much they still mean after all these years. We toured the clinic grounds, where they’re building new toilets and waste disposal areas, and where they raise pigs – something my grandfather introduced. Then we walked down the road to where my grandparents’ house was. We were surrounded by dozens of people from the tiny village as we walked, including a gaggle of kids. All that’s left of the house is the concrete foundation, covered in brown papery leaves. My dad stood on the spot where he was born.

Next, into the village itself. The church my grandfather built is still standing. We gathered inside with our entourage and had a brief impromptu service. Don gave a sermon that compared watching the family come to Manjama to standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. The chief gave a prayer in Mende in which the only words I understood were Dorcas, Julie, and “Jo Manjama” – that’s my dad, “Jo” meaning the firstborn boy. I’m not too proud to admit that I cried in that church, feeling the weight of years and the strength of the bonds that had survived. As someone susceptible to emotional connections to places and to nostalgia, I was overwhelmed trying to put myself in my dad’s shoes, imagining what it’s like to return to a childhood home on another continent after 46 years. And the way we were received by the village was deeply moving. My religious beliefs are very different from those of my grandparents, but this trip has brought up all kinds of thoughts in me about love, faith, spirituality and religion that are far too complex to reduce into blog form but that have made me deeply grateful for the experience.

We spent some time in the village, playing with kids, taking a lot of pictures, finding my grandfather’s old well. Dorcas bought a bunch of coffee beans grown right there – she’s been looking for Sierra Leonean coffee. We gave some donations and material gifts to the village and the clinic, including a framed picture of my grandparents. Then we said our goodbyes.

We stopped in the clinic on our way out to find that a woman had just given birth to a beautiful baby boy, another Jo Manjama. 

The welcome we received in Manjama hugely exceeded all our expectations. For me it helped crystallize the Sierra Leone of my grandparents from a set of stories into a real life, with real relationships, a real house, a real village where real people are still living out their real lives and still feeling the influence of a family of missionaries that’s long gone.

I was drained, but we finished the day with a trip to Mercy Hospital in Bo, touring the beautiful campus, a research lab, and the orphanage, where Jeremy played soccer with the kids and we met a family of German missionaries who have moved here to live, to begin a similar story to the one my grandparents had. We also met a man there who had been delivered by my grandmother.

Back at the hotel, we swam and relaxed before dinner. After we ate, Don called us together for a meeting to discuss the day and we each shared a bit about our experience. Needless to say, it was a memorable one for all of us, and we are so thankful to Don and Marilyn for getting us here. As we walked outside, the song playing at the wedding was “I Want to Know What Love Is,” which I think is as apt as anything.


Back online! This morning we finished our four-day workshop for teachers in Yonibana. It was a blast. We left the Hotel 5-10 on Tuesday morning. The driver we anticipated was getting his car fixed, so we went to Yonibana with Victor, which we were very happy about. We made brief stops so he could pack his bag and so we could eat some beef and onion skewers we bought from the hospital canteen.

As we got further from Freetown, the towns gave way to a landscape of dense trees and tall grass, hills on the horizon, and occasional villages. We went through an Ebola checkpoint where they took our temperatures from a distance with a gun-shaped thermometer.

Village life out here is fascinating to see. Women pound rice with long sticks in metal buckets, and then toss the grains in a pan to filter out the dry husks. People sell gas for motorcycles in plastic soda bottles on makeshift tables by the side of the road, and in the bigger towns there are cell phone charging stations. Some buildings are low rectangles of homemade concrete blocks with metal roofs, and others are thatched roof huts. And the people here do not stop staring at us – we’re a real oddity.

We pulled up to Yonibana UMC Primary School and were immediately confronted by a crowd of children chanting “oputu” (white man) as we got out of the car. I later learned that many of these children will only see one white person a year. We met our hosts, Rosalind, the headmistress, and John, a head teacher, and went to the unexpectedly named Minnesota Hall (called that because of the home of the missionaries who built it) to set up.

The workshop lasted from Tuesday afternoon to Friday morning. In the beginning I felt as out of my element as I ever have – sitting in front of a group of thirty schoolteachers from rural villages, wondering how I could be of any use, me with no training in education of any kind. But as the days went on and we got to know each other, I felt as welcomed and appreciated as I could be. And I realized I had useful skills to use and teach that I take for granted, just because I was lucky enough to have access to the basic educational resources that are ubiquitous in the United States and nonexistent in Sierra Leone. It’s hard to convey in writing just how different it is here. Our goal was to provide some new skills and knowledge in leadership, classroom management, and other elements of teaching and running a school.

The leaders of the workshop included Marilyn, my dad, Hannah, and me as the American contingent. On the local side, we had Leonard Gbloh, the Director of Primary Education, Jemima, a head teacher at Ginger Hall, another teacher named Brima, and Rosalind and John. And on Thursday another visitor from the UMC Conference office named Elizabeth who spoke about financial management.

The work, as you might expect, was tiring, challenging, full of small miscommunications and veerings off course. But what I came away with was deep satisfaction, joy, and camaraderie, and the feeling that the teachers here truly appreciated us and the topics we covered. Following Marilyn’s lead, we went through discussions and group work about what makes a great teacher, what makes a great school, how to run a preschool, keeping schools safe, library skills, planning programs like sports and school gardens, and many others. I got to lead a session about using poetry in the classroom. And taught everyone the Hokey Pokey with Hannah.

The poetry session was a lot of fun. I showed them a limerick and a haiku and explained a few things about each. Then we all wrote our own poems, although I found it hard to convey that it should be an original poem, not “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “I see the moon, and the moon sees me. God bless the moon, and God bless me.” But when I was able to get them to write their own poetry, it was amazing to hear. One poem was something like “In a classroom, there are seven black men, two black woman, and one white man, and he is teaching me poetry.”

Our accents and our fluency with English made us hard for the teachers to understand. Leonard, as the local with probably the strongest English and familiarity with American culture, saved us several times and helped bridge the gap between us and the teachers. He’s a big guy with a voice like a thunderclap, a very dynamic speaker who was great at engaging the room.

During the breaks, I had a lot of fun being treated like a cross between Santa Claus, a rock star, and a live electric fence by the schoolchildren, who came near enough to me to wave and mutter “oputu” but were rarely bold enough to give me a high five. They love having their pictures taken, and I got a lot of great shots. On the second day a boy asked me my name, and when I told him I was Luke Bradford he said “You have a good name.” By today they were more courageous, touching me and even joining in a round of the Hokey Pokey. Reverend Elizabeth, the district superintendent, told me they’ll go home to their families and say “I touched a white man today, and his hands were so soft.”

We stayed at a nearby “guest house” (a hotel) at Mile 91. Our host, Sharka Deen, made us feel welcome and well taken care of. Like the Hotel 5-10, the place was luxurious for Sierra Leone, with power from a diesel generator from 7 pm to 7 am, AC, TVs, and fridges in the rooms. The one thing I missed was hot water in the shower. In the evenings, we went for a couple of sunset strolls down the highway outside. The setting sun looks incredibly different here: a bright, clear red circle, like the sun of an alien planet. We walked off the highway to see a small school and were trailed by an entourage of curious kids. Back at the guest house we played Oh Hell but were usually too tired to last very long.

On Thursday night, Dorcas, Julie, and Jeremy joined us from Freetown. The guest house has a wine bar/nightclub/conference hall, empty now except for plastic lawn chairs and card tables, but with fully functional disco lights and enormous speaker stacks. Our hosts were kind enough to blast some tunes (including the Party Rock Anthem) and we had fun dancing until we were too hot to continue. We were joined by two very small boys who declined to dance but stared at us with wide eyes.

This morning we concluded the workshop with another session of rotating stations with small groups: Hannah on God in the classroom, Leonard on teacher evaluations and promotions, my dad teaching how to make a histogram and scatter plot, and Dorcas presenting Days for Girls. As we worked, Don, John, and Harry arrived from Freetown. We gave the teachers certificates for their completion of the course, along with all the school supplies we had brought to donate, and said our goodbyes.

On the way to Bo we stopped briefly at schools in Mile 91 and Taiama that Don and Marilyn have worked at in the past. We’ve just arrived at our hotel in Bo, which is a very luxurious spot – beautiful rooms with balconies, WiFi, and a pool (which I’m jumping into as soon as I post this.) Blog photos are still not happening but I’ll post some Instagrams soon. Bye for now!

– Luke