John Kalawa, the softspoken grandson of a Limba king, tells me, “I will come to collect you at 5:00.” “Fine,” I say. I don’t know where we’re going; I know only that it will be an adventure. In Makeni, Sierra Leone, everything is an adventure.

As I get on the back of his motorbike, Kalawa tells me of a group of blind beggars he has formed into an association. We are going to meet them in their camp.

The blind are considered a scourge here. Few have jobs, and many beg from people who are poor themselves. The blind live in squalor and rely on their children to lead them around by the shoulder. The children of the blind are also treated as pariahs by the rest of society; they are thought to be filthy, ill-mannered, and uneducable.

John Kalawa is shepherd to the blind. During Sierra Leone’s civil war (1991–2001), he worked at a parish house. One day the priest there told the rest of the staff that he was taking them with him on a pastoral visit, and left Kalawa in charge of the house. They never returned. One day a knock came at the door. Many of the blind in the neighborhood had come looking for a meal. So Kalawa fed them. They returned the following afternoon for their meal, but the food was gone. “Come back tomorrow,” Kalawa told them.

The next day came and went without any supplies and all he could say was, “Come back tomorrow.” Later, members of the rebel army knocked at the door and demanded a meal. “The blind people ate all the food some time ago and they will be coming back later for their lunch,” Kalawa told them. “What can I do?”

“Don’t worry,” the rebels said. They broke into a market for food, brought it back to the parish house, and helped Kalawa feed the blind when they came back. Ever since then, Kalawa has felt a special responsibility for those without sight. He formed a group called the Blind Beggars Association, which collects small dues each month from about sixty families in order to provide a little security for their children in case a parent gets sick or dies. The families squat on land that used to belong to a city-council member. Since his death his heirs have wanted to clear the people off and sell the land. Kalawa is searching for a new spot—one with enough space for a small workshop—but has no money for land. “All they want is a place for themselves to live in peace and so they can work together,” he says. “If these people are able to get recognized as having their own place, the community will see they have dignity.”

We arrive at the camp, where I am introduced to the chairman of the Blind Beggars. He formally welcomes me to the group, and several of the others members give short speeches. They all welcome and bless me. Then the children surround me and lead me in a parade into the camp, a small gathering of huts and stick houses. “Look at this tarpaulin,” Kalawa tells me. “We put it on this roof to cover a big hole.” Here “a patch on poverty” is not just a metaphor; it’s a tarp on the roof of a stick house on land about to be sold out from under its inhabitants. I ask John how these people will survive the rainy season. “By the power of God,” he answers.

Among all the women religious in Makeni, Sr. Mary Sweeney, a sister of St. Joseph of Cluny, has served the longest (thirty-eight years). She was the first person I met when I arrived. She came to pick me up at the airport—a dicey business—at three in the morning. Her family had owned an old inn in Donegal, Ireland, for generations. “Mary from Dungloe—that’s me.”

Sr. Mary is the head teacher at the St. Joseph’s School for the Hearing Impaired—among the grandest buildings in all of Makeni. The students here get a basic education, and many get room and board on the premises. They come from all over the country to be at a place where they are not considered cursed and worthless; often their own families have shunned them. St. Joseph’s is a haven of hope and life. Although it receives no government support, it still manages to offer its pupils a material security they can find nowhere else. Not surprisingly, the children seem very happy.

In addition to teaching at St. Joseph’s, the Cluny sisters run the Loreto clinic, a private hospital for the poor, and work in a girls’ secondary school next door to St. Joseph’s. They also take care of anyone who shows up at their door. One morning, as I walked down the drive to the convent, I met a woman with her little boy, Noel. She was very agitated and her son looked limp. I learned he had had a seizure, which is thought by many here to be a mark of possession by a devil. I escorted her to see Sr. Mary and let the boy rest in the shade of the palaver hut outside. As the woman’s tears began to flow, Sister placed her hand on the woman’s chest and calmed her.

“When I was in the novitiate my superior asked whether I wanted to be a teacher or a nurse and I told her that I preferred to be a nurse,” Sr. Mary told me. “I always wanted to heal.” But her superior decided to have her teach anyway. After two years of teaching in Scotland, Sr. Mary was sent to West Africa. As I watch her work, it occurs to me that Sr. Mary got what she wanted after all: as a teacher—and counsellor and mentor—she does as much healing as any nurse.

One day Sr. Mary took me to visit an abused woman whose four-year-old daughter had briefly been abducted. “Do you know about this little girl?” she asked me. There had been signs the girl had a mental disability. So she was taken from her mother and led into the bush for ritual murder, a common practice for the unwanted. She may have been tied up for months. Her muscles are underdeveloped, and she can barely hold up her head.

Someone finally found the girl, freed her, and brought her to the Cluny sisters’ gate. Sr. Mary and the police investigated. They found the mother, who is now under the care of the Cluny sisters. “Our children are often victims,” Sr. Mary says. “We speak of human rights, but they seem to apply to everyone else except children.”

I ask her what would help her ministry most. “A personal assistant so I can do my work,” which, of course, is to assist everyone else.

“I want to apply Plato’s ship analogy to politics in Sierra Leone,” Joseph Massaquoi tells me. “That will be my dissertation subject.” Joseph is a philosophy major at the University of Makeni. Among his classmates, he is well respected and known for being studious and generous.

Plato’s ship analogy is simple enough. Those steering the ship need to know where to take it, and how to navigate in stormy seas. That fits Sierra Leone to a T. After the country won its independence from Great Britain forty-nine years ago, a series of ruthless rulers plunged the nation into long periods of social and political unrest, culminating in the war that spilled over from Liberia in 1991. Joseph knows this history well; he is part of it.

As a young boy he lived in the eastern part of the country. Forced by the war to flee from their hometown, he and his brother were left with relatives while his parents tried to make their way to safer territory. Both his mother and father died. Joseph hitched rides all the way to Guinea, and then back to Sierra Leone, where he was reunited with an uncle. The war reached him several times more, and each time he fled again to Guinea—as did thousands of others. To survive, he caught fish to sell in the market and worked as laborer on a construction site. To this day, his brother refuses to return to Sierra Leone, and Joseph has no other family in the country.

As an adolescent, Joseph was given some direction by the priest at his parish in Port Loko. Some Canadian friends paid his school fees. Today he is an excellent student, passionate about learning. Although he has every reason to be angry at the world, his manner is mild and upbeat. He plays keyboards at St. Francis Xavier Church, not far from the university. He hopes to continue his studies in sociology and politics at Fordham University one day. I ask him if he’s sure he wants to live so far away. He answers, “Prof, why not?”

Fr. Joseph Turay is angry. “Look at all these big men,” he tells me, pointing to the white NGO vehicles that race around his country. Sierra Leone receives a lot of aid, both from the governments of rich developed countries and from nongovernmental organizations. UNICEF, CARE, Concern Worldwide, the United Nations Development Program, the European Union, and many Catholic groups are present in the country.

“They want to build five-story buildings in Makeni, they say. With flush toilets! They want to do this and that. I say give our kids a meal in school every day—just one meal—and every child will be off the street and in school learning. That will be progress.”

Fr. Turay recognizes the help the NGOs provide. The university he helped start as a small institute five years ago received funding and technical assistance from many Catholic NGO partners; without them, there would be no university of Makeni today. It is the first and only Catholic college in the country, and it is quickly becoming a leading institution of higher education in West Africa.

“We have tremendous experience and a wealth of talent,” Fr. Turay says. “We want our graduates to be job creators, not job seekers. So we gear our programs to the needs of the community and give them the tools and contacts needed to begin solving the problems they have experienced.”

During the war, Fr. Turay was put in charge of the Catholic relief effort for those displaced by the conflict. Afraid that Fr. Turay would burn out, Bishop George Biguzzi sent him to study at the Gregorian University in Rome. Turay came back with a doctoral degree in communications, one of only a few in Sierra Leone with such a degree. He was made director of Radio Maria, a national broadcast that has been instrumental in the campaign for good-governance practices in the last two election cycles. The radio station sits on the campus of the University of Makeni.

“We want to build a civilization of love here at the university,” he tells me. That’s a tall order in a country that has known so much violence and injustice, but Fr. Turay seems confident. After a short pause he adds, “We will do it.”

This article was made possible in part through the assistance of the American bishops’ Solidarity Fund for Africa.

Patrick J. Hayes was until recently a visiting professor of religious studies at the University of Makeni, Sierra Leone.
Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.