The international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) recently undertook its first official fact-finding visit to Sierra Leone in order to better focus its aid programmes in the country, which until now have centred above all on addressing the emergency situations arising from the bloody Civil War and more recently the Ebola virus outbreak. Now, however, the charity wants to concentrate on spiritual formation and encouraging new religious vocations in the Church, given that the country is beginning to enter a more stable period, after going through one of the most dramatic decades in its history.
It is difficult to forget the bloody history of this country, when merely to walk out on the streets is to witness the sight of its victims, still trying to overcome their own particular hell. “Long arms or short ones?” the rebels used to ask their victims before mutilating them and telling them how they were going to have to live with stumps instead of arms for the rest of their lives. Or to see the many children wandering alone through the towns, most of them children of girls who were drugged before being raped in order to make them a more easy prey. Such atrocities continued until just a few years ago, after the civil war in Sierra Leone finally ended in 2002. The trauma of this tragedy was followed by a near total collapse of society, with immense poverty, an appalling administration, widespread unemployment, an immense network of corruption and the uprooting of thousands of people. Then there was the Ebola virus, the torrential rainfall and flooding that continues to occur from time to time, and finally the ongoing power struggle over the diamonds.
Just a few weeks ago, the mayor of a village in the Kono region, in the northeast of the country – which is renowned/notorious for the extraction of diamonds – informed the 300-plus families living there that in a few days time they would have to leave their homes, since these were going to be demolished to make way for the continued digging for these precious minerals. When the ACN delegation arrived there they found “a crazy region where nothing can be seen but mountains of grey earth that have been turned over again and again in the obsessive search for diamonds”, as Kinga von Poschinger, the ACN section head responsible for projects in Sierra Leone, described what she saw during her visit in October 2017.
Yet despite everything, despite the horrors of the past and the troubles of the present, the country continues to struggle day by day to move forward, and without losing the joy and hope that characterize these people. In fact all these misfortunes seem to have united their society, regardless of the people’s differing background and religions.
The majority of the population, around 70%, are Muslims, while some 25% are Christians, divided among Catholics, Protestants and Pentecostalist communities. “The Muslims and Christians live amicably side by side and enjoy good relations with each other – something not far from common in the rest of Africa”, Kinga von Poschinger observes. “This respect is such that it is quite normal to find members of different faiths within the same family, whether between the parents or among the children”, she adds. Until this day most of the schools have been Catholic ones and many Christians and Muslims have gone to school together and all learned to pray the Our Father and been instructed in the values of the Gospel. Something which over the years has given rise to many conversions and in some cases new vocations.
In Sierra Leone all the people have a religion, but their faith is often lived in a rather superficial way – both for Christians and for Muslims. “There is a lack of depth and genuine spiritual understanding in their belief. Often they choose their religion for reasons that have little to do with faith as such, for example because the Pentecostal community is closer to their village than the Catholic one, or vice versa”, Kinga explains, recalling the words of a Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Freetown who described them as “like sheep without a shepherd” – referring of course to those who do not have anyone to guide them.
This is the reason why ACN is planning to devote its forthcoming aid projects in Sierra Leone to the task of promoting new religious vocations, by renewing some of the pastoral structures – such as the John Paul II Pastoral Centre in the Archdiocese of Freetown – and through the formation of priests, especially the in-service training of those who have spent over 10 years in the priesthood without ever having benefited from ongoing courses in spirituality. The charity will also aim to encourage meetings between the various dioceses of the country so that they can exchange ideas and solutions in regard to the challenges facing them. Owing to the emergency situation, ACN has until now focused principally on projects aimed at reconstruction of the country and the provision of motor vehicles, to enable priests and religious to reach the various distant and sometimes very remote parishes.