Out of My Comfort Zone

Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.

If this first month at my mission site was anything, it was a test of my comfort zone, and it couldn’t wait to start. Due to a system error, my checked bag did not get off the plane when I first arrived in Lungi, and all my careful packing and preparation was suddenly gone. Knowing how heavy the rains are in the rainy season, I wanted to bring enough clothing with me to put on fresh, dry clothes every day, even in the midst of all that rain. It didn’t even rain during the first couple of days I was here and I was unable to fulfill that desire. Fortunately my bag was recovered and arrived a few days later, but that just goes to show that even in the midst of all our planning and preparation, life will go on regardless of what plans you’ve made. And through this I was able to experience the kindness of strangers, as I was given a couple shirts and a pair of pants from the religious community, whom I had just met at the airport, which helped to tide me over until my bag arrived.

Adjusting to a new culture was always going to have its challenges. The two greatest challenges so far have been communication and how time is treated here. Understanding what others are saying and making myself understood has been especially difficult as I get used to the accent here. Clarifying questions and repetition are now more essential tools for communicating than they have been in the past, but I’m completely lost if someone starts talking fast. I’m coming to a greater understanding of how many ESOL students may feel in American classrooms, as I’m facing a similar reality.

Artwork and Catholic resources line the walls of the JSS.

There is a schedule that we generally follow, but things tend to just happen whenever they happen – time is not as much of a rigid factor as it is in America. I had only met with my department head once before the school year, and we had arranged a second meeting, but the meeting fell through and I didn’t find out why until the next day and it was never made up. To give you a more practical sense of what time is like here, I’ve been attending the 8 AM Sunday Mass at the local parish, which doesn’t always start at 8, and there have been at least two occasions where it ended after the 10 AM Mass was supposed to begin. It isn’t that big of a deal, but it’s still an adjustment, as neither of these situations would happen back home and I can’t plan for things in the same way.

That being said, almost everything else that has tested my comfort zone has been wild and I absolutely love it. Kids will run up to me on the street to greet me and hold onto my hand or grab onto my arm while asking excited questions, and it has taken a little bit for my first thoughts to be something other than “Where are your parents?” and “Do they know what’s going on here?” I went to the final match of a football game after being invited by one of the senior secondary school students, intending to watch the game and talk with him, but I was hijacked upon my arrival by a group of primary school students and spent the afternoon talking with them instead. It was a good time, and the student I had originally planned to meet there saw what had happened and was very understanding, and we see each other around often enough anyways, so there’s ample time to make up for it.

After the match we were treated to a faint double-rainbow despite it not having rained.

When school first started, a lot of the kids were asking if I would be their friend or if they could have my phone number, which immediately set off alarms in my head. Anyone who has worked with children knows that you should be friendly to the kids, but because you have the additional responsibility of educating or supervising them you can’t really be a friend to them in the traditional sense and you never under any circumstances give out your personal information to them. My ministry goes beyond just teaching though, so I’m willing to befriend the kids outside of class, but I’m not going to give them my number. I appreciate how welcoming they are and how excited they are to have me, but there’s no reason they would need my number, and I’m not connected to the African cell network anyways, which I feel gives me a polite enough reason to tell them “no.”

I mentioned earlier how Mass tends to run much longer than it does in America, but it is also so much more of a celebration! People are dancing and clapping in the pews, the people processing in at the start of Mass and bringing up the gifts later on are dancing along to the music, and there’s just so much joy and vibrancy! I wish I could hear the lyrics most of the time, but it’s still an awesome thing to experience regardless. There have even been a few occasions where I noticed reggae beats being played in Mass, which I never would have thought of as liturgical (though I don’t think the drumming would be either, which I have greatly enjoyed). Sure, there are differences, but underneath it all, it’s still the same Mass and still the same Jesus that we come together as a community to celebrate and receive. The African tradition is an interesting one so far, and I’m excited to see more of it, especially with important feast days and holy days coming up.

Despite being a month into my mission at this point, I still find it hard to believe that I’m actually here, and that God has given and entrusted me with such an incredible thing as to teach these children and be a part of this community. He is very much alive in this community, and despite not having much, the people’s faith here is incredibly strong, be it Muslim or Christian. I don’t know what God has brought me here for yet, but I still have a lot to learn and there’s a lot that my heart and my eyes need to be opened up to. All I can do is keep putting one foot in front of the other and have faith that the Lord knows what he’s doing, even when I get uncomfortable along the way.

Published by Matthew Beers

I'm a proud graduate of the University of Central Florida, chronicling my experiences teaching English Language Arts as a Salesian Lay Missioner in the community of Lungi, Sierra Leone.

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