Rev. Dorcas Kamanda with Màriama, Kumba, Mariana, Makutah and Feremusu. Her husband Daniel is in the background.

Raising orphans among crises in Sierra Leone

By John W. Coleman

In Freetown, Sierra Leone, a world away from Houston, Texas, another tragic toll continues to rise, where thousands of victims are either dead, missing or left homeless by flooding rains and a horrific mudslide that wreaked havoc two weeks ago. United Methodist Bishop John Yambasu this week helped lead ecumenical funerals to bury some 300 decomposing bodies close to the site of that disaster. (Read the UMNS story, “Service provides chance to mourn mudslide victims,” by Phileas Jusu.)

Front, from left: Rev. Dorcas Kamanda, Chief Jalloh, Mariana, Mariama, Feremusu. Back row: Sheku, the local Director of Social Welfare, Jamie Harwel (Devin’s Harwel’s daughter) and Beverly Sims, a volunteer from Lancaster, Pa.

Yet, not far away, a dedicated Eastern PA Conference clergywoman is protecting and nurturing young lives that survived the beleaguered nation’s other recent tragedy, Ebola. The Rev. Dorcas Kamanda knew some of the victims of the catastrophe that struck the capital city August 14. She had left her pastorate at Newtown UMC in Columbia, Pa., last December and moved back to a small, rural community in her native country to create a children’s village. There she is caring for young orphans who lost families in the Ebola crisis of 2014-2015.

From the mudslide, the reported death toll is over 600. But with more than a thousand victims missing and 3,000 homeless, it will no doubt exceed that amount. Bishop Yambasu, who is president of the Council of Churches of Sierra Leone, helped organize a service of remembrance August 27 that allowed survivors to mourn the dead.  The scale of the disaster meant many families could not have funeral services before the mass burial because bodies were already decomposing.

Bishop John Yambasu gives the benediction at the end of a remembrance and thanksgiving service for the victims and survivors of a devastating landslide at the bottom of Mount Sugar Loaf, Sierra Leone, on Aug. 27. United Methodists — including entire families — are among the hundreds killed after torrential rains caused deadly mudslides and flooding near Freetown. Photo by Phileas Jusu. UMNS.

“We decided to observe this service of remembrance and thanksgiving at the very scene of the disaster while the loss, pain and grief is still fresh in our hearts and to mourn the loss of our loved ones whom we hope to see again in heaven,” Yambasu explained. He said the service also allowed a chance to give thanks to God for the thousands who survived and to ask for God’s divine forgiveness and mercy upon Sierra Leone.

Like in Houston, many are placing some blame on the government’s urban development policies and lack of disaster response readiness.

“I went to Freetown to help but could do no hands-on work to help,” wrote Kamanda in a letter to Bishop Peggy Johnson. “It was recovery work and the army was asked to do it. I went to the UMC Conference (office) and met with Bishop Yambasu and other church leaders…. None of the churches has disaster relief programs. I confessed I had no training in disaster relief. But I encouraged all present to work on getting some people trained in all the churches.”

At the mass funeral, Yambasu recalled Sierra Leone’s suffering during the last two decades from civil war and the deadly Ebola outbreak. Children left orphaned from those two crises is why Kamanda and her ailing husband Daniel are there now. She visited Eastern PA briefly this summer and may return here again with Daniel in September to get his medical prescriptions refilled.

Kamanda and the women she has hired are caring for five orphans so far but hoping to add many more once a center is built, more resources are received and their capacity grows.

Staff and children gather around a barrel of clothes and supplies sent by the Kamanda clergy mentor, the Rev. Roseann Goldberg-Taylor at Lancaster: Christ UMC.

“God continues to really be present with us,” she reported to Bishop Johnson. “We now have two mothers, a mom’s helper and five orphans. We have started construction of the first house for the orphans.”

A very ill Mariana.

The youngest, Mariana, was very ill when they took her to Doctors without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières) for help. “We were told she might have died if we had not taken her,” wrote Kamanda. “I believe our Lord wanted her to live. I wonder how many more Marianas are out there. Please keep us in your prayers.”

The courageous longtime nurse-turned-local pastor, now in her 70s, credits the Holy Spirit for “the energy that I receive to do all that I have going on.” The children, who are from different tribes, are learning to speak English, which is taught at school, so they can communicate.

Agricultural work has begun on 106 acres of land, where they are growing rice and vegetables. “I see practical and tangible evidence of God at work,” Kamanda rejoiced. “There is no other explanation. It’s just simply amazing. What a mighty God we serve.”

Staff mothers comb the children’s hair.

She plans to train workers to operate the orphanage and hopes to return to the Eastern PA Conference, her family and her ministry and education here as soon as she can. “The people we have brought on are not only thankful they have jobs; they are excited to work with us.”

Grateful for generous donations—including barrels of children’s clothes and supplies—sent by members of the Conference’s West District and others, Kamanda is surviving mostly on her Social Security payments. Meanwhile, her son Ali Kamanda and his business partner, Devin Harwel—both entrepreneurs—provide promised developmental support.

“All I have asked and insisted on is that Christ remains at the center of the orphanage,” she writes, “and with God’s help we will build it. I just pray that what we do is pleasing to our Lord and brings people to Christ.”

Clergy gathered at a Sierra Leone pastors retreat.

Photos courtesy of Rev. Dorcas Kamanda.