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  • Nancy Benoit

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Updated: Jan 12, 2020

January 11, 2020

“Freetown, Sierra Leone - After our ten day SHGO trip to Ghana and Sierra Leone, we are now heading home. The feeling is bittersweet, due to the friends we’ve met, and for me, relationships I’ve been blessed to have had in each country for the past decade. My work in West Africa truly now begins upon my return, as I try to raise donor funds for a variety of critically needed initiatives. In Ghana, our hope is to establish a $1000 Emergency Medical Fund for the women and children of Nyitawuta along with a $1000 student scholarship fund so that the brightest children who want to pursue their secondary studies can. The Emergency Medical funds will initially be used to provide cataract surgery on two elderly gentlemen and an X-ray on an elderly woman who fell and dislocated her shoulder several weeks ago. None of them have any money to pay for the $100 cataract surgery or the $50 cost of the xrays; simple things we in the West would take for granted. The village leaders also asked if SHGO could help in purchasing concrete blocks and metal roofing so that the village men might construct their own small clinic structure.

In Sierra Leone, we will continue our efforts to bring one solar exterior light to every village we support. We will also be working on collecting high school level biology, chemistry, and physics textbooks and needed computers so that we can open our first Science Lab at our BO Academy school. For the people of Ghana and Sierra Leone, we have become ‘beloved friends’ as they have come to love and trust that we will not forget them. My appreciations for all of you who have been following our trip and our SHGO donors who make my work possible. Our 2020 SHGO team of Tracy, Andy, Ali, Frances, and Peter have been wonderful and forever changed by our efforts together. They are all exhausted and ready to return home to their loved ones. As for me - I love this outreach work we do through Seven Hills Global Outreach and the impact it has upon so many of the poorest of the poor - and our diaspora Seven Hills employees back in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. We have had another successful trip , but I too am ready to return to Worcester to my wife Kathee who always supports me in the weeks I am away from home. We arrive in Boston on Sunday night and I’ll gratefully be back in my office at Seven Hills on Monday morning.

I’ve asked each of our SHGO team to post their own final thoughts to this blog. Their words and memories; their “pearls” follow.

Dr. J

From Frances Salanis:

My journey began by accepting an opportunity to help others not expecting anything in return & in fact I’m ending my journey feeling like I received so much more from them. My heart has become fuller with all the love received from the children and everyone I encountered while in Ghana & Sierra Leone . Despite all the challenges and lack of many resources Huge smiles & Warm welcomes greeted us everywhere we went.

This experience was definitely not only about giving to others in need but about what I received in exchange a reminder of how important it is to be appreciative & value the smallest to the largest of blessings because regardless of size we shouldn’t lose fact that it is still a blessing.

This outreach effort allowed me to reflect on all we take for granted, often loosing vision on what is truly important and irreplaceable. I am humbled by the appreciation & resilience of many from cities to villages visited.

Q: How can one have little to nothing yet possess everything?

When we focus and place our energy in our faith; valuing family, community, and unity.

From Peter Demko:

As I started my second trip over to Africa, I needed to prepare not only my bag, but all the camera equipment. I also needed to prepare myself mentally. I knew I was going to witness some sad, unbearable conditions, but I was ready to capture the work through photos and videos.

One of my favorite parts of the trip was not only seeing the children respond to the drone, but the staff and teachers too. The way we can take footage of Nyitawuta and the village roads and territories is something much greater than for our pleasure. It allows HOCAP and Barbara, and then Zion Ministries to see how they've impacted so many lives. I am eager to see how this video footage will help strengthen and improve their world. 

Each one of us contributed something different during our journey and I am so glad I could provide this benefit to the citizens of Ghana and Sierra Leone, and the SHGO team.


Overall, it was another great trip and I hope you enjoy the pictures and videos. I am honored to be able to share our experience with everyone. 

From Ali Suenaert:

“You are going to encounter some of the nicest people you'll ever meet.” That phrase was said many times during all the preparation meetings before our journey started to Africa. Initially I thought it was “cliché” and a white savior phrase. However, now that I am coming close to ending the journey, I am amazed at how that statement carried me throughout the trip.

Everything first started once I told my supervisor, Marilyn Lopez Haddad, about my interest of the trip. She encouraged me and was happy for this opportunity; she never once discouraged my journey even though it would mean be being out of work for a while. That was a nice relief. 

Once I got the clear to travel, I told my Seven Hills Rhode Island team, and again, they were supportive and eager to hear about my upcoming adventure. Joanne Mikula, Carlos Miranda, Barbara Lanoue, Cliff Cabral, Lisa Donahue, Marissa Ruff, and others reminded me not to worry and that they'd be rooting for me while I was away. Their kindness helped get me excited. I reached out to my colleague, Owura Sarkodieh, who is from Ghana. He helped comfort me during my pre-trip jitters and introduced me to his culture on a deeper level. 

Dannie Painchaud helped prepare all the visas and passports; she was kind and patient throughout the process and got everything done efficiently. The next nice treat was Peter's long list of helpful items that he recommended us new comers; Amazon was probably grateful for us as we searched everything from fanny packs to portable chargers. My boyfriend, friends, and family were hesitant but very excited for me to cross off other countries on my bucket list. Finally before we left, Dr. Jordan comforted my mom as we entered his office before boarding the van to the airport. He was kind and reassuring to my mom that he would "protect her baby" while we were across the world.

Once we finally arrived in Accra, we were greeted with the nicest smile I've seen in a long time. Barbara Asempa and some of her team welcomed us to her country. They quickly started helping us get settled in Accra. The next day we started our journey to Nyitawuta, the primary village HOCAP serves. We met a team of doctors and nurses who made up a nice multidisciplinary team eager to do their yearly evaluations for the villagers. It was a long drive there and back, but the joy we were welcomed with was unreal. The next day we toured Cape Coast. After the tour at Cape Coast, we ventured back to Tema. We stopped on Oxford Street in Osu. The street provided us with so much culture. From bartering with the vendors to sharing a sundae (yes I found my favorite ice cream in Africa) with Barbara's son, I was embraced by the geniality of Ghanaians.

The next day we ventured off to Sierra Leone. It was such a nice relief to hear that there was now a road that connected the airport to the ferry. After hearing how much of an inconvenience it was getting over to Freetown, I was ecstatic that not only was it easy for us after flying for most of the day, but that other Sierra Leoneans had this convenience as well. Pastor Kanu and his son Michael also greeted us with a warm, nice smile once he saw his American brother, Dr. Jordan. We arrived at a great hotel in Freetown where we were spoiled with the view of the Atlantic Ocean and Sierra Leonean food. Touring Freetown the next day was a much different experience than touring Accra and Tema.

The next day, Pastor took us through the slums of Freetown. This was the bottom of the hill where all (yes all) the (human) waste, trash, dirt, and city junk would float down to during the rainy season. People were living in an unbearable situation, a place where no child, adult, or animal should ever live. However, as we were carefully walking through, a woman was behind us and nicely cautioned to Peter that his cell phone was showing through his pocket, potentially falling out. This woman could have easily waited for it to drop or pick pocketed him to use or sell the phone, but no. She nicely warned us out of the goodness of her heart. I felt so dirty and sad leaving that neighborhood; it was nice to leave but heavy walking out knowing we were on to something better.


Driving over to our final destination was one of the most overstimulating events on the trip, never mind my entire life. I was hot, dirty, dusty, and tired. One of the stops we made was at a random gas station for us to fuel up and use the bathroom. I will never, ever, forget that bathroom experience. Our group really started nicely forming that night - between passing out tissues for toilet paper, holding flashlights because there were no lights, and drenching ourselves in antibacterial gel, we survived because we had each other. By the time we arrived at the Bo hotel, my ears were ringing from all the courtesy beeps from the motor bikes and cars. While I appreciate the nice efforts of the drivers beeping every time they approached another car for safety, it becomes very overwhelming when that sound is mixed with the heat and smells of Sierra Leone.

I will not go into much detail of each village we toured while in Bo, Sierra Leone because I guarantee other teammates articulated that piece, but I need to emphasis how nice everyone was to us as we passed through. It was not a usual American type of nice, but rather a pure and genuine warmth. You couldn't help but wave or smile back at everyone we passed because everyone smiled and greeted us; not in a white savior type of way, but because it was a normal offering between genuine parties. Never once did I feel out of place while interacting with the people of Sierra Leone.

I really felt the warmth when I rode on the back of Dalington's motor bike as he whisked me around from village to village when I was too tired from hiking the bush. He will forever be in my heart for many reasons.

The children and staff we met at the schools and hospital was nothing short of amazing. Everyone was willing to answer our questions and introduce us to their culture. I just can't get over the hospitality. While some of the people we met wanted to give us gifts of gratitude, the best gift we received was the gift of love from one of the village chiefs. You could tell he felt guilty for not being able to share anything, but when I learned he was illiterate, the fact he could articulate his love for us brought tears to our eyes.

Someone I can't forget mentioning is our newest teammate, Mohammed. Mohammed put up with a lot as he drove us to and from the hotel and villages. He was extremely helpful and knowledgeable as he loaded and unloaded the car and answered our outrageous questions. He was always on time (real time, not pastor time) and never complained. Mohammed's wife passed away from Ebola a few years ago and he continues to be a good man raising his daughter and working two jobs.

I wish there was a better word to describe the hospitality I encountered during this journey. My heart and brain are still trying to process everything that we experienced. However, from the minute I committed until the final night, I felt so nice and supported by everyone I encountered.

This long message is to not only briefly describe my Pearls during this adventure, but to also remind everyone reading that there are still nice people in this world. It's ok to be vulnerable, because there is always a nice feeling of relief when you see a smile or someone helping you along the way. Please continue to take chances, ask for support, and be nice. If you see me at Seven Hills, don't hesitate to ask about my journey... just don't ask me to dance the way I did with the villagers during one of our parade!

From Tracy Graham:

Ghana is a peaceful country with such warm people, who wave to you from the villages. We went to Nyitawuta and everyone was so friendly, warm, open, and welcoming. We were able to find medications and match them with the people who needed them. I loved seeing the chief and meeting his son, Philly. He walked with us and picked a maise and showed me bean plants. He was gentle and is one of twelve children. Gentle is another word I would use to describe Ghanaians. He goes to school in the village and also, in a neighboring village. I will remember this joyful and fun-filled conversation.

Sierra Leone is a beautiful country too. I have chills thinking about the brutal civil war that ravaged the country. While here, we can feel remnants from the war. The Sierra Leoneans are observant, strong, and kind. They have been through so much and yet, they are selfless. I so enjoy waving to the people as we pass and smiling. I made friends with a woman named Baindu, who works at the hotel in Bo. She is gracious and giving. She asked me when we would be there the next morning. I said I would be ready by 8:30am. Sure enough, she knocked the next morning and gave me a beautiful bracelet.The remote villages off the Bandawa campus were phenomenal. We hiked from village to village on the narrow dirt paths with luscious coconut trees on both sides. The children are my favorite and I spent so much time with them. The people live with so little and yet, they are joyful. Resilience is a good word for Sierra Leoneans. I am overjoyed to have had this opportunity and happy to make the decision to go on this journey to Ghana & Sierra Leone. It is one that I will remember forever.

From Andrew Graham:

Except for cars and cell phones, nothing in Ghana and Sierra Leone reminded me of the US. How the Africans dress, their homes (or huts), the look of their cities, the amount of uninhabited open space between towns, carrying large amounts on their heads, and the scenery all struck me as very different.

Another difference is that Ghana and Sierra Leone have two, not four, seasons, dry and rainy. Each used to be six months but the residents tell us the rainy season is getting longer with climate change.

It's currently the early part of dry season.  We did not have even a hint of rain on this trip. We saw fires burn unattended in fields to clear brush for farming, along roads to clear more brush, and in city dumps to burn trash. In the early evening where there is no electricity, dinner is cooked on open fires. The air often was thick with smoke especially when we approached the Bo area in the early evening.

Driving is like a video game. People walk in every direction even right up to your car. They aim to sell you whatever they carry.  Motor bikes clog the road going, at best, 20 mph. Cars constantly honk to pass the slower motorbikes and less aggressive car drivers. Stray dogs, goats, and chickens randomly cross the road. If the roads are dirt, good luck with the dust. 

My favorite difference was when visiting small villages of about 200-300 residents or villagers. Some were accessible only by foot or motor bike. In Ghana, there was the very poor and remote village of  Nyitawuta and in Sierra Leone, we had the great fortune to visit seven villages! Each village has a chief, children who loved having their picture taken, and their own personality. The villagers own very little but are very happy living a simple life and being with their family, which they value a lot. Every village welcomed us with music and dance. It was during this part that my travel buddies remarked on my rhythm, or lack of it, but were amused by my spontaneously created "bottle dance". We saw how they cooked their meals on an open fire surrounded closely by three rocks with sticks slid in between the rocks. The villagers loved to show us how they pump their new well, if they had one. In one village that did not have a working well, we saw how the women had to walk a fair distance to a river to fill their buckets and carry the water back to the village.

It was so cool being in a spot of the world and interacting with people, with Tracy, that most only see in a National Geographic special. 

These differences are what will make this trip so memorable.

Vive le difference!

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