Little did I know that when I left Sierra Leone in November 2019 that I would not return for over 1 ½ years! I always enjoy my yearly visits. Catching up with friends and colleagues and just spending time in such a beautiful and welcoming country. So, once fully vaccinated and it was safe to travel, I set off.
The primary purpose of the trip was to visit the core facilities that we support with medicines, supplies, and equipment and assess if we are continuing to meet their needs. Four hospitals and ten clinics across the country was my goal.
I heard that what we were sending was highly valued. Sometimes it’s the things that you least expect that are really appreciated. For instance, portable commodes used in the delivery room and plastic bed coverings were very popular.
Partnerships provide positive results
With our medicine shipments we try to focus on the greatest need which is quality antibiotics. Through our partnership with MAP International and their Bringing Children Health we were able to provide a larger supply of amoxicillin syrup to children to treat pneumonia and other infections. This is critical to reduce the high under-5 mortality rate in Sierra Leone. Every facility pointed this out as a top item that helped them address health issues among children.
Our facilities also tell us that the Prenatal Vitamins, Vitamin A and Albendazole we provide them from Vitamin Angels really help improve the health of pregnant women and under-5 children. Zana, who I met at Monsignor Daniel Sullivan Clinic, was a few months away from having her first baby. She told me the prenatal vitamins really help her feel better and stronger.
COVID cases have not been high in Sierra Leone. Health facilities, however, are very much aware that this could change at any minute. They are following all the proper protocols and let us know that additional masks and other personal protective equipment would be welcome in case they do experience a rise in cases. Especially with the rainy season started this is a great worry.
Storytelling and spelling bees…..
No trip to Sierra Leone would be complete without a stop at St. Mary’s Fatima ICC. Visiting the children is always fun and they always make you feel so welcomed. Between braiding my hair and playing with my camera the afternoon went by fast. I am always amazed at Sisters Agatha, Bernadette and Felicia and their calmness and patience in dealing with 23 active, inquisitive and at times rambunctious children. During the time when schools were shut down for coronavirus, they used all their skills to challenge the kids and keep them engaged. They held debates and spelling bees and implemented evening story time. At the end they said they grew stronger as a family and they appreciated their time together.
The timing of this trip allowed me to attend one of the quarterly epilepsy outreach visits that Loreto Health Services holds throughout the year. Held in Moyamba Town I talked with several beneficiaries that told us how this outreach had changed their lives. Our partnership with ROW Foundation provides the epilepsy drug Roweepra to support the work of Loreto Health Services.
Capacity training improving service delivery
I also received reports from facilities on the benefit of the capacity training we supported last year. At Stella Maris, Princess, told us of a recent delivery where she and her nursing team used what they had learned through their Emergency Obstetric Training and successfully conducted a breech delivery. She said prior to that she would not have attempted a delivery. But, the training gave her the knowledge and confidence to do so.
Time truly does fly, and it seemed as soon as I got there it was time to go. Zoom is not a replacement for in person contact and visits and it was good to get firsthand reports from our facilities and share laughs with old friends.
On the 9th of April 1996, at the peak of the brutal ten-year civil war that was ravaging Sierra Leone, Peter Alpha Leo Konteh was ordained a Catholic Priest. This year marks Fr. Peter’s Silver Year of Jubilee — 25 years in the service of God and the people of Sierra Leone. Happy Year of Jubilee!!
Father Peter is how he is known to the world. A name very much recognized and adored throughout Sierra Leone and here in America. I call Fr. Peter the “Mayor” of Sierra Leone, because everyone knows him, and he knows everyone by name. Traveling with Fr. Peter there’s always a hug or a handshake, a listening ear, guidance, support, love. He is a man that is truly adored and respected. There’s always a story of how he’s helped someone, or their family, or their friend. It seems there is always someone thanking him. It’s remarkable being in his presence, yet he carries humility throughout.
There is something unique about the man, the myth, the legend. As great a force that he is, you immediately feel like a part of his family. He is your friend and you are his. My first meeting with Fr. Peter I saw the love in his eyes and warmth in his smile. I was in awe and he became an instant friend and source of guidance. His smile, and contagious laughter lights up a room. But what elevates Fr. Peter is his heart, love and devotion to God and the people of Sierra Leone.
How it began
So here we are – all of us celebrating 25-years of Fr. Peter as a Priest. It seems like he’s been helping people all his life. And basically, he has. Fr. Peter grew up in a devoted Catholic household. He began his career in social work before deciding to enter the priesthood. The priestly formation led to academic degrees in Philosophy and Humanities and have been further enhanced with professional training and hands-on experience in various aspects of pastoral, humanitarian and relief work. He has always seamlessly blended his social and pastoral work.
Fr. Peter’s stories capture and enthrall any and all audiences. And he tells a great joke as well, even laughing before reaching the punchline and then repeating the punchline back to you at least three times, continuing to laugh like it’s the first time he’s heard the joke. But it’s his own life-story that could be a blockbuster movie. Each visit to Sierra Leone we learn more and more about our friend. His description of the ten-year civil war and what he personally endured was truly unbelievable. His life during that time, so very young and a brand-new priest facing harrowing circumstances was extraordinary. Fr. Peter doesn’t choose to relive the horrors, as is the way for most Sierra Leoneans, but he was a hero, risking his life multiple times to bring help to his homeland.
Telling the story of the war
During the days of the conflict, all journalists and media houses in the country were closed or destroyed by the rebel army. All other international medias fled in fear for their lives. It was extremely difficult to reach out internationally for help and let others know what was happening in Sierra Leone.
Fr. Peter served as a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) correspondent, providing updates and information about the conflict and the atrocities the people faced daily at the hands of the fighting forces. Being a young priest, he spent most of his time delivering the reality of the war to the wider world in hopes the international community would intervene and help find a permanent solution to the brutal and senseless fighting in Sierra Leone. He had to move from location to location frequently as rebel forces were seeking him out. They knew he was the BBC source and he was a wanted man.
It was an “edge of your seat” thriller that was real life for Fr. Peter. (My colleague Vicki and I have already decided that Idris Elba would play Fr. P.) And throughout his BBC reporting and escaping from the rebel army, Fr. Peter served those in need. He protected people, he helped whoever he came across in his travels and was a haven for so many children whose parents lost their lives. He put the lives of others ahead of his own. God called him into this vocation at this particular moment in his history, yet it was just the start of his priesthood.
Helping bring peace
He was a pioneering member of the Inter-Religious Council, formed during the war and an initiative that brought together all denominations of Christians and Muslims to design a plan and pray jointly for peace in his beloved country. This Council grew into an integral part of the peace architecture that facilitated the dialogue between the Government of Sierra Leone and the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). During the civil war, he also worked in the management of camps (for both refugees and internally displaced persons) and with the resettlement of refugees. His successes were duly acknowledged by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as an outstanding example of remarkable integrity in Camp Management.
As he grew in pastoral and social work, he did not lose sight of his passion for child protection, and established the St. Mary’s Children’s Home in 1997 in Bo, to care for war orphans whose parents were killed, maimed and disabled or unable to care for their children. St. Mary’s Children’s Home thrived over the years and produced university students among its alumni.
In 2014, when the Ebola Virus Epidemic spread in Sierra Leone, it was Father Peter who raised international awareness through his highly publicized presentation for the United States Senate and similar speech for the British House of Commons. Fr. Peter’s leadership in the Caritas organization helped to initiate a campaign to bring awareness and mobilization at the onset of this most deadly virus.
His hard work led to further direct Ebola response efforts like training, sanitation kits, in home education and respectful interments. At great risk to his own life, he traveled the country to personally assist families and to not only teach others about this virus but help in the healing process. He and his faithful team distributed food, water, clothing, blankets, hand sanitizers, medical supplies, personal protection equipment to health facilities and communities, set up wash stations and so much more. Fr. Peter worked around the clock for months on end. It was physical and emotional adversity that he never once complained about. He got up every morning and went out there to reach as many in need as he could.
The work continued and continues to this day for Fr. Peter and the Caritas Freetown team as they face natural disasters in the country from torrential rains and flooding, mudslides, COVID-19 and most recently devasting fires. Fr. Peter is a man who likes a good selfie but remains the humblest throughout all his great work. He will smile for the camera, but he doesn’t acknowledge his accomplishments. He just keeps going and never stops working for the people.
Amongst his many accomplishments, Fr. Peter served and still serves as the following:
Founding Member of the Inter-Religious Council
Archdiocesan Development Office Bo-Director
Director and Founder of St. Mary’s Children’s Home Bo
Director and Founder of St. Mary’s Fatima ICC at River No.2
Caritas Freetown – Executive Director
Vice-Chairperson for Caritas Africa Humanitarian Group
Chair President of the Fraternity of Priests in Sierra Leone
Chairman of the Advisory Board and Technical Advisor for the Healey International Relief Foundation
Board Member and Technical Advisor to the Fig Tree Children Foundation, an Australian organization based in Brisbane for underprivileged children (especially orphaned and vulnerable children) in Sierra Leone.
Member of the International Catholic Child Protection Committee based in Rome.
And on his downtime, in between his priestly duties, confessionals, masses and saving the world, he has completed studies in following areas:
Development Studies at the University of Dar es Salam Tanzania
Development Management in MDF (Management Development for the Future) at the Institute Arusha Tanzania
Diploma in Child Protection from Rome
He attends seminars and workshops for continuing education and educational advancement classes, courses and trainings for Public Health in Humanitarian Crisis, Conflict and Disaster, Communication, Child Protection, Humanitarian Aid, Community Health and Social Activism.
Telling the story of Sierra Leone
Fr. Peter has traveled the globe to tell Sierra Leone’s story. He advocates for children, women, and young girls’ safety. He believes in the power of education and providing the tools to create sustainability. As a result, in April 2019 Fr. Peter Konteh was honored by the Sierra Ovation Awards as one of the 100 most outstanding Sierra Leoneans. The award recognizes inspiring and influential young leaders in Sierra Leone.
Before I sat down to write this, I thought to myself, how do you describe the life of a man like this through a blog? It’s easy. You try your best to tie in all his accomplishments and recognize that the eyes of the Lord shine through the eyes of Fr. Peter. In the way the children light up when he comes for a visit. Or a parishioner thanks him for taking time for their needs. Or through his service and dedication to his peers, advocates, partners and loved ones.
No one wears their heart on their sleeve more than Fr. P. No matter the origins of your faith, Fr. Peter is there to love and support those in need. He is a true friend, a great travel companion, music lover, master selfie taker, Cool P, great joke teller and a light for all in Sierra Leone and around the world. Fr. Peter listens to and guides you and a simple conversation can become enlightening.
One of a kind
Ordination means grace for Fr. Peter. He doesn’t care about the awards or use his educational knowledge as a pulpit. Nor does he try to stand higher than his brother or sister. He chooses to stand next to them, hand in hand, to walk together in this world. I’m very fortunate to have Fr. Peter in my life; as a friend, mentor and priest who oftentimes forgives me for my lack of mass attendance.
There really is no other like Fr. Peter. All of us at HealeyIRF are blessed to have him in our lives working together through the years. The love of God is seen when looking at Fr. Peter. That is a love that is unconditional, unshakable, unforgettable, and infinite. His world of knowledge, depth and understanding of the human soul is his gift.
Join us in congratulating Rev. Fr. Peter Konteh with a spirit of joy and gratitude for his priestly vocation on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. We love you Fr. Peter!
There are many ways to put gratitude into practice, but the children at St. Mary’s Fatima Interim Care Center (ICC) decided on a gratitude tour.
HealeyIRF provides educational fees and operational support to the 23 children at St. Mary’s Fatima ICC. In addition, the surrounding community and local parishes have also taken the children to heart and provide resources.
“We want to ensure the children grow to be good citizens and appreciate the blessings they have received,” noted Fr. Peter Konteh, Executive Director Caritas Freetown. “This tour was a way for them to show and share their love to the many people who have supported them.”
Many of the churches send donations of food to help the children. Others provide clothes or funding for items the children need, like backpacks, books, and notebooks.
Visits to churches appreciated
The children’s first stop was Mass at Our Lady Star of the Sea Parish in Juba. After Mass they had a chance to say thank you to the parishioners. Over the next several weeks, visits were paid to six more churches: St. Luke’s in Wilberforce, St. Anthony’s in Brookfield, St. Elizabeth’s in Aberdeen, Blessed Michael Tansi in Godrich, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Lakka, and Sacred Heart on Siaka Steven Street.
St. Mary’s Fatima ICC Social Worker James Nyamawa said, “The tour ended successfully. The Priests and parishioners appreciated the initiative and commented on how it had really brightened their day to see the children and how well they were doing.”
Learning about work at Don Bosco
The gratitude tour also included a visit to the Don Bosco Center in Tombo. The children wanted to learn about the work done by Don Bosco and to meet the children at the center. James explained, “It was lovely as the children had the opportunity to interact with children from another ICC and to see the work of Don Bosco.”
Don Bosco runs several shelters in Sierra Leone, and they have a program called Street-work. For this effort they take a bus at midnight into slum neighborhoods for outreach to at-risk children. They let them know about programs that can help them get off the street and training so they can find employment.
“It is important for the children at St. Mary’s Fatima ICC to say tenki to those who support them and to get a broad understanding of the world and the challenges others face,” commented Fr. Peter. “I am always encouraged by their grateful hearts and I was happy to share this gratitude tour with them.”
O Lord that lends me life, lend me a heart replete with thankfulness.
Thanks to MAP International and their generous donation of amoxicillin through their Bringing Children Health Program. Now, hospitals and clinics across Sierra Leone received much-need medication to treat children suffering from infections.
Noted HealeyIRF Program Manager Ishmeal Charles, “Amoxicillin is essential in today’s healthcare service in Sierra Leone and our efforts to address our high under-five mortality rate. Reducing deaths, especially from pneumonia, will save a lot of young children’s lives. MAPs donation of amoxicillin is life-saving.”
The 2,400 bottles of amoxicillin were distributed to 18 private facilities throughout Sierra Leone in late 2020. Stella Maris, a faith-based clinic in the Juba community outside of Freetown, was very appreciative of the supply they received. Under-fives represent 47% of their patient visits and for those suffering from respiratory infections, 60% are under-fives.
Children’s health improves
Fatu Sesay, a lactating mother, came to the clinic to seek care for her baby who was suffering from the early stages of pneumonia and a cough. Given the amoxicillin she said joyfully, ‘‘We thank all for providing these medicines as they benefit our children’s well-being.”
Another mother, Sallay Dumbuya, brought her five-year-old son Abdulai to Stella Maris as he had a throat infection. Within a few weeks, she was happy to report that her son was well. ‘‘It may have taken a long time if we relied on what is locally available but today my son has recovered and we can now sleep well at night.”
An issue that many facilities struggle with is counterfeit drugs that are in the market place. Nurse Aminata explained that the quality of the amoxicillin supplied by MAP supersedes what is available locally. She added, “The quality of this drug has provided Stella Maris with a reputation of having effective drugs for treatment and this is increasing the inflow of patients. There is really a difference between this amoxicillin and what we used to buy from local pharmacies in Sierra Leone.”
Thanks to MAP International and their Bringing Children Health program. It is certainly bringing improved health to vulnerable children in Sierra Leone.
By sending medicine to those in need, our assistance leads to more than improved health because a healthier population means stronger families and communities
When asked what Sierra Leone can export to the world, Father Peter Konteh, Executive Director of Caritas Freetown, always responds, “Religious tolerance and understanding. During times of great crisis like the civil war and Ebola, our faith leaders – Muslim, Catholic and Protestants – have pulled our communities together.”
So, this World Religion Day we highlight Sierra Leone as Muslims and Christians exemplify religious tolerance by embracing their shared values of love, charity and peace to achieve common goals.
Inter Religious Council of Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone’s Inter-Religious Council meets frequently to discuss how to “promote interfaith dialogue and promote peaceful coexistence in communities.” According to the most recent U.S. State Department Interreligious Freedom Report, Muslims represent 77% and Christians 22% of the population. The 2019 report further noted, “Intermarriage between Christians and Muslims remained common, and many families had both Christian and Muslim members living in the same household. Many individuals celebrated religious holidays of other religious groups, regardless of denomination, both at home and in houses of worship.”
Interfaith Rice Distribution
For the past four years, Partnering to Serve Humanity has held an Interfaith Rice Distribution in Freetown. Leaders from the Muslim, Catholic, Protestant and Buddhist faiths attend and speak to the over 3,000 beneficiaries on the importance of religious tolerance.
Project Coordinator of the Sierra Leone Muslim Mission Union Sheik Fomba Abubakar Swaray explained, “If somebody wants to identify Sierra Leone by culture and tradition in terms of religious tolerance we are culturally integrated in our tolerance.”
Mohamed Pabai, Soka Gakkai Buddhist, further noted, “We welcome religious tolerance. I go to church, I go to mosque, if called upon by family members I will go. We get the religious council together to talk to each religion. To continue to share the good things that are among us.”
His Grace Dr. Edward Tamba Charles, Archbishop of Freetown, added, “We work together in the interest of the development of our country. It has come about naturally by our common cultural heritage that people of different religions live together, they work together. If there is a crisis, they work together to resolve that crisis.”
Strength from religious tolerance
Attending the distribution, was the Deputy Minister of Social Welfare. He expressed appreciation for the rice being provided to those in need and the message of religious tolerance. Telling those in attendance that Sierra Leone should be proud that there is little religious division in the country. He concluded, “We are a unique country known for our religious tolerance. This is where we draw our strength from.”
So, this World Religion Day we honor Sierra Leone and one of their greatest natural resources: the strength of their religious tolerance.
(Partnering to Serve Humanity consists of HealeyIRF, Caritas Freetown, Tzu Chi Foundation and Lanyi Foundation.)