Have you ever wondered how Ireland looks through the eyes of someone who has travelled thousands of miles and made their home on these shores? Rev Dr Sahr John Yambasu, a native of Sierra Leone who is now a minister in the Methodist Church in Ireland, offers some illuminating perspectives on such an experience in his book, Between Africa and the West: A Story of Discovery (2013, African Shamrock Publications).
Yambasu’s book is wide-ranging, encompassing his early childhood and education in Sierra Leone, before moving on to his seminary training at Edgehill College in Belfast, his marriage to an Irish woman he met at Edgehill, his PhD research in Cambridge, and his return to Ireland to escape civil war, which saw him working in a meat factory in Longford and later as a taxi driver in Galway. Yambasu is now minister at St Patrick’s United Church in Waterford City.
Yambasu describes the book as ‘an attempt at examining my heritage.’ He explains that his heritage extends beyond his African roots to include his Western education, the Christian influence in his life, and his family experiences.
His approach is chronological, with the first seven chapters covering his childhood in Sierra Leone. These chapters offer rich descriptions of village life and customs where he grew up, including traditional customs, initiation ceremonies, and explanations of the dense networks of family ties that formed the fabric of his life.
Yambasu is frank and funny, with a storyteller’s sense of what makes for compelling narrative. I think the best way for readers to get a sense of the book it to share some of what were for me his more memorable insights and stories.
For example, Yambasu explains how unusual it was for his father to convert to Christianity, and how in practice that meant huge gaps between how people in his family and rural village (where his father was very influential) practiced Christianity and what the missionaries saw as ideal. Yambasu shares how an Irish Christian reacted when he told the story of his father (p. 68):
‘… one of them asked me, “How could a person like your father have been a Christian? How could he have been used as an agent of the gospel of Christ?” As I looked at the faces of the others in the room before attempting to answer his question, I was in no doubt that this person was voicing a question that most of them had on their minds. “I don’t know” was my reply to the question. “Maybe it was a case of God using the weak and foolish things of this world to confound the strong and the wise.”
Yambasu’s father’s untimely death meant that his future prospects were jeopardized, but he received scholarships and support from Western Christians to further his education. After beginning his ministry in the Methodist Church in Sierra Leone, he was selected for further training at Edgehill.
This was during the Troubles, and it should give us some pause for thought when we consider how Yambasu and his family reacted to this news (p. 163):
‘Someone had told my mother about the Belfast troubles. She was worried and wondered why the church decided to send me there. To be honest, I was worried too. Some of my non-Methodist friends even wondered whether the Church had not decided to send me to Belfast as a form of punishment for something I had done wrong.’
Yambasu’s descriptions of his experiences in Northern Ireland are often amusing, with two of my personal favourites being his analysis of the importance of potatoes and how he dealt with the weather.
On potatoes (p. 174-175):
‘At college meals, in homes of people I visited, and in restaurants it was generally potatoes in different guises – peeled boiled, jacket boiled, mashed, chipped, and baked potatoes. Sometimes they were even made into salad. And yet when I told people we ate rice in my country all the time they could not understand how anyone could eat the same food all the time. … To be certain there were other kinds of foods, but, like salad, they were all side plate affairs. Potatoes were the queen and king of meals.’
On the weather (172-173):
In my first few days in Belfast I honestly did wonder whether I would be able to survive it. Yet every time the weather got mentioned (and that was in almost every conversation), everyone was talking about how pleasant it was. Pleasant! That was how they described weather I believed was the worst I had ever experienced in my life. … Through those months I felt like a walking onion, layered with thermal pants, a pair of long John’s, warm trousers, a thermal vest, a warm shirt or two, one good wooly jumper, a good overcoat, scarf, wooly hat, a pair of hand gloves, a good thick pair of socks, and warm trainers. In addition to these I used to carry a hot water bottle under my coat to class every morning and refilled it in the early afternoon. Little wonder that on seeing my first pictures home everyone approvingly commented on how much weight I had put on.’
Yambasu returned to Sierra Leone in 1992 with his wife and three children, believing he was home ‘to stay’ (p. 276). He became principal of the theological college where he had been trained and superintendent of a large Methodist Circuit in Freetown. Life in his home country had been disrupted more than he had anticipated due to the civil war, which had begun in 1991. Eventually, Yambasu’s wife and children were evacuated by the Methodist Overseas Division when the rebels got to within 20 miles of Freetown. Yambasu followed a few months later after sorting out arrangements in the theological college, and returned to Longford, Ireland, for his ‘second coming’ (p. 289).
Yambasu’s return was as a refugee.As an official minister of the Methodist Church in Sierra Leone, the Methodist Church in Ireland had no obligation to employ him. While he initially found this experience deflating, Yambasu reflects that it led to ‘a revelation that gave me purpose for living’ (p. 294):
‘… it suddenly occurred to me one day as I was reflecting on my situation that perhaps success in life is not necessarily about a constant upward climb in good fortune. Instead, it could be about how successfully one manages both the upward and downward trends, and also the curves.’
This led him to find work, first as a hotel porter and then in a meat-processing plant (p. 295):
‘For it was in those jobs that I first realised that having been brought up and trained in church-related circles and institutions, I had, in many ways, lived a very sheltered and protected life. That life had prevented me from having contact with real people who hide behind no masks, but speak their mind and in plain unpolished language. … the people I worked with in those places gave me a wider and more realistic insight into Irish society than all my previous education in Ireland did. It was also in those jobs that I was able to live as a Christian without any labels and words proclaiming me as one.’
Within a few months, Yambasu and his wife were invited to serve the Methodist Church in Ireland at three congregations in Co. Wicklow. In 2001 they were transferred to Galway, which Yambasu describes as a ‘very culturally mixed society,’ primarily due to the increased immigration of the Celtic Tiger years (p. 301). I was impressed that it took living in Galway for Yambasu to appreciate the diversity of Africa, as he writes (p. 305):
‘For all my life until that time I had lived with a notion of Africa and Africans as largely homogenous entities. Confronted with the diversity of Africans in Galway and in close proximity with them, I did not only have to review my glib notion, I also had to consciously devise a way of speaking about Africa and Africans that reflected that diversity of African-ness.’
In 2007, Yambasu took on extra work as a taxi driver to help fund his daughter’s education in Trinity and to continue to support his family in Sierra Leone. Similar to his experience in the meat plant, taxi driving provided Yambasu with insights he could not have gained elsewhere: ‘… I was to learn so much more about life in Ireland that no university education or simply pastoral work could have afforded me’ (p. 311). There were scary experiences, unpleasant customers and racist remarks. But he came to see taxi driving as an extension of his Christian ministry, praying with some customers if they requested it and using down times to prepare his sermons.
Near the end of the book, Yambasu writes about his desire to return home to Sierra Leone, and how difficult it is ‘for me to know who I am’ (p. 369). But he shares his belief that ‘the best is yet to come,’ displaying a remarkable faith in humanity as well as in the God who he sees directing his journey through life.
(Image of Sahr John Yambasu from St Patrick’s United Facebook page, by Suzi Photos)