“Hi, this is Eleni from Brisbane. Christos Anesti!”
The cheerful, youthful voice on the phone belongs to Eleni Athinodorou (a.k.a. McDermott). A teacher and lecturer of impressive credentials and experience, she has worked in Australia, Hong Kong and China, and has taught most ages from four-year-olds to adults, always open to the challenges of working in the field of education. But nothing has been more challenging to her than the time she has spent in the Orthodox mission in Sierra Leone, where she had the chance to teach children, assist adults and become part of a struggling community that tries to cope with adversity and heal the wounds created by civil war and the Ebola virus.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world”, she says, quoting Mahatma Gandhi as she shares her experience with Neos Kosmos. A woman of faith – in God, but also in people – she was inspired by the work of father Themis Adamopoulos, of whom she heard at her church.
“I am very blessed to have a priest in my parish who is also my friend,” she says. “One day, Father Demitri Tsakas and I were talking about my experiences working in Hong Kong and China and how I had naively thought I was going to teach underprivileged children and ended up in expensive international schools. It was at this point that he reminded me of a monk who had once been a guest speaker at our church retreat. Knowing my interest in anything African, Father Demitri told me this monk had set up an Orthodox mission in Sierra Leone. The next day, he took me to meet the director of a charity, called Paradise4kids Africa, Mr Louis Toumbas, a philanthropic Christian business man committed to helping feed the poor and spreading the gospel message. He is a great advocate and supporter of Fr Themi’s mission work in both Kenya and Sierra Leone. I’m a great believer in divine providence.
“The events that unfolded five years ago were not random coincidences; I knew intuitively they were an opportunity to do more than I had done in the past but I was fearful to act upon them at that point and I knew I was not ready.”
Getting ready was not an easy process, she admits.
“I had to introduce the idea to my family first,” she says. “They were hesitant and worried. They supported my career in Hong Kong and later China because I was securing my financial future. Going to Sierra Leone was not the same. They worried about how I would cover my debts back home if I was not earning money. I took my time however. I finished my contract in China (I had one more year) and then returned to Australia. Four months after my return, I packed my belongings and rented my house out. I read everything I could about the country, I followed all the protocols on the paradise4kids.org web site about being a volunteer in Sierra Leone, I stayed connected to Louis and Fr Themi and by this stage my family were coming to terms with it all and gave their blessing.”
THE ‘ATHENS OF west AFRICA’
In Sierra Leone, Eleni Athinodorou got in touch with a community struggling for survival, in an environment of destruction and despair.
“People in Sierra Leone are desperate to improve their lives, to support their families and regain their dignity,” she attests. “In many ways the war – and now Ebola – has left a trail of systemic destruction, hopelessness and anxiety about the future. But I see a deep sense of faith ingrained and embedded into this society. Suffering is not stopping or blocking people’s faith; if anything it makes their convictions even stronger. I also saw more than just religious tolerance which really impressed me. Christians, Muslims living, working, sharing, being friends side by side, accepting each other’s beliefs and values.”
Her astute observations are eye-opening: “For me, Sierra Leone is such a paradox: there is chaos but also structure,” she says. “From the markets, to the traffic, to the beggars, everything looks and sounds frenzied but actually everything has structure and organisation. It’s just a different perspective. The Western way is not the only way to look at things. As Greeks and as eastern Orthodox Christians many of us understand diversity and some of us learn to also appreciate it. Even the scenery is paradoxical. Surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, it has beautiful beaches, sand, sun and million-dollar views. Where are the best views in Freetown? In the slums! This is the paradox of Sierra Leone.”
The best way for her to adjust to this new environment was to get to work, putting to use her talents and skills in the field of education.
“Most educators have the desire to teach, to touch the lives of others and make a difference to individuals and society,” she explains. “I am no different.”
Speaking of the work done there, she can’t hide her excitement. “In the rural west district, we have a pre-primary school, offering three early childhood classes for children 3-5 years old, as well as grades 1-4 primary school. A new high school is being built so children will have continuity from kindergarten through to junior high school.
“I provide support and in-service training to the teachers at our school, most especially in areas of curriculum, design and teaching methodology. I also provide resources and support the headmistress with administration procedures.”
Sierra Leone has one of the lowest literacy rates in the world with only about 35 per cent of the population able to read and write. Getting even a basic education is challenging on many levels. The Orthodox Church in Sierra Leone tries to assist, giving “all it can”.
Eleni is proud of this work, and rightly so: “Unlike non- government agencies (NGO’s) that spend money on administration and paying salaries and housing for people to come to Sierra Leone, not one (white person) who works for the mission gets a salary – we are all volunteers and so all the money that comes in goes directly to the projects. Thanks to the kind donations from the charity paradise4kids (Australia and USA), support from Greece, especially The Orthodox Missionary Fraternity in Thessaloniki, and individual donations, Father Themi has established projects for the disabled, feeding programs and education.”
As a teacher, Eleni cannot emphasise enough the importance of education in the development of stricken communities.
“Early education is the foundation for future learning,” she explains. “If you start from the bottom up with good early beginnings, children will remain motivated and succeed in school and you have national development. That is why Father Themi established the teacher training college. Sierra Leone was once called ‘the Athens of West Africa’ and perhaps that is why we Greeks are so at home here!”
The college in question is the first of its kind in the country to offer an advanced specialised three-year Higher Teaching Training course in early education.
“Education gives people hope,” says the teacher, who has several jobs at the college: lecturer, head of education and acting vice rector.
“It is a busy and challenging role, involving teaching and administration,” she says. “I have seen the joy and tears that people express when we have offered them a place in the college and watched them study so hard to succeed, it is so rewarding.”
LIVING ON ‘AFRICAN TIME’
As a rule, a teacher is someone who teaches, but Eleni Athinodorou admits that she, too, has been taught a lot, through her work in the mission.
“I learned to know myself, love myself and, most importantly, to forget about myself,” she explains.
“In the West, we are so self-absorbed in our own little worlds, how we look, what we want and securing our finances. Forgetting about my needs felt like a step in the right direction. I also learned not to judge so much and to use a sociocultural and historical lens to view situations that I was unaccustomed to.”
She also learned the value of patience, as she had to adjust to ‘African time’. In coping with adversity, she resorted to writing.
“I am a writer, so keeping a journal helped me reflect and learn from this experience,” she says. “I would ponder for days what to write and how to express my observations and experiences. Should I write about the tragic stories of people who died because they didn’t have $10 for malaria treatment, or the four children who lost their lives when a huge rock rolled onto the place they were sleeping? Should I write about the harmful traditional practices that spoil the childhoods of children? Should I write about the hungry street kids or the parents who cannot afford school uniforms and exercise books so keep their kids at home or worse send them out as street hawkers? Should I write about the buildings or the wonderful work being done by the mission? What about the friendliness of people, the appreciation for even the smallest gestures of charity (like a dictionary) or a word of encouragement or an ear to listen? In the end, I wrote about everything – the good, the bad, the ugly. I would go back and read my journals when I was faced with a challenge and see how I reacted in the past and what I could do better in that particular circumstance.”
The most important outcome of this experience, was a deep understanding of human nature, of “the differences but also the similarities we all share”, as she puts it.
Faith has been the key to break down the barriers and set up a connection with the people – faith and love.
“I think people know when you love them, they feel it,” she emphasises. “When you take time to listen to them, show empathy, respect and value what they have to say you can connect. I have volunteered in one way or another for the last 20 years helping from babies to adults, always believing that ‘love’ is not a noun but a verb. Christ did not go around telling everyone he loved them. He showed them love in a very practical, personal and meaningful way. This is how I communicate and build that rapport with the people. Love is a powerful concept that can only be truly illuminated through action or praxis. So I guess, what connects me to the people and keeps me going back to Sierra Leone is the voice in my heart, not the one in my head.”
Her message is powerful and inspiring, especially to people who wish to make something of their lives and offer to the broader community.
“I sometimes get asked, ‘why go help others in a country that is not your own when there is so much need in Australia, especially Indigenous communities, single parents, the homeless, children at risk, people with psychological challenges?’ Firstly, like the Samaritan, I never saw helping my neighbours as a geographical concept so when the opportunity presented itself to go to Africa, I made a decision. So whether it be helping someone in need next door, hosting or attending a charity event, making a donation to a worthy cause or packing up your life and going across the world to put your skills and talents to use … the blessings that come from giving are the same.
“Each of us is called to look further than our needs and wants. At the end of time, it will not really matter who or where or even how we reached out to others, just that we did our personal best to respond. Circumstances at different times in our life, present us with opportunities to help others and for me, I guess, it was some kind of divine providence: I got steered in a certain direction and I chose to respond to it.
“Not everyone is able to do what I do, just like I could never do what Father Themi does or Louis Toumbas does. Anyone thinking of coming, I would say, pray and then step out and test the water. Plan a short trip, if it feels `right’ take the next step. Even if you make a wrong turn, God will use it to your benefit anyway. Take a risk; take a chance. God will bless your endeavours if the motive is pure.”