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Sierra Leone

This article was exerpted from a Towers magazine article by Jenny Hill '05.

Imodale Caulker-Burnett '63

Otterbein sent its first missionaries to Sierra Leone in 1856. The seeds were planted for a long relationship that has spanned over 150 years and counting.

The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone today traces its history to 1855, when the Church of the United Brethren in Christ began mission work there. As a growing number of freed slaves made their homes in Sierra Leone, the church recognized the need for a Christian presence and sent missionaries and supplies to the people.

A leading institution within the church at that time, Otterbein's missionaries soon followed in February 1856. Rev. William Shuey, Rev. D.R. Kumler and Rev. J.K. Flickinger lasted only a few months in Sierra Leone before falling ill to native diseases and returning home. But three years later, more missionaries set out to continue building the relationship with the West African country. A student named C.O. Wilson joined the mission work there in 1860 and in 1862 the first woman missionary to travel to Sierra Leone from Otterbein was Amanda Hanby, sister of Benjamin Hanby. The first African American missionaries to go to Sierra Leone were Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Gomer of Dayton, Ohio, who served for 22 years beginning in the 1870s.

The missionaries began making important headway with the people of Sierra Leone, when tribal revolts over hut taxes claimed the lives of seven missionaries in 1898. The church considered withdrawing from Sierra Leone, but decided to stay. Otterbein missionaries after the tragedy included Lloyd Mignerey '17, who served in 1922, and Glen Rosselot '16, who served from 1927-1939.

Missionary Lloyd Mignerey looks out of a Sierra Leone dwelling, circa 1922.

Lucy Caulker, the daughter of a tribal king, was one of the first converts and many of her direct descendents have made their way to Otterbein. The first was Joseph Hannibal Caulker, a prince of the Bolun tribe in Sierra Leone who was educated by United Brethren missionaries enrolled at Otterbein in 1896. The notebooks Caulker kept while in the United States give a unique look into what it was like for a West African to walk the streets of New York City, as well as those of Westerville.

While the local weather was not always to the liking of Caulker, the religious spirit of Otterbein was. A pious Christian, Caulker admired the dedication and enthusiasm of both students and professors. The bright and friendly Caulker was popular within the Otterbein community, which was devastated by tragedy when, on Dec. 6, 1900, Caulker was burned to death in an explosion caused by a small oil stove in his room.

Other descendents of Lucy Caulker who attended Otterbein include Richard Kelfa-Caulker '35, who became ambassador to the United States and later the United Nations from Sierra Leone; and John Karefa-Smart '40, who became minister of external affairs for the independent government in 1961.

Through the years, many other Otterbein graduates from Sierra Leone forged successful careers on both the national and international stages. Sylvester M. Broderick '24 served as director of education in Sierra Leone; Amelia Caulker Ben-Davis '59 was a member of Sierra Leone's parliament; Victor Sumner '59 became a diplomat in London; Miatta Akiatu '65 went on to work for UNESCO in Paris; Emma Broderick '67 has been affiliated with both the Economic Community of West African States and the Sierra Leone Bureau of Tourism and Culture; and Enuyami Lewis-Coker went to work for the Trade and Telecommunications Ministry.

Another successful Otterbein graduate from Sierra Leone was John J. Akar '51, who became head of the national radio broadcasting service in Sierra Leone and composed the nation's national anthem.

In 1961, Sierra Leone became an independent nation, free of British rule and was named the 100th member of the United Nations. On the day the country was granted independence, April 27, 1961, Akar aired a version of the national anthem as sung by the Otterbein men's glee club. He also was a leader in the arts in Sierra Leone, and had previously acted onstage with Richard Burton and Sidney Poitier.

A view of Regents Road in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on a busy Saturday.

Sylvester Modupe Broderick Jr. '63, son of Sylvester Modupe Broderick '24, and Imodale Caulker-Burnett '63, daughter of Richard Kelfa-Caulker '35, were the first graduates after Sierra Leone gained independence.

"I was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, to Richard Caulker and Olivette Stuart. My father was born in the village of Mambo of Sierra Leone parents, both of whom are from the Caulker family - a ruling family in South Western Sierra Leone," said Caulker-Burnett.

Caulker-Burnett chose to come to Otterbein after generations of family came before her. "Joseph Hannibal Caulker was the first member of the family to come to Otterbein. He was the grandson of Chief Thomas Stephen Caulker, who had given land to the UBC missionaries, to set up their mission. Joseph was also my grandmother's brother. My father Richard, Uncle John Karefa-Smart '38 and my father's sister, Amelia Caulker '59, followed. Needless to say Otterbein was the only college I had heard of in the US. Since then, many more Caulker descendants have gone through the school," she said.

Caulker-Burnett's experience at Otterbein is a far cry from what she would experience today. "My first memory was my arrival at an all white school where there were only six black students! Four of us were Africans," she said.

"I managed to adjust to college life. Who can forget 'Scrap Day' in 1959. That was probably the most ridiculous experience I ever had. I joined the Women's Glee Club, pledged Theta Nu sorority and made some very good friends," said Caulker-Burnett. "In my sophomore year, I had a roommate, Mercedes Blum, with whom I roomed for the remainder of my stay at Otterbein. We became fast friends. Together we saw the film Ben Hur seven times in seven days for $1.00 each time. In our senior year, we were both part of the group chosen to live in Clip House. The Clip House group still exists today and we are still in touch."

An Otterbein student teacher with her class in an open air classroom.

After graduating from Otterbein, Caulker-Burnett had a prestigious career in nursing, earning numerous awards. She retired from nursing in 2003 and established development/rehabilitation services in her ancestral village of Mambo, Sierra Leone.

"I try to go home at least every two years just to keep myself grounded. Lately, since I retired, I have been going home each year, to help in the redevelopment process, following the 10 year Rebel war," she said. "In 2004 I decided I would visit my father's village, and found that the people were in what I would call �Survival Mode.' Everything was run down. My grandfather's house was uninhabitable, there was no clean drinking water, no health care facilities, no pastoral care, almost everyone was illiterate, and while the Caulkers had been the rulers in the area, there were no literate Caulkers around. So I decided to join in the redevelopment process, doing one village at a time."

"To date, there are two wells for clean drinking water. We are supporting 37 children in secondary school and one student in college. We are hoping to expand the school and hire more teachers, so that we can serve the surrounding villages. Adult education classes have also begun. We believe that education is the single most important tool in the redevelopment process," she said.

"There is a microcredit program for 10 women at a time; they are to do projects which will benefit themselves and the community. Access to the village has improved, and we are currently working on getting a health post built, which can provide emergency care as well as preventive care, particularly for malaria and preventable childhood diseases and prenatal care. Eventually we hope to build a chapel that will provide spiritual support for the people," said Caulker-Burnett.

"It is a long process, especially in the area of developing trust, but there has been progress," she added.

The base for fundraising is in Virginia, where Caulker-Burnett lives with her husband. "The Lesana Community Development/Rehabilitation Services is a non-profit 501(c) 3 organization. We run three fundraisers a year, and accept all donations through out the year."

In 1968, Otterbein University began a program to send student teachers to Sierra Leone through a study abroad initiative developed through the Excellence in Teacher Education, which was the work of Dr. Chester Addington and Mrs. Mildred Stauffer. Fifteen students spent 10 weeks during the winter term of 1969-1970 in Sierra Leone, working in the schools and studying the culture of the country.

Also on that trip was James Francis '71. "I gained a great appreciation for what we have here, from basic necessities to opportunities, because there, those things could be hard to come by," he said. "It was a country working to better itself."

"To this day, the trip has an impact on me. It was really special and a great opportunity that the University provided," he said.

Otterbein has also maintained a connection to Sierra Leone through the arts. In 1971, Sillaty Kemoh Dabo, an artist-in-residence from Sierra Leone, taught African literature in both French and English to Otterbein students for a month and the Sierra Leone Dance Troupe performed on campus.

Most recently, Otterbein honored its relationship with Sierra Leone by selecting A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah as the 2008 Common Book. The author came to campus for a riveting standing-room-only convocation on Oct. 21, 2008. In his book, Beah, now 28 years old, tells the story of his years as a child soldier and his rescue from that world of horrors and rehabilitation by UNICEF.

The crafts of Sierra Leone play heavily into Otterbein's art collection. Many of the missionaries to West Africa took a special interest in the art of the region. In fact, many returned to the United States with African art and artifacts, bestowing the Otterbein Art Collection with decorative jewelry, ceremonial masks and sculpture, baskets and weavings, and handicrafts.

Originally, the collection was cared for by biology Professor E.W. Schear and housed in the Science Building. The Department of Art took over the collection in 1969 and acquired new gifts from missionaries' collections. With assistance from the Kress Foundation, Art Chairperson Earl Hassenpflug began touring north and West Africa in 1969 to collect new materials for the collection. Pieces from the collection have been displayed in Otterbein's galleries over the years and now frequent exhibits are housed at the Frank Museum of Art.

Also see: Resources for Ishmael Beah

Common Book Program site