It’s the end of the day and I am sitting out on the terrace of my little guesthouse here in Freetown, feeling slightly sticky………just in the two weeks I have been here, I have really noticed how the heat has got more and more humid as the rainy season draws ever closer…….not long now till beginning of May when the first very heavy showers are likely to fall. There is a general bustle in the air: voices of people living in the houses on the hills surrounding the guesthouse, accompanied by the call to prayer from the nearby mosque; some distant music; just a sense of life going on everywhere despite the tough year that this small West African country has endured.
I cannot believe my two weeks here are over. The time has flown by so quickly and I have hardly had a minute to breathe, to think, to reflect on all I have seen and heard, to digest it all.
As I sit here, I am smiling at the memory of my afternoon: eating a delicious shrimp kebab at a seafood restaurant on one of Sierra Leone’s many beaches, wading through the low tide waters to a small sand island in the sea only to be followed by a bunch of kids who enjoyed singing songs about hand-washing and joked with me about the different sizes of our feet as measured by the footprints in the sand; asking me for money for school books, as the schools have finally reopened after months of being closed, and posing for photos. Somehow it almost seems normal, and yet it isn’t quite—not yet anyway.
First of all, the beaches we drove past were almost empty: Lumley beach, usually a popular spot for locals to hang out at the week-end, is practically deserted, many of its restaurants closed. You spot the odd seller here and there, maybe one or two people walking or sunbathing, a few fishermen selling fish from a local fishing boat—but I am told it’s nothing compared to the busy-ness of these beaches during normal times; then there are the buckets—jerry cans with little taps on and chlorinated water inside…….which, in most public buildings or UN/NGO offices anyway, you cannot pass without washing your hands, the hand-washing the unspoken condition for you entering the building or the stretch of road in question (they have checkpoints even on roads going into and out of Freetown). In some places, guards at the entrance or roadblock will pull a thermometer out of their pockets and hold it to your head like a gun to take your temperature. It’s a joke as most of these Chinese thermometers have been overused and are giving bizarre readings…….but it’s still a way of ensuring that no one with a high temperature can enter the area in question. And then there are the billboards and the paintings on the walls—-some old ones with messaging about HIV or sexual violence protection, but many, many more with core messages about the disease which has marked this country in such a profound way since 2014.
Ebola has shaken Sierra Leone to the core. Sierra Leoneans, warm and friendly and usually very tactile people, are still encouraged not to touch each other. The traditional Sierra Leonean handshake is not used, and instead of this, people hold their right arm across their heart or, if they want to give you a hug, cross their arms in front of their chests. I have not hugged or touched a single person for two weeks and it feels strange and unsettling—I cannot imagine what it must feel like for people not to touch each other for over a year, to fear that touching a loved one could lead to death. How difficult must that be if I find it so hard after only 2 weeks?
Of course it is the burials which have been the biggest killers. Washing the bodies of the dead is deeply engrained in Sierra Leonean culture. In the little village in the North of the country, which we visited with the emergency response team the other day, the whole epidemic started through one simple burial: 10 people involved in washing one dead person, who then became infected and carried the virus to their own loved ones without knowing. It was heart wrenching sitting there with them and trying to understand of what it must have all been like: a village of around 1100 inhabitants which has lost 120 people and counts only 46 survivors. It’s the stories behind the statistics that hit home: the village chief who lost 21 members of his family; survivor I. who lost 14 members of his family and is now suddenly looking after many of his dead relatives’ children; the orphans who are living with other relatives; the older people who suddenly start caring for children again as their grand-children’s parents have perished; then there was M., from the neighbouring village, who was just there to accompany his brother in law: only 2 people in his village survived. His little grandchild was standing next to him, looking at us with big eyes, unaware perhaps that she will never see her mother again; next to her her father, now a widower. He smiles and appreciates the conversation we are having. But like so many others at this distribution of non- food items in the village, he has a look of sadness and grief in his eyes; a look that indicates that he has seen and lived through things which no human being should have to suffer. It makes your stomach knot up to see that; it hurts so much that you cannot even unravel the emotions until days later.
And then the stigma which came with ebola: the survivors who tell you how the village shunned them and did not want to speak to them when they were discharged alive from the ebola treatment centres set up—far too late—by the international community. They hold their survivors certificates which prove that they are healthy now (except for the risks inherent in sexual contact for 6 months after recovery) and which can get them access to relief items; but many of them had to live through being shunned and stigmatised until awareness -raising succeeded in changing attitudes . All that on top of dealing with the loss of loved ones and all their belongings….as many of them have had their houses and/or all their belongings burned when they were taken to hospital, out of fear of contagion on the part of those left behind.
Being here in Sierra Leone has forced me to see beyond the statistics; to understand the social impact and the lack of social cohesion and distrust which this crisis has caused; to reflect on what it means for an already overstretched health system to lose hundreds of doctors and nurses to ebola; or not to be able to care for other life threatening diseases such as malaria; to grasp the implications of being quarantined as a family and/or village not only on family and community life but also on livelihoods, with harvest being lost because people cannot get to their land to look after their crops; and to visualise what impact this can have in the longer term for already poor communities and families; to understand that even when Sierra Leone finally reaches 0 cases and is ebola free, it will be a hard and long journey. Suddenly, there is a story, a family, a community behind each statistic and with it an understanding of the deep healing that will be required, and the interventions that will be needed to get this country back on its feet. I just pray the international community is here to stay and will not turn away as the headlines dwindle.
I am amazed at how happy and friendly people are despite all this. Christian Aid’s team here in Sierra Leone have welcomed me so warmly; and I have had a real sense that my help and input is wanted here. There has been so much to do, so little time. So much support has been needed to set up transfers on donor grants, draft or comment on baseline study survey tools, terms of reference, reporting formats, draft emails to donors…the days have just flown by……….and if I got out of the office at 7pm that was early. I have worked 13 hour days on average while here and yet it feels there is still so much more that needed to be achieved. The team here are doing such a fantastic job but they are also getting tired—they need to rest even more than I do.
My work in DRC has not stopped so I have often come back to the hotel late in the evenings each night only to have to work on issues relating to our work in Congo; and I spent last Sunday working. At least I have had our little outing today, and last Saturday I managed to have a few hours off as well, as our country manager took us to a fish restaurant on Lumley beach—where we sat and chatted about the way ahead for Christian Aid in Sierra Leone and the need to review the country programme strategy. Ebola has changed so much here.
Sierra Leone is such an interesting place. I cannot wait to come back: to learn more about how this population—half of them Muslim, and half of them Christian—live sideby side peacefully when this seems so hard to achieve in other countries (here thereare mosques next to churches; you hear someone singing in tongues just after theMuslim call for prayer in the morning; and meetings are opened with both a Christian and a Muslim prayer); about the legacy of the slave trade on this country which has impacted on the names of different parts of the city, for example “Congo Town”; or about the legacy of civil war; I want to ask so much more about the minerals trade, the role of the extractives, the impact this all has on the local economy . I cannot wait to see more of those old colonial buildings repaired with corrugated iron; to sample more of the always fresh food, including the wonderful fish, even though some of it has been so spicy that I have needed an endless supply of tissues during meals; I would love to see what it is like when the shops and restaurants are allowed to be open beyond 6pm or to watch the football team made up of people with disabilities play on Lumley Beach; I would like to go back to the rural communities in what were the ebola hotspots and not have to worry about being touched by the children and play with them like I usually would; I want to go and see the chimpanzees in the eco-resort not far from Freetown, which has been closed due to ebola; and I long to see the billboard with ebola messages being gradually transformed with slogans on other issues, including environmental protection—perhaps the latter as part of Christian Aid’s EC funded environmental governance project which is finally reinitiating after a suspension due to ebola. This has been the first but hopefully not my last time here in Sierra Leone.
Well, it’s 10pm and I need to cool down with a bucket shower before crawling under my mozzie net and getting some sleep….no doubt the noisy Liberian in the hotel room next door to mine will see the need for another very loud phone call at 5 45 am tomorrow morning and make my alarm clock unnecessary…..and I will also still need to pack before catching the speed boat across to the airport and hanging out there till my flight needs in the evening. I am sure there is so much more I should and could talk about. This is only an initial summary. I am sure other impressions will gradually seep out in the coming weeks and months.