It was a day of Daltons.
Beaches and shady coves nestle around every corner of the island, and we were even witness to a spectacular aerial display from a huge cloud of enormous bats. After our two nights of treasure hunting, exploring and lazing on deserted beaches we didn't really want to leave Banana Island but we had a fun trip back to Kent beach in a little fishing canoe with a pocket-sized outboard, as the sea blew up choppy and we took a drenching as the little boat crabbed across the waves.
From Kent it was a half hour in the minibus we'd borrowed for the weekend back to Waterloo where we met Habib and Cynthia with Georgie's car. Habib is Georgie's assigned driver and will travel with her when she makes her trips across country to supervise the nurses under her command. Over the next 6 months she will visit every district in the country and almost every chiefdom within them. I'm not sure if I can adequately convey, at this stage, just how much of an epic task this will be, but we'll keep you posted on that. Cynthia, alongside Habib, is Georgie's administrator and finance officer. They collected us and drove us to Freetown where I write this from and where we're now posted for 2 weeks (we're into the second week as I write this). As time goes on I hope that Georgie will contribute her own notes to this tale, but at the moment she is flat out with work. She has been thrown into it head on, with an enormous amount of work to be done in a short time for her project – Enabling Access to Mental Health – but also as a lecturer in public health at Makeni university. Within days of arriving she had organised the curriciculum and syllabus for this new course in conjunction with her two other department members and had begun teaching. And the morning after we arrived in Freetown she met her nurses for the first time and prepared them for the Mental Health Conference which took place the following day. All of which means she hasn't got a lot of spare time to co-blog. So for the time being, you'll have to accept my summary of her work as I understand it:
1: So much to be done.
2: So little money and time available to do it.
But Georgie did not come to Sierra Leone for an easy life and she has attacked the work with her usual mix of determination, ambition and good humour. Having two back to back weekends on the beach has no doubt helped, too.
I photographed the mental health conference on Tuesday so I can tell you that it was a fascinating and brilliant day with great speakers and inspiring tales of the work being done in the country. Sierra Leone attaches enormous stigma to mental health issues and those suffering from mild and treatable conditions are often outcast or subjected to brutal treatment as a result. Georgie's job is to train a new generation of mental health nurses to try to make improvements to the treatment and attitudes present in the country.
I'm told that Sierra Leone has but one semi retired psychiatrist for its entire population, himself a man in his 70s who learnt his trade in 1960s Russia so there is plenty of scope for improvement. What was encouraging from the conference was the amount of positivity and enthusiasm about moving things forward. There is, of course, plenty to be done – but having people who want to make those changes is, to me, a big first step in the right direction.
The rest of the week was spent in various training courses at the EAMH offices whilst I divided my time between relaxing in the sun on the balcony above the office and working on correspondence for Magbenteh hospital in Makeni, who I have agreed to help with some of their projects. More on all that in due course.
Laurence joined us towards the end of the week and he, Carmen, Georgie and I went for dinner in a strange Korean restaurant, which, in a way typified our strange Freetown experience. I will write more on Freetown in a separate missive, but it is an amazing and confusing place. To reinforce the point Laurence took us from the restaurant to a big party thrown for an expat returning to England. It was a grand affair spilling out across a street in the midst of Freetown.
I found a degree of dissonance in being amongst so many young, drunk, white people in such a foreign land. It's too early here to make any kind of judgement, but in truth it wasn't the kind of do either of us would have especially enjoyed in England and neither of us were minded to enjoy it much more here. Still, at 1:30am it was by far the latest either of us had managed to stay awake since our arrival so perhaps we are acclimatising after all.
On Saturday we had arranged to meet the kids from Ngbotima – the charity which Georgie founded in 2006 to help some of the poorest kids in Freetown.
A little background on Ngbotima for those of you who aren't aware of this amazing organisation.
In 2006 Georgie first visited Sierra Leone working with FAWE- a charity advocating women's rights in Africa. At that time she wasn't entirely impressed with how some of the international NGOs conducted their operations or with how some of the young, drunk, white people in their employ conducted themselves in the country. Instead of grumbling about it and then moving on, like a normal person, Georgie being Georgie decided she could do better so visited local schools and asked them if they could introduce her to some of their most vulnerable children. Believing that there was better way to spend the “just £10 a month” that so many people are kind enough to give to charity, Georgie returned to the UK and set up an extraordinary network of generous donors who pledged their support to pay the school fees and associated costs of this hand picked cabal of young children. Every penny donated to the charity went directly to the education and support of these kids and Georgie – and the donors – quickly became part of an extended family for the children. As time went on the charity adapted and evolved and at times has helped out with housing costs or other support for the children as they grew – renting accommodation for one child who became homeless, arranging the donation of a computer for another with a business plan. Some have been trained as mentors and now help young people themselves. But all of them have been given an opportunity and a sense of belonging within Ngbotima.
So I met them all for the first time on Saturday. And to be honest I don't really know what to say about any of it.
Actually I've written and rewritten this paragraph three or four times because I'm struggling to express how impressed I was by the experience. It was utterly humbling and inspiring and funny, life affirming and confusing and occasionally frustrating and enraging when you heard their stories and what they were up against in pursuit of an education.
They were so excited to see Georgie and unexpectedly thrilled to meet me, too. As soon as we arrived we were led to a church where they were all waiting, all dressed in Ngbotima t-shirts which one of them (Patrick) had designed and made with a motto on the back that read “We help one to reach many” which apparently is something Georgie once said and they have adopted for themselves. They've adopted each other, too, and that was one of the most amazing things about them. It was Georgie who introduced these people to each other and now they are a functioning support network who identify closely with each other go out of their way to support each other. They presented Georgie and I with t-shirts and invited us to sit at a top table whilst Frank, as the group's natural leader, stood and introduced us and welcomed us to the country. We then listened as, one by one, they stood to update us on how they were getting on and the challenges they were facing.
And such challenges. Foday lives in Kroo Bay, a shanty town built on a rubbish heap on the shoreline of Freetown. Save the Children recently described it as the worst place in the world to be born. And yet here is Foday, smartly turned out, bright eyed and smiling, the first person in his family to be literate! Without Ngbotima it is questionable if any of that would be possible, yet when I ask about Kroo Bay he says “yeah, it's ok”. He's not only literate, he's sharply intelligent and has consistently performed at the top of his class. He's planning, if he can, to make it to university to study engineering. But despite his excellent school performance, some form of administrative error no fault of his own has meant that he hasn't been entered to take his WASSCE exams this year – the equivalent of our A-levels. He filled out all the necessary forms and submitted them, but along with Fengai and some 100 plus other students at his school – and many others across the country- he finds that some mistake, or oversight or unfathomable policy shift either within the school or the education department has meant that he now has to wait until next year to take his exams. He is stuck in limbo and must sit another entire school year before he gets the chance again – with all of the associated school fees and other costs – not to mention the costs of lost earnings associated with losing another year to the school system. I am astounded by his stoicism.
All of these people have similar stories of struggles and trials and all approach them with dignity and determination. Sahr lost a year of school after being chased out of home by his family, Frank wakes at 4am to help his mother prepare the rices she sells. The girls are much more reticent but one by one they share their own trials with Georgie, each one a heartbreaking testament to their resilience.
I am totally blown away by these people. They come from families on less than a dollar a day, who have almost nothing but display a zest for life and a generosity of spirit that I have seldom seen. They smile and chat and dance and make us – I suppose me in particular – feel so welcomed into their group.
We all troop en masse to visit another of the group, Francis, down a narrow passageway in the huddle of shacks that is Kingtom. Francis is seriously unwell. Georgie and I visited him earlier in the week when he had no sight in one eye and could barely move half of his body. He had a cocktail of symptoms that bore little resemblance to the diagnosis of malaria and typhoid that is the standard response of the hospitals and wore tiny scars on his arms that were the mark of the traditional healer's attempted cure. By now, a dose of antibiotics was having a beneficial effect, however, and he was able to move around more comfortably. The swelling in his face that was affecting his eye had begun to subside and, with further tests scheduled at the hospital, we can only hope that he continues to improve. The Ngbotima children walked back with us a way and one by one peeled off to make their own ways home. I was immensely impressed with them all, and enormously proud of Georgie. I can't quite believe what she has built.
In the afternoon we watched impressed as a Chinese team tarmacced roads at breakneck pace and enjoyed walking on the fresh traffic-free surfaces where for once pedestrians ruled the roads. We strolled up through the town taking in the contradictions that seem to epitomise the city. Bright new stalls set up in tumbledown buildings, grand bridges and fresh tarmac spanning valleys choked with avalanches of plastic waste where children play, and smartly dressed marching bands parading down sad derelict streets.
On Sunday we took a ride out from the disorganised chaos of Freetown to Bureh beach down the unfinished main road that inches out through the country. It's a tooth-jangling riot of a journey that suddenly, unexpectedly, deposits you on pristine white sands lapped by crystal blue waters against a peaceful curtain of hazy forested mountains. It was breathtaking. At one end of the beach a warm, sandy-bottomed river stretches back from the shore a way before vanishing into the mangroves. You can stroll upstream on the sandy bank for a half mile or so before wading out into the lazy current.
Then, as the warm water slides past, you simply lie back and gaze at the dusting of white herringbone clouds high above while the current coddles you and spins you dreamily back to the sea.
And one last note: I've finally managed to upload a couple of pictures – you'll find them here. Apologies if I've already harped on about this but our internet connection is beyond rubbish here, so there are – to date – only two pictures and they're both pretty low resolution. I think this might be the easiest place for me to post pics tho, so worth bookmarking as I will try to add more.