Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)

It was appropriate that, for our last night in Makeni, there should be no electricity.

Rain hung in the air as Georgie and I sat on the balcony waving at Kesombo and Fuad as they played below us. Running frantically back and forth playing with anything they found – an old tyre, the frame of a broken umbrella. Sticks, car parts. They have built a playground in the carcasses of the old trucks abandoned behind the building.

They break from their games only to wave at us shouting “Oporto, Oporto!” Kesombo, about 4 years old, throws silent and serious hugs at me every time we meet in the hall. His father in his dark glasses finds this hilarious. “His real name is Musa,” he says, “Kesombo is the name of a big white man in a film. One day Musa said 'I am Kesombo'. So that's what we call him now.”

Barring delays, by the time you read this our plane will already be taxiing down the runway. Perhaps we're already in the air. By 7am on Saturday we should be in London.

This isn't really how we had wanted to leave. We have spent weeks looking forward to today, to coming home, and now the time has arrived circumstances have changed. We're sorry to be leaving because, all of a sudden, we don't know when we'll be back.

Musa, Francis, Ibrahim and Moses have all made their requests for things we can bring back for them (a rucksack, Manchester United shirt, solar torch/radio and pen drive, respectively) but despite our promises to be back at the start of September I don't think either of us believe that will be the case.

Ebola has changed everything. This country is on the brink. Ebola is spreading, it's getting worse with no sense of a point in sight when it will start to get better. People are dying at an increasing rate and the medical services are unprepared, overstretched, the nurses are paid a pittance and fear for their lives – and they are being stigmatised by a community that blames them for the outbreak. Carmen is now flying out before us, Laurence, too. My last piece of work at the university was to convince the ruling council to delay interviewing prospective students at least until the end of August, a move with potentially serious financial implications.

“What if it's worse by then?” Lawyer Jalloh had asked.

“It doesn't have to be,” I said, “I think if we make leadership moves like this then we can help to stop it spreading. If we all keep doing things like this – bringing people from all over the country to one place at one time then it certainly will get worse. Let's give the country chance.” Senate agrees with me and the interviews are delayed. I hope that was the right choice.

Georgie is frantically trying to arrange last minute meetings and training in psychosocial counselling for the nurses and the families of bereaved people. Everything is rushed. Mercy thinks she may be shipped out soon, too. Laurence probably won't come back, as near as he is to the end of his contract.

We know our own risk is small, tiny even. Neither of us work in front line health services, neither of us have cause to come in contact with sick people. Long ago we stopped shaking hands. But the last two weeks have not been fun. Hysterical news reports that reach us from the UK make us nervous, even as we acknowledge their faults and occasional stupidity. We fear falling sick with something else, having it mistaken for Ebola, or ending up in hospital and increasing our risk – or simply adding extra pressure to the limited medical resources. We are counting the days, the hours until our flight. Watching the news of cancelled journeys with increasing worry.

Moses comes to the door with a card for us, a wedding card wishing us the best. I want to hug him, acknowledge his friendship, his dedication and hard work in the thankless job he does for the university. But we have been so careful – Moses and I – that it seems foolish to take a risk now. Georgie and I are careful where we eat, careful who we see. Not because we are really afraid, but just in case. So close to coming home we take no chances.

We have dinner with Mercy, wonder if we will see her again if she is shipped out of the country. Possibly not. All these people we have become friends with – expats from France, Venzuela, England, India, Spain, Italy, USA, Kenya, Lebanon who will all disperse across the globe – and the Sierra Leoneans who do not have that same luxury of leaving – Habib who has driven Georgie so carefully across the country and John that grumbles so entertainingly on my morning commute; Moses, honest to a fault and battling the university everyday, Biden who grins and jokes with us and is the only man any of us trust on a motorbike; Musa always in his sharp suits; Ibrahim who accidentally washed a small amount of our money in a pair of my shorts and carefully pinned it all out to dry, explaining to me, “it's not your fault, but it's also not my fault…”. Effe, the 13 year old entrepreneur who stands with her hand on her hip, scowls at me and asks in an accusatory tone, “Where is your wife?” Every time I leave the house without Georgie. She has learnt which fruits and vegetables we will buy, and exactly how much of a markup we will tolerate. On our last day she brings Georgie a hairband as a gift. Francis and Beshe our neighbours. The Holy Fathers. And all of the Ngbotima kids. All the traders who gather in the area outside our flat, the kids that I buy peanuts from and who once almost succeeded in selling me a muskrat (“They grow big. Good chop.”). There are so many people here that have become our friends, have made us feel welcome and part of a community.

When we left England we weren't sad. I wrote then that August is not so very far away. We were ready for our adventure and we knew we would be coming home soon to the people we loved. And the time has flown past. But this time it really seems sad because now there are people here we care about, too, and we don't know that we will back to see them soon – or even what will happen to them while we are gone. And in the rush of the last days our goodbyes feel incomplete, unsatisfactory. Everyone, everyone on hearing about our marriage has lit up with grins, clapped their hands and congratulated us, promised to host parties for us when we return in September.

But now September seems very far away indeed.

 

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