Five weeks in to her latest posting and Georgie is keeping up her 8am-8pm 7 day a week schedule.
The number of new cases seems finally to be declining across the three countries most affected by this outbreak but there is still plenty of work to be done.
Now complacency becomes a threat as communities begin to drop their guard and authorities relax some of the restrictions that have been put in place to slow the disease’s spread. This is not over yet, and it won’t be until there are zero new cases. Recently Georgie has reported an apparent spike in cases amongst young children. She wonders if this is due to children once again being allowed out to play together in the streets, or whether this is a sad side effect of the numbers of orphaned children whose families have been decimated by Ebola. Perhaps it is simply because the disease hits so quickly in young children and their survival rates are so painfully low.
Death is something that Georgie has had to deal with on a daily basis. I don’t think this is something you can ever become accustomed to, but inevitably there are some cases which hit even harder than others. Earlier this week three children succumbed to the disease within a single night, leaving their siblings fighting for their lives. Georgie says, “Seeing those three small body bags will stay with me forever.”
“The one year old, Mariama, had such a personality. She had Malaria and Ebola and she kept on fighting. The nurses said she was really strong and would fight them if she didn’t want to do something with that amazing baby strength. But it was just too much for her little body. She just couldn’t cope and I don’t blame her.”
Somehow Georgie stays positive. She talks about a time – perhaps not too far off – when she and I will be able to return to Sierra Leone together. We talk of the young men and women of Ngbotima and what lies ahead for them in an Ebola-free future.
My last piece of work in Sierra Leone, way back in July, was to convince the university to suspend interviews for new students.
Last week those interviews finally took place.
Sierra Leone is a country filled with strong, resilient people. They do not expect life to be easy or fair. They have a wonderful ability to live in the moment. They do not bemoan the mistakes of the past, or waste days dreaming of a different future – they put everything into today. You could see it everywhere in Sierra Leone. In the joy of celebration, the spontaneous dance contests, the time taken with family and friends, in the intensity of an argument – and the speed with which it was forgotten.
Nevertheless, it is easy to believe that throughout the country every man, woman and child must now be thinking of the future, of what happens next. They will move on from this, and perhaps the lessons learned will help to build a better future for Sierra Leone. This time suspended from normality might allow people to consider their priorities, to understand what is most important to them.
The motto of the University of Makeni was “Building a Society of Love.” I always liked that.
And a good friend of our is about to begin a journey of his own, helping, perhaps, to build that society. When I first met him in the summer, Frank, full of ambition and ideas, had never travelled beyond the fringes of Freetown.
Frank’s plans for the future were put on hold by Ebola. As the virus raged he began a search for work and when his old school was converted into an Ebola treatment centre he applied for a job. He was taken on as a hygienist and has since spent his days working in the very same classrooms where, six months earlier, he was quoting Shakespeare in his graduation speech. In full PPE Frank leads a team which cleans the highly infectious materials that cover the Ebola wards. He serves amongst his own community, toiling away at one of the most unpleasant and dangerous jobs in this outbreak. Of course, Frank must make a living and perhaps this was the only job available to him. But it is just like Frank to take on work like this: challenging, thankless, and vital.
But last week, Frank took a break. He made the long trip north through the country he had never before seen, beyond the borders of his city, four hours on the road through the shattered communities of his country – through journalist’s favourite Devil Hole, past the deserted markets of Waterloo, through Lunsar where Georgie sweats through her never-ending work, over the narrow bridge where the market stalls were burnt to the ground to deter the spread of Ebola, all the way to our old home of Makeni.
It’s a journey I remember well, and it’s one I think he will remember, too.
Frank was one of the first students to be interviewed by UniMak as they begin preparations to re-open in the spring. And shortly after his return to Freetown he was able to share the great news that he has been accepted by the university to study Law. It’s the fulfilment of a dream for him, and his course begins just as soon as Ebola will allow. For Frank it will be the end of one journey and the start of a new one. He will begin his studies as the rest of the country begin their own journey, piecing their lives back together and working for that better future. It’s going to be a long road for them all, but if there was ever a society that understood the adage that life is the journey and not the destination, this might be it.
So congratulations to Frank, I’m sure you’ll join Georgie and I in wishing him the very best for the future.