Imagine it is Christmas time or a birthday or something important and you want to get home to be with people you love and feel comfortable around.
You start the journey home by packing your things, booking travel. You get to the station, find the right train and get a seat, and as the train pulls off you settle down full of excitement and relief – knowing that you are leaving hard times behind and just going to have joy and fun.
Time ticks by, stations pass. People get on and off but your excitement only builds.
The countdown begins and you have about an hour to go to the final station. So close, you think, to home.
But 2 minutes into that final hour the train starts to slow down, inexplicably the pace slows and the train comes to a full stop. There is silence from the driver – nothing at all to let you know what has happened. You hear no word but you are stuck there not moving.
Every one is frustrated and starts to stand up, walk around, sigh, tut, phone their families in frustration. Finally an announcement comes that there is a problem with the engine. No other explanation than that – but the train is not going anywhere.
You are stuck in the middle of nowhere and no one can say until when.
You are so close but so far – so frustrated and tense. Passengers that were smiling at each other are now getting tense and annoyed with each other for no reason – everyone is desperately checking phones and travel info to blame somebody and find a quick fix so we can keep moving – even if it means limping on for hours, you would do anything to move forward.
That is what it feels like in Sierra Leone right now – there is tension since the current upsurge. The broadcasters around the world report on Liberia having almost no cases but next door in Sierra Leone we have had an upsurge. Everyone is frustrated and angry about why. Why, after all the talking, all the listening, all the understanding, all the efforts. WHY?? that is the shout from the NGOS and government.
There are people who still deny – in the earlier days of this outbreak they were also dying of Ebola but surrounded by so many others they went under the radar, however now they are the last ones. The rest of the community believe and understand because they have lost so much but these last few cases – and remember it only takes one case for hundreds of people to be quarantined and at risk – they will not change their minds. They still believe that Ebola is a myth, a plan dreamed up by a corrupt government that wants to kill them. They still believe that it is the NGOs, the foreign agencies – IMC – killing people. They see our doctors in protective suits spraying chlorine in the ambulances as they collect the sick and they believe that it is the chlorine which kills – and the protective suits are save our doctors from the spray. They watch their loved ones placed into the ambulances without this protection – and they never see them again. How can you explain this so they will understand? Our explanations of microscopic viruses sound as unlikely to them as their stories of witchcraft sound to us.
They believe there is an injection with Ebola in it that we are putting into patients. That we are harvesting organs. As soon as they see a Landcover approaching, or the motorcycle “sensitisers” from Oxfam and Goal they run into the bush and the aid teams arrive to ghost towns.
They live in fear in fear and frustration of us and we live in fear and frustration of them.
But IMC are having some success. Since December our outreach workers and psycho-social officers (PSOs) have put in hard work, spending time listening to and comforting villagers, they return day after day even after they have been insulted and shouted at, to show we are serious and we are here to help. It reminds me of time spent working with troubled people in our own communities and in prisons – you have to show consistently that you care and you are listening. Trust is built slowly. There are no short cuts to that.
As a result we were able to defuse a situation during the recent three day lock down where it looked as though a family were about to attack representatives from another agency who were taking temperatures in the area. When they realised that our IMC representatives were also there they calmed down and agreed to speak to our PSOs. These are small victories, but you latch on to them, take the wins when you can. There are no quick answers here.
That train just inches forward, and we all want to get home.