Things don’t always end the way you’d like them to.
Last week, Georgie came home and Liberia reported its first new cases of Ebola since being declared Ebola-free in May.
For Liberia it was, perhaps, inevitable given the porosity of the borders between Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea but nevertheless it was a worrying and overwhelmingly sad development.
I hoped, when I heard the news, that Liberia would at least be able to exercise the lessons of the past and act quickly to put a lid on the outbreak.
Georgie suggests that this may not be the case – it seems Liberia may have dragged their feet in reporting and responding to these new cases, reluctant as they were to give up their ‘Ebola-free’ status.
And so a new front opens again in this battle. Patients are still running from their diagnoses – entering Freetown by sea from Guinea and sneaking across the borders in the hopes of finding safety in countries with the same problems.
The same mistrust and fear still persists throughout all three affected nations. Some people even talk of accepting Ebola as an endemic and ongoing problem for the future. To me, this feels rather more like accepting defeat than accepting inevitable reality. This problem will be forever hard to eradicate as long as these countries – and their neighbours – remain limited by their poverty and it is likely, too, that similar outbreaks will recur in the future, but still I do not believe we can ever afford to do anything less than attack them with full force. I don’t think we should ever become so complacent as to accept their inevitability.
We quickly forget how close we were to a much bigger disaster last summer. If Ebola were allowed to gain a foothold in another well populated area then whole areas of Africa – and the rest of the world – could be at risk of the fate that has befallen Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea this last year.
Over 11,200 people are currently known to have died from Ebola in this outbreak, and many more have probably died without being diagnosed. More will die yet.
11,200 lives lost.
And these numbers only tell part of the story. Uncounted are the thousands more who have lost parents, brothers, sisters, wives and husbands. Those who have had their lives and entire families wiped out in a matter of days. Those who have lost jobs, those businesses that have closed, those kids that have lost another precious year of an education already interrupted by civil war.
Fragile, growing economies have now collapsed. The fight against malaria has suffered a massive setback, too, costing perhaps thousands more lives on top of those lost to Ebola – and thousands more in the future as the countries put themselves back together.
Things don’t always end the way you would hope.
For Georgie and me, a chapter has ended.
Last week Georgie arrived home to complete the nine months that she has spent in this fight.
She returns home exhausted and sad, worn out by a battle which is still not done. She feels burdened by the lives wasted and the sense that she is leaving before the task is complete. The teams that she has recruited and trained fight on. But she has fought hard for a long time and she, too, needs respite.
In February last year we began this journey, our great leap from West London to West Africa, little guessing at what lay ahead. We did not know at the time that Ebola was already creeping into the place we were making our home.
And we could not imagine what was about to happen.
Like so many others we, too, ignored the evidence that was presented to us. We guessed at the truth of Medicins Sans Frontiers’ dire warnings and we mistrusted the WHOs complacency, but we, too, were complacent.
Constantly we discussed the right time to leave for our own safety. We realised that the right time to leave would always feel too early – whilst we still felt safe – and we always suspected that by waiting until it seemed dangerous we would already be leaving it too late. It was a balance we struggled with, reviewing our options every morning over breakfast and constantly half ready to make a break for it. For a while it was all any of us talked about.
We made a few dummy runs to Freetown – to the amusement of some of our friends who thought we were overreacting. In truth we felt a little foolish ourselves at the time.
Now we know, looking back, that when we were making these dummy runs there were already riots in Kenema and terrifying scenes of disorder in Monrovia. There were cases of Ebola sneaking into our community. Cases that would not be officially reported until weeks after we had returned home. We heard whispers of cases in the local hospitals, of families dying in the villages outside of the town. Of deaths hushed up and bodies spirited away. The reports we heard from the government didn’t match what we were seeing with our own eyes.
A few days before we were due to fly home we finally cracked, packed our bags and retreated to Freetown. When we talked about it afterwards we would say that, if we didn’t already have our flights booked, we might have chosen to leave two or three days earlier.
I wonder if that was true. Inertia is a strong force. I think we might have stayed a little longer.
As it happened we timed it just right. Ebola peaked in August just as we were leaving for home, and just a few days after our flight, a number of airlines suspended services out of the country. Our flat in Makeni fell under a quarantine order after cases of Ebola were reported in the local area.
We were days away from serious difficulty. We relied on communal wells for our water and on the local markets for our food. We did not have the support of a major international organisation and we would have been at the same risk as anyone else in our community. Of course, many of our friends stayed behind – and all of the Sierra Leoneans that were our friends had no other option. Thankfully, most of them have remained safe and, as Georgie reminds me, it is not that easy to catch Ebola – unless you are in direct contact with infected bodily fluids.
Nevertheless, I remain very glad that we left when we did.
It was a big decision for Georgie to return to Sierra Leone. I think we were both scared of that. We talked it over for a long time. We had been married less than a month when we made that choice. I am proud of her for what she did, of course, and I’m glad we made the choice we did.
People sometimes ask me how I feel about it all.
It worked for us, because it was a choice we made together – at every stage it was something that we agreed upon and discussed the options and the risks in full. Of course I knew that this was what Georgie wanted to do with her life. This has been her aim – to bring comfort to people in these kind of situations – for as long as I have known her, literally since the day we met. I knew she had to do this.
She has seen terrible things, heartbreaking scenes. We have shared some of those stories here and there are others that perhaps, in time, we will also share. It has been hard on her. But she, too, is glad to have done it. And she has made a huge impact on the lives she has touched out there. She is too modest to tell you all that she has done, but the people she has helped will not soon forget her, and they were undoubtedly sorry to see her leave.
She has done groundbreaking work, designed ways of working that will be used as a foundation for this kind of work for years to come.
This has not been the experience we expected.
Our original timeline called for us to still be in Sierra Leone for at least another six months. That was not to be. This has been the most extraordinary period of our lives and one that we will never forget.
At every stage we have been grateful for this outlet and for the support and love that we have felt from all of you who have shared the journey with us on this blog.
Now we look to the future. Neither of us knows what is next for us.
Equal parts exciting and terrifying.
There are still stories to tell and I hope we will share more of Georgie’s experiences here over the coming days and weeks. We have at least one big story that we’ll share with you hopefully tomorrow – and it’s a good one.
After that we’re going to take a holiday. Georgie, at least, has earned that.
What remains is to thank every one of you that has read or commented on this blog over the last eighteen months. It has meant an enormous amount to us to be able to feel that connection. For us both together when we were remote and disconnected from the wider world – especially when we were sick or struggling – and for us individually over the last nine months when this has been a way for us to deal with the things that have challenged us both. Your messages of love and kindness have kept us going. Writing a blog and then checking back to see how many people have read has been a genuine boost when things have been tough.
And so this is an ending, of a sort, for us. And yet, and yet.
I have said this so many times but: the battle is not over in West Africa. People are still dying day by day. The struggle, for them, will continue in some form for years to come.
Please keep them in your thoughts – especially those young people who we support through Georgie’s Ngbotima charity. Georgie has supported these young people to receive an education and now, as they come to the end of their schooling in these toughest of times we are trying to find ways to support them – to provide a leg up, rather than a crutch – as they begin their adult lives.
We take great pleasure in Frank’s success as he completes his first term at university and we hope others will follow in his footsteps. Others, like Fengai and Patrick, are looking for work and others still are thinking about starting families. If you feel moved to support them and the great work Georgie has done with them, please visit her website at ngbotima.com or donate at justgiving.com/ngbotima.
Thanks again for reading all of this – and do please check back for our next update. I think it’s one that will raise a smile, for a change.