by Cian Kearns
The best laid plans…
My trip to Sierra Leone almost never took place. During the summer of 2014, the West African Ebola outbreak, spreading insidiously since the start of the year, spiralled out of control and into a panic that gripped the globe. Industries shut down, districts were quarantined and tens of thousands died. For a number of frightening months containment looked impossible. My trip was postponed.
In mid-2015, as the huge national and international effort started to wrangle the situation under control, I resurrected my plans. The story I had set out to cover was, like everything else, tainted by the disease. Yet there was still a story to be told. I booked my fights and re-contacted my contacts. However the day before flying out, a family issue struck from the blue – trip postponed once again.
When travelling in a country like Sierra Leone delays and difficulties are part and parcel of the deal. Even when you think you’re prepared for them, they can catch you out. When I finally flew out to Salone in January, the disease had been almost eradicated, and my family was healthy. It was with gratitude and almost a sense of disbelief that all the pieces had fallen into place.
A pillow to lay your head…
Sierra Leone is a tough country to travel in. It’s safe – I never felt threatened in any way – but it’s a country unused to visitors. Their annual tourist count barely breaks five figures. A stark contrast to similar-sized Ireland’s millions. While many foreigners live in the country, working either commercially or for NGOs, they have different requirements to short-term visitors. There are no tourist travel networks. There are no backpacker hostels or hotels where holiday makers congregate and share info. Hotels are shockingly expensive and the facilities don’t often match the price tag. Budget options tend not to exist.
A contact on the ground is invaluable. They can point you toward sources and even provide simple things like directions when you first arrive. On my trip I lucked out. A few days before travelling I chanced across Noemi Schramm ‘s room on Air BnB. Noemi has been living in Sierra Leone since before the outbreak. As head of health financing in Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health she was in the thick of things for the duration. Her knowledge of the country, insights into the crisis and spare room made my trip immeasurably easier.
My first night back in Freetown I hailed an Okada on the street outside. These motorcycle taxis fascinate me. Driven by young men with a seat-of-your-pants approach, they’re not the safest mode of transport. In fact, many of the international NGOs forbid their workers from taking them. At the same time, they’re quick, door-to-door and the cool breeze counters the ubiquitous heat and humidity.
I met a lot of Okada riders on my trip. Rakeem supports his elderly mother; his only surviving family after the brutal civil war. Side, Suliema and Alie are the coach, captain and youngest member of Sierra Leone’s fledgling national cycling team. They’ve represented their country internationally but struggle to fit training in around their day job. And Mohamed, who nearly left riding until he was elected vice-chair of his 200-strong Okada riders union. While they rode for different reasons, their verdict was unanimous: it’s a bad job with no future.
That night my Okada dropped me down to Freetown’s waterfront district, Abeerdeen. In 2013 this had been the night life hub of Freetown. Restaurants and beach bars lined the strand serving up fresh barracuda and cool beers at the Atlantic’s edge. Expats and locals would gather along this stretch to dance the night away.
Now the beach was empty. Across the road a new-looking, “island style” bar offered food. When the waiter came over I asked what happened. He explained the government had a plan to revitalise the area. Stage one took place last August. It involved bulldozing all the unplanned buildings on the strand. This included the destruction of hundreds of locals’ homes. The second stage is yet to begin.
In Sierra Leone, getting around is tricky. And when you arrive it’s not always to what you expect. Guidebooks are inaccurate and unreliable. Posts on travel forums are dated. If you haven’t been before, it’s worth giving yourself a few extra days for orientation. It’ll make for less stress.
Gizmos and gadgets…
Travelling out I was impressed by my self-sufficiency. Wherever I went, I thought, I would upload my latest thoughts and images, sharing my impressions with a rapt audience at home. It’s funny how quickly blinking low battery icons put paid to that idea.
Electricity is a problem in Sierra Leone. In Freetown, sporadic power cuts can last for a day or longer. Outside the capital the situation is even worse. Some of the bigger hotels and fancier restaurants run generators but not all do, and often not during the day. By the end of the trip I found myself acutely conscious of wall sockets. My power cables were attached at all times, just in case of a surge.
A phone number is far and away the best method of getting in touch with people. Unless you’re contacting a big Western NGO, and sometimes even then, emails tend to disappear into the ether. Information is also difficult to find online. However, just because there’s no website, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a thriving business – they’re just offline.
Local SIM cards are cheap and the coverage is fairly good, even for internet. The system for topping up is confusing at first. It goes like this: a teenager sits under a sunbrella with an Africell or Airtel logo and a few mobile phones on a desk in front. You tell them how much credit you want, give them the same in cash and your phone number. Then they pick up one of their mobiles, send a text and, hey presto, your credit arrives.
[Side note: Getting my smartphone to recognise the 3G networks required a little more tech wizardry. I had to add a new Access Point Name. This meant typing: “Airtel.sl.internet.com” into the New APN option buried in Phone Settings. The guy who sorted this out for me had spent two months without internet on his phone while asking fruitlessly for an explanation in one phone shop after another. I guess eventually someone let him in on the secret!]
One anecdote an expat told me sticks in my mind. During the recent crisis, Ebola reception centres were set up across the country. I drove past one on my trip; a sterile-looking compound with blocky buildings surrounded by barbed wire topped fences. It looked less like a hospital than a detention centre. In many ways, that’s what it was.
While most of these centres were run by NGOs or the British military, this one was government-run. In their treatment of Ebola patients, the international facilities abided by what was deemed best practise. Sufferers were treated mostly by attempting to keep them hydrated. When they couldn’t drink themselves, I.V.s were used. However, if a patient was very sick – fever and shakes – inserting a needle into a jittery arm was considered too high risk for the medical staff. Those people were left to recover, or die, on their own.
In the state-run health centre it was different. Everyone who needed one was given an I.V., spasms or not. I don’t know if this led to jarred needles, torn protective suits and more health workers infections,but I’m told the effect on patient outcomes was significant. The facility had the highest Ebola recovery rate in the country.
I never got to confirm the story. But I believe it. It matches what I’ve seen of the Sierra Leoneon people and their ability to meet fierce adversity with beaming smiles and unmatched positivity. In the darkest days, when international observers despaired of finding a solution, they continued to strive toward a brighter future, never doubting it would come. They were right. And in spite of the difficulties that remain, after visiting, it’s hard not to feel optimistic about their path ahead.
Journalist Cian Kearns was funded under the summer 2014 round of the Fund to travel to Sierra Leone to report on micro-financing in the country. His documentary on the topic is due to be broadcast on Limerick’s Live 95 FM in the coming weeks. Cian has also had reports on the impact of Ebola in Sierra Leone published in The Irish Times and broadcast on Clare FM.