Friday, March 27, 2015

Caught Up In The Rush

     Things have been crazy busy here lately and it’s just going to get busier over the next few weeks so I have a lot of exciting stuff to write about. A couple of weeks ago we had a party. There were tons of expats there and it seemed like the later it got, the more people showed up. I’ve never been to any party quite like a Sierra Leonean party filled with expat NGO workers in the middle of an Ebola outbreak. Work hard, play hard definitely applies here. We all need a break every now and then. It still bothers me that when expats get together everyone hugs each other as if the “no touch” rules don’t apply to them, but even I’ve started to become more relaxed about that now. Anyway, there was a local band that used to play at a bar called O’Casey’s before all the bars were closed. I think they played ‘Happy Birthday’ about four times over the course of the night, but it was an interesting rendition. Conversation topics included the distinction between “expat” and “immigrant” and questioning why we call Europeans and Americans expats, but refer to Chinese laborers as immigrants. Naturally the night ended with a bunch of people either jumping or getting pushed into the pool. Many phones were destroyed that night. Thankfully I escaped and there was no repeat of the Thanksgiving Day debacle of 2013 in which my phone fell into the toilet because my 38 year old cousin and I were chasing each other around the house like children...

     Instead of the typical work filled weekend, last weekend was actually quite enjoyable. On Friday night we had a farewell barbeque for our Head of Programs (HoPs), Jonathan, at Annisha's house. Jonathan has been in Sierra Leone for over 3 years (and he was a CRS Fellow here back in the day) and is heading back to the US to be with his family. They had been living here with him, but Sierra Leone became an unaccompanied post soon after the Ebola outbreak began. His family had gone home for a few weeks and the decision to make the post unaccompanied was made while they were away so they weren’t allowed to come back. I’m sure that was difficult for all of them. We’ll all miss Jonathan, but I’m happy that he’ll get to be with his family again.
We had an awesome view of the lagoon from Annisha's back deck

     On Saturday morning I watched Jonathan and Sasha play tennis, something they do every weekend. Since it was Jonathan’s last day, I really wanted to see this match and it was a lot of fun. The weather has started to change though and it’s gotten very hot and humid so I was sweating just sitting there. Jonathan and I went for a quick swim afterwards to cool off. Later in the day, Annisha, Meredith and I went for lunch at a place called Brews and Bread (where I got a delicious chicken bacon melt and a milkshake!) and then fabric shopping at the outdoor market. I expected the market to be a lot crazier than it was. There were definitely a lot of people, but the people selling stuff were nowhere near as pushy as the Maasai mamas in Kimana. It helped that Annisha speaks Krio quite well and was able to negotiate for all of us. At one point, two little girls were showing us some fabric. It quickly became clear that they were sisters as they started fighting. As I was watching them I was struck by the fact that they were no different than my sister and me. That easily could have been Haley and me fighting on a dirt street in the middle of Freetown surrounded by trash and dirty water. Even the smallest things that we take for granted every day are probably luxuries that these kids will never have and that’s really sad. Anyway, when we left the market, Meredith had to pick up a shower head and fiberglass for Sasha. She wasn’t really sure where to get it so Annisha started yelling out the window to an old man working on the street and had him ask inside a building material store to see if they had what we needed. This old man was so helpful. He went and asked if they had what we needed and helped us park (which is an experience all in itself on the crowded streets of Freetown where there are no defined parking areas and you basically just park anywhere you want). When Meredith finally came out of the store we headed back to the compound.

     On Sunday Annisha came over and she and I went to Sasha’s house and worked on social mobilization stuff for most of the day. Sasha watched Mockingjay at one point and I was significantly less productive when it was on. After Annisha left, Sasha, Meredith and I went swimming for a couple of hours. We were joined by our German neighbor, Rudy. He manages our compound and this was the first time I had met him. I’m pretty sure I only understood approximately 4% of the words that came out of his mouth, but he was hilarious when I could make out what he was saying. He brought out sparkling red wine, some of which he randomly proceeded to pour on Sasha’s head. Honestly, the guy is crazy and I love him. After we got out of the pool, we decided to make brownies and relax for the rest of the night.
     Last week my supervisor had to go to Germany for the week so while she was gone and not looking over my shoulder incessantly, I seized the opportunity to spend more time working on the project I’m actually interested in (social mobilization) and less time focusing on the vehicle tracking database that I created and am now managing. On Tuesday I trained World Vision and CAFOD staff on how to use the database, but then I got to go to Port Loko and Makeni on Wednesday and Thursday to work on social mobilization. Annisha and I spent those two days at “Dialogue Days” with community and religious leaders, at least one of whom was an Ebola survivor. Shockingly, nobody has ever gotten all of these people together to discuss the issues they are seeing in their communities. They were thrilled to have a place to rant and share ideas about what steps should be taken to eliminate Ebola. I think the most interesting suggestion was to have religious leaders tell their congregations that Ebola is an “enemy of Islam” or an “enemy of Christianity” so that people will be more motivated to fight it. The sessions focused on key messages such as calling the ‘117’ hotline to report a sick person or death and not touching dead bodies. We then discussed effective communication techniques that these leaders can use to spread the messages in their communities. There was also a role playing activity and the people loved it! They got really into it…

Religious leaders got really into the role playing activity. This pair is acting out a message about
not touching dead bodies and calling the hotline for safe and dignified burials.
     When we were at dinner in Makeni, Annisha informed me that it smelled like it was going to rain. Suddenly it started to get really windy and we each ran to our rooms. I got ready for bed and was about to lay down when I got a call from Annisha. She didn’t have a blanket in her room (which was in a separate building) and she didn’t want to come to the main building to ask the manager for one. So I brought her my blanket because I’m always warm and didn’t need it. Naturally, as soon as I got to her room it started pouring. Since I wasn’t going to walk back to the other building in the rain, we ended up hanging out, watching tv and ranting about a certain person for a while and it ended up being a fun night. Then the power went out for a bit and the rain become monsoon-like. The rain finally stopped after a few hours (a long time for a rainstorm to last here) and I went back to my room and fell asleep in approximately 2 seconds.
     I was out in the field again this week. It’s so much better than being in Freetown. On Tuesday I led a training session for about 15 CRS field staff to teach them how to use the vehicle tracking database that I created. I think the database is great and the people I trained understand how to use it, but the real challenge will be in getting drivers, more than half of whom are illiterate, to fill in the logbook forms from which we need to collect data to enter into the database each week. I don’t really think it’s going to happen, but I guess we’ll just have to collect whatever data we can get. When we got back to the guest house that night I listened to Davor share some incredible stories from throughout his career. He worked in Afghanistan for a few years right after 9/11 and at one point his passport was taken and he had to sneak into Pakistan. Then when he was living in Pakistan for a few years, he lived almost right next to the compound where bin Laden was killed and he was there during that mission!! That’s pretty cool.
     Our social mobilization project is really picking up so I’ve gotten a chance to get more involved in that. The program has two components – Rapid Response and ongoing social mobilization. We are working with an organization that has used intergenerational dialogue to create behavior change surrounding FGM in a variety of countries and are hoping to adapt their method to apply it to Ebola. I’ve also been busy helping to create training manuals for our Rapid Response Teams who will be deployed to hotspot areas to reinforce key messages related to Ebola prevention and response. We will be training these teams next week and they will be deployed the week after that. When these teams are not deployed to an area where new cases have been reported, they will be stationed in high risk areas or rotated throughout the chiefdoms of the district within which they are operating. On Wednesday I had the opportunity to travel to Kabala in Koinadugu district to speak with the head of the social mobilization pillar there. Koinadugu is the largest district in the country and the region is so remote that it’s very difficult to travel from one community to another. Drivers often have to travel 100+ miles out of the way just to access a road that leads to another community. Koinadugu has active cases in only 1 of their 11 chiefdoms, but 6 of their chiefdoms border Guinea. Cross border activities pose an extremely high risk in this area, particularly with the high number of cases that are still occurring in Guinea, so part of our social mobilization program will focus on this area.

Tippy tap outside the CRS office in Kabala
CRS office in Kabala
Decontamination site for burial, ambulance and swabbing teams and vehicles in Kabala
     On Thursday we were in a mad rush to get back to Freetown before 6pm. In preparation for the “Stay-At-Home” they were being a lot stricter at the checkpoints so our trip home took a couple hours longer than it usually does due to the traffic and the fact that we had to stop at every checkpoint (normally our vehicle pass allows us to drive right through) and even had to walk across one checkpoint to have our temperatures taken. We finally made it back to Freetown only to discover that there was a dead rat on our kitchen floor and the internet wasn’t working again. Let the lockdown (erm…I mean…Stay-At-Home) begin!!

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