Sunday, March 15, 2015

Notes From The Field: Makeni and Port Loko

     On my last day in Makeni, we went on an all day road trip out to some of the more remote chiefdoms. I was stuffed into the back seat of our Land Cruiser with Aminata and Compson and Davor was up front with our driver. I spent the majority of the trip trying to not touch Aminata. It was a futile effort. The road was so bumpy and we were already so crammed in that there was no way I was going to avoid it. The drive was almost as nauseating as the boat ride over from the airport. Anyway, I think it took about an hour or an hour and a half to get out to the first place where we had to pay burial teams and caterers (we supply breakfast and lunch for the burial teams). When we arrived, we pulled into what I think used to be (and hopefully will be again soon) a school. The burial teams came over and Davor and I were instructed by Compson to stay in the car. I knew that this was a serious instruction meant for our safety because Davor is Compson's boss and yet Compson was telling him what to do. So Davor (safely seated in the front of the car) called the name of each team member and once their identity was verified by their ID, Compson reached into a giant bag and handed each of them cash. Then we met with the caterer and had her sign a contract and I had to take a picture of her ID card. We repeated this process in each of the other two chiefdoms we visited. After the first stop, it took another hour and a half to get to the next area and then another hour after that to get to the final chiefdom.
Hearse at the first payment site
     At the second stop, something happened that upset me very much. The burial team was lining up to get paid, but some people were missing so, without telling anyone what she was doing, Aminata went over to another building and started talking to two men in PPE. This is bad enough in itself as she should not have gone anywhere near them while they were wearing PPE, but the worst part was yet to come. The men, obviously eager to get paid, ran over to the decontamination area, presumably to decontaminate themselves. I was watching them the entire time to make sure they followed the proper procedures and I was appalled by what I saw. They simply pulled off the PPE, left it on the ground in front of them and ran over to our car to collect their money!! THIS IS NOT OKAY!! They were touching the PPE with their bare hands. They left it out in the open instead of burning it immediately. They didn’t wash their hands. I’m pretty sure they didn’t spray down their boots. Davor was furious. I was too. And I wasn’t just furious because their actions put Aminata, Compson and Davor at risk (I stayed safely on the opposite side of the car from where Compson was passing out money and kept my window closed), but because that’s just so wrong, especially this far into the outbreak. They should know better. That’s not how you behave after putting a dead body in an ambulance. It’s absolutely unacceptable.

Men in PPE running to decontaminate after loading a body into a hearse. This is probably
my favorite picture that I've taken since I arrived in Sierra Leone.
       After that debacle there was a bit of a stony silence in the car, but when we arrived at the last chiefdom, everybody’s spirits rose. This chiefdom is right on a river and it’s a beautiful spot. If you have to live in rural Sierra Leone, this is the place to be. This was the first time I was able to get out of the car all day because the teams had not yet arrived so it was safe. We walked down a hill to the rivers’ edge and took some photos of our group (which we hope might end up in the CRS yearbook) and waited for the burial teams. Initially we had thought that we would cross the river in one of the canoes they have reserved for such things. The water level is low now since it’s the dry season so it would have been quite safe and I was really excited for it. We also had the option of staying in the car and getting taken across the river on a sketchy looking barge. That option got booted very quickly for safety reasons. There were other vehicles on the opposite bank though so they must have taken the barge across. In the end it was decided that the burial teams would need to come to us so we wouldn’t be crossing the river at all. I was pretty disappointed. Anyway, while we waited for the burial teams we took more pictures and Davor and I played in one of the canoes. It reminded me very much of a punt which probably makes sense since Sierra Leone was a British colony. Knowing how bad I was at punting in Cambridge, it's probably a good thing that I didn't actually try to go anywhere in the canoe. Just to spice things up, Compson decided to buy a chicken. A live chicken. I thought he was kidding when he said he was going to buy it. He wasn't. So this live chicken sat (and squawked a lot) behind me in the car for the entire 3 hour ride back to Makeni (Sriya, I couldn’t help thinking back to when you got “attacked” by the chicken in Kenya…I think you would have been very unhappy if you were in the car).
Walking down to the river in Tambaka

Davor and me
Punting Sierra Leone style
     I think my favorite part of this road trip was just getting to see the people. It was very evident that these were poor, undeveloped areas. The poverty was a lot more evident to me than it is in Freetown. There were a lot of signs promoting various NGO’s and the programs (mainly food security) they were running in the area. The houses were very simple. I was shocked to see people riding around on motorbikes with heavy winter jackets on. It’s way hotter here than anywhere I’ve been in Africa. I was in an air conditioned car and I still felt like I was melting. Yet here they were with down jackets on. When we drove by houses, there were usually kids outside and it was SO MUCH FUN waving to all of them. When they first saw us most of them would be stony faced so I was hesitant to attract too much attention at first, but as soon as I decided to just start waving to them it became evident that they were all just waiting for me to make the first move. I think I need to remember that I’m the adult (but not a REAL adult) in the situation and they’re the kid. Anyway, when I waved they would burst out into big smiles and start waving back frantically and it was fantastic. Seeing their reaction would make anyone smile. It was also fun when adults would wave and seem just as excited as the kids. Seriously, can you imagine doing that in Boston? People would think you were insane. I think we should start being a little more friendly to random strangers. Actually, it’s not like this in Freetown, either. Add that to the growing list of reasons that I like Makeni significantly more than I like Freetown (despite the fact that it’s way hotter than Freetown). 

     Another thing that was interesting to me was how many people I saw just laying around doing nothing. Now, that's how I spend a significant portion of my free time, but I do it because I'm probably the laziest person I know. They aren't laying around because they're lazy. They were laying around because they'd probably been working all day in the heat doing things that would take us a matter of seconds (collecting water) or which we don't even need to think about. They have to do all this work just to survive. How much work do we need to do to survive? Walking from my bedroom to my refrigerator and then heating up a pre-made meal in a few minutes doesn't exactly strike me as hard labor. I readily admit that I'm ridiculously lazy, but I'd challenge the most industrious people I know to do the work these people do and then be able to spend their afternoon doing anything other than laying around. If you can do the work that they do in this heat and not have to take a nap by mid afternoon then you can say something. I was so tired just from sitting in the car because the heat is so overwhelming, even with the air conditioning on. I think many people have this misconception that Africans are lazy or want to get something for nothing and that's just not true. They work a lot to get a little. I can't speak for everyone, but I think Americans work a little to get a lot. I'm not saying that Americans don't work long hours. In fact, I think Americans work too much and don't enjoy life enough. I'm also not saying that there aren't any Americans that do work that is equally physically demanding as some of the work that needs to be done here on a daily basis. And I'm also not arguing that all Americans can work a little and then have extra cash to spend on luxuries. This is definitely not true for all Americans. But the point is that I don't know any American who has to spend any time whatsoever boiling their water so it's safe to drink. Everything that we need (and too many things we don't need) is at our fingertips and we don't really have to do very much for it. Most people that I know (admittedly, my sample is a little skewed since I primarily know highly educated, upper middle class white people) have extra money to spare for Netflix subscriptions, gym memberships, dinners at nice restaurants and North Face jackets. Sometimes we think of ourselves as deserving of these luxuries because we work hard, but really we're just incredibly lucky. We usually only realize this when something terrible happens and then we try to make ourselves feel good by doing something like giving $10 to support Earthquake victims in Haiti...but only if we can do it via text because otherwise it would take too much effort. Usually we do these things with good intentions, but I think we're missing the bigger picture. Every single day people all over the world struggle to survive and we're too busy binge watching Friends on Netflix (I'm on season 8...) to notice. Or worse yet, we notice and don't bother to do anything about it. I recently came across this quote by Saint Teresa of Avila:
Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Are we really living like this is true? Personally, I could certainly do a lot better. If we feel like we're being compelled to give of our money, time or talents to anyone then we probably shouldn't be giving anything at all (2 Corinthians 9:7). The reason the quote above is so powerful is because of the freedom it implies. Christ didn't have to give anything to anyone, but He ultimately gave His life for all of us. If we are His body now, we should be willing to give so much more than we actually do, not because we have to, but because we realize what He gave for us. If we are His body, we should be his hands and feet, but we should also be His heart. He freely gave us everything because He loves us. As His body on earth, shouldn't we be willing to do the same for our brothers and sisters simply because we love them as He does? I really like what Proverbs 11:24 says on the topic: "One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give and suffers only want." When I was younger, I hated giving gifts to other people, but I really liked receiving them (which is why I once bought myself a $7 soccer ball at the Rudolph Gift Shop at school and then bought $0.50 presents for everyone else). That's totally normal for a kid, but I probably carried on with this attitude a little longer than is socially acceptable. Although I was always excited to receive gifts, I probably flustered a lot of people since I was never overly enthused with any one present I opened because I was always looking for something even better. No toy or video game was ever going to be enough, not because I didn't get some amazing gifts (I absolutely did), but because the gifts aren't what's really important. But that's not something you understand as a kid. Eventually, however, I came to LOVE giving gifts. I'm still absolutely terrible at picking them out, but I love seeing other people happy at something that I was able to give them. It really does make you grow all the richer. And that's part of the reason I'm so glad to be here in Sierra Leone. Gift giving isn't just something that involves money or something that can be wrapped. All of our skills and talents are gifts from God so being here and working in an environment that literally could not be more perfectly suited to me is a way in which I can both show my thanks for the gifts I've received and also give back to others and nothing could make me happier.

     Anyways, the next day we headed to Port Loko for the day. The best part of the day was probably meeting a British guy who lives in Cambridge and who told me that he wants to sail to Newport and then live in RI for a year. So we decided that one day we will do a year long house exchange so that he can live in RI and I can live in Cambridge again. Unfortunately, I don't actually own a house in RI so if any of you Rhode Islanders out there want to let me use your house for the exchange then you can come live with me in Cambridge. Anyway, the reason we were in Port Loko was because we had to pay the burial teams and gravediggers there as well. Naturally I thought I would safely sit in the car like I had the day before. I was very, very wrong. I was put in charge of coordinating payments. This meant that I had to call out the names of the members of every team, have them get in a line and check their ID’s before allowing them to proceed inside for payment. This seems like a fairly easy task, right? WRONG. You can try to keep the teams back all you want, but they are still going to get as close to you as possible without actually touching you. When I asked to see their ID they would typically hold their ID and bend down so that their face was close to mine. It’s hard to be comfortable in a situation like that. We quickly put a stop to their tomfoolery and I went into a small office so that they would come in one by one and I could check their ID’s and cross them off the list. I spent probably about an hour after the whole process was complete being really uncomfortable and nervous about the possibility of having contracted Ebola, but then I came to my senses. While this was certainly the most at risk I’ve been since arriving in SL, it’s still highly unlikely that anything will happen. In order to have been allowed into the CCC in Port Loko the workers couldn’t have been showing any symptoms which means they can’t transmit Ebola to me and it’s unlikely that they have it anyway. I still washed my hands like a thousand times while in Port Loko and will be obsessively checking my temperature until the end of the 21 day incubation period. In reality though, I could have been exposed to Ebola at any point in time since arriving here. Every single day is the start of a new 21 day monitoring period. But I never think about that. I just stay as safe as I possibly can in every situation.

Working at the Port Loko Command and Control Center

We had to make a detour to Lunsar before heading back to Freetown.

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