Thursday, April 30, 2015

Independence Day Weekend

     Monday was Independence Day here in Sierra Leone. We had the day off, but I was quite busy. I gave two lectures via Skype to classes at La Salle about my work here in Sierra Leone and my time in Kenya last summer. It was so weird to be lecturing to students there when it seems like it was just yesterday that I was there as a student myself, subtly breaking dress code, buying lemonade or ice cream from the Palagi's truck after school and spending my free periods hanging out in Nick's English class senior year. In reality, when I was starting PEGASUS, the current PEGASUS students were babies. Literally. That's absolutely terrifying. I think the lectures went very well and I was impressed by the questions some of the students had. It was a really fun experience and it was good to see so many of my former teachers. My six years at La Salle were the best and I would go back to those days in a heartbeat. Enjoy it while it lasts, kids.
     On Saturday night we had a BBQ at Sasha's. The music was so loud and there were so many people there, many of whom I didn't know. Being the typical socially awkward introvert that I am, I wasn't overly pleased about having to meet and interact with all these new people (including a guy who lives in Needham and went to Suffolk and talked to me about Boston) who I'll likely never see again so I spent a lot of time hiding in the kitchen with people I do actually know and like. I was ready to leave as soon as I ate, but that would've been rude. By 10:30pm I was falling asleep (and getting laughed at by 50-year-olds who said it was early) and really ready to leave, but somehow ended up staying until almost midnight. In my annoyed state, I was also hardcore judging everyone there for acting like raucous 21-year-olds despite the fact that most of them are 25-30 years older than that. But they were just having fun and obviously it was unfair of me to judge them like that. Honestly, I think I was just really tired, which is not a good excuse. I'm sorry if I sound like a completely antisocial jerk right now (although that's a pretty accurate assessment of my life most days...#nonewfriends), but even after a 3-day weekend, we are all more tired than ever and everyone is on edge, even the people who are typically the most pleasant and relaxed of the bunch (aka the Europeans..."pleasant and relaxed" could never be used to describe the Americans). The halfway point of my time here is quickly approaching and if the Radisson didn't cost $270 a night, I would go there for the weekend and just ignore everyone here and all my work and get food from room service and swim in the pool and consider that my R&R since I'm obviously not going to get to leave for the real R&R I was supposed to have in Dakar.
     On Sunday, Meredith and I went to pick up stuff at the tailor and, of course, mine wasn't ready. I was able to drop off the fabric I forgot to bring last time though so it wasn't a total waste. After that Sasha and Meredith left for the beach and I hung out and went for a swim because it was disgustingly hot out. It's so humid and gross now and I hate every second that I'm outside. I was sweating profusely just from standing outside. Our water wasn't working again on Monday so I hadn't showered in a couple of days and felt even more disgusting because of that. Anyway, I spent the majority of the rest of the weekend sitting in my air conditioned bedroom or out at the pool because everyone else was either at the beach or working on their portions of the reports that are due to our donors this week. Thankfully this is a short week and hopefully once these reports are done everyone will be in better spirits (Edit: I'm getting ready to post this and it's now Thursday and we are not in better spirits). Personally, I think my nerves are frayed just because I don't get to drive (and I really love driving) and also because I can't ever escape. There is ALWAYS someone else around and that is not something I enjoy. I fly home on August 16th and I don't arrive until the evening, but on August 17th I plan on spending all day just driving around in my car with the windows down while listening to my music.
     I'm in Port Loko right now, getting virtually nothing accomplished (other than submitting the final draft of my CE...hello, MPH) because technology is utterly unreliable here. Getting to Port Loko yesterday was quite the adventure. We had 6 people crammed into the car and at one point I had to move up front and sit on the center console for about an hour or so. It was not the most comfortable position, but the air was blowing right in my face so that was nice. Then last night I was alone at the guest house for a little bit and the power went out. I had stupidly left my phone in the other room so I could not see anything at all. I literally couldn't see my hand right in front of my face. The generator wasn't kicking in and it was the first time I had stayed at the PL guest house (which is horrific, by the way...there were cockroaches running around, a dead spider on my bed and no running water) so I didn't know my way around and wasn't sure I'd be able to ever find my phone. Since I hate the dark, I started freaking out just a little bit. I slid back and forth between the bed and the door to my room several times while trying to decide if it was best to just sit on the bed and try to remain calm until someone came home or leave the safety of my room and search for my phone. Thankfully I remembered that my computer was on the bed (with barely any battery left) and I flailed about for a minute until I found it and opened it to get some light. Then I walked around the house with both my phone and a flashlight for the rest of the night.

Living room at the Port Loko guest house

My room at the Port Loko guest house (before I found
the cockroaches in the bathroom and the dead spider on the bed...)
     When Smart (one of our IT guys who also came to Port Loko with me) got home we had an awesome conversation about faith. It's very common here for people to ask you outright about your faith. Since it's probably pretty clear that I'm not Muslim, a lot of people have directly asked, "Are you a Christian?" There are no other options here. Everyone is either Muslim (~75%) or Christian (~25%) and there's another layer of traditional belief associated with juju which most people believe in, regardless of their religion (for more information on how juju relates to Ebola, you're welcome to read my CE). As soon as I said "yes" it's like the flood gates were opened and he just started telling me how much he loves God and talking about Scripture verses and how there are some people who don't believe in God (which he said in a way that made it clear he thought I would be surprised to discover that there are people who don't believe in God which made me laugh a little), but how God exists and He is good. It was a pretty cool conversation to have with him.
     I'm in Port Loko right now, getting virtually nothing accomplished (other than submitting the final draft of my CE...hello, MPH) because technology is utterly unreliable here. On a more positive note, today is the first day since October that the Kaffu Bullom chiefdom here in Port Loko has not had a house in quarantine!! Yay!! The house that was under quarantine needed to be decontaminated and the family was going to be placed in another house for a few hours while they did decontamination this morning. We were asked not to attend "just for photo ops" so I didn't get to go, but it's certainly something worthy of celebration. We're pushing forward to zero! We finally had two days in a row with no new cases, but we had 1 yesterday so the streak ended there. Hopefully we will be able to get a 42-day streak going pretty soon!! I'm now back in Freetown, but prior to leaving Port Loko today something happened that is worth mentioning mainly because I'm about ready to flip out on everyone I see and I need somewhere to rant. I went into the Command and Control Center today and, as usual, a soldier took my temperature before I went in. A few hours later I went outside to stretch a bit after having been sitting for so long and the same soldier started talking to me. The conversation went as follows:

Soldier: "Hi. I'm Festus."
Me: "Hi. I'm Nicole."
::No more than two minutes worth of conversation occurred in which Festus asked me how I liked Sierra Leone and I said that it was a beautiful country::
Festus: "I love you."
Me: ::crickets:: Oh. ::turns and walks back into CCC::

He proceeded to tell me he loved me multiple times during the day after that until I had had absolutely enough of his nonsense and shut it down and then proceeded to ignore him which was easy since I was getting ready to leave for Freetown. Clearly I should just stop being friendly because it gets me into trouble because people are complete psychos. 

Friday, April 24, 2015

I'm Too Tired to Think of a Clever Title

     I’ve been going back and forth to the field so much I can barely keep track of what day it is. I’m in Port Loko right now waiting for a car to arrive to take me back to Freetown which is where I’ll be for the long weekend. Last Monday the water in our apartment stopped working. We still don’t have running water a week and a half later. Apparently there was an issue with a pipe in Freetown because most places are being affected. I cooked pasta without boiling it in water. That was an adventure. It wasn’t half bad though. At one point, we actually stole water from the pool so we’d be able to flush our toilet. It hasn’t been very enjoyable and I was so grateful to take a hot shower this morning with running water at the guesthouse in Makeni. Hopefully the water will be back on by the time I’m in Freetown tonight, but I don’t have high hopes. I’ve almost resigned myself to not having water for the rest of the time I’m here.
     Anyway, last week when I was in the field, I learned from Jethro that the workers at Mena Hills (the guest house that we stay at Makeni) are mostly orphans. They work at the guest house and the pastor who owns it pays their school fees for them. I guess I should mention that schools are open again! It’s fantastic! It’s been a lot of fun to watch the little kids run to school in the morning or see them playing outside during their lunch. Everyone looks pretty sharp in their uniforms which really makes me miss how easy life was when I didn’t have options about what I would wear on a daily basis. In an effort to make up for almost an entire year of missed school, the school day has been extended and school will run throughout the entire summer, including on Saturdays. The goal is to get all kids in school, including ones who hadn’t been going to school before Ebola started. Since Sierra Leone is not Ebola-free just yet, precautions such as smaller classes (down from about 50 kids per class to 30 kids per class) and regular temperature checks, are still being taken.
     Another fun aspect of my trip last week was that I was alone. It was the first time I’ve traveled completely alone and it was great! So that I don’t sound completely antisocial, I should tell you that it was mainly great because I was alone in the car with the driver which meant that I got to pick the music and I just played my own music (MercyMe and Sidewalk Prophets, anyone?) so it was awesome. The rest of the time it was pretty boring. Except for the moment when I turned on my TV at the guest house and caught the last few minutes of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. That was great. On my way back from Kabala to Makeni, Emmanuel was my driver. He is probably about the same age as me and we started talking for a bit. At one point he asked me, “What about your parents?” and I just kind of stared at him and asked “What about them?” I figured he was probably going to ask me what they do or something like that. Instead he asked me, “Are they still alive?” I was a little taken aback because that’s not normally something you ask a 25-year-old. If I was 55 it would be a bit different. I almost responded with something along the lines of, “Well, duh. Of course.” Thankfully before I opened my big mouth, I realized that he was probably asking me that because his parents aren't alive. Maybe he was orphaned during the civil war. Maybe one, or both, of his parents died from Ebola. I don’t know. I didn’t think it was a good idea to ask. After I got out of the car, Emmanuel gave me a mango which probably means something, but I was too awkward to refuse even though I don’t like mangoes. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be the weirdest thing that happened with Kabala national staff members. The next day, someone from the Kabala office emailed to tell me that he admired me very much in his heart and couldn’t stop thinking about me. I’ve literally spent approximately 3 hours with this guy. Because I’m basically a child trapped in an adult’s body and don't know how to handle awkward situations (which is probably why I relate so well to Dr. Sheldon Cooper), I’ve ignored him (which is easy since we live several hours from each other) ever since I got his email. Sasha got the biggest kick out of it, but I was super uncomfortable. Apparently it happens all the time though. I can understand when people randomly propose to you on the street (as happened to Amy just the other day), but I think staff should be held to a higher standard. Apparently nobody else feels the same way. Looking back, I probably overreacted just a little bit and it does seem kind of funny now.
     Last weekend I pretty much stayed in my apartment for the entire weekend. I watched a bunch of documentaries on Netflix and sat around feeling gross because we have no running water. This week was pretty uneventful. I was in the field Wednesday and Thursday. I transported over $15,000 worth of checks to Makeni. My fingertips have started to feel like they are on fire and I think it’s because of the number of times I’ve had to wash my hands in chlorine/bleach water over the last few months. This weekend is another long weekend because Sierra Leonean Independence Day is on Monday. So on Monday I’ll be hiking Sugarloaf Mountain in the morning and then giving a Skype lecture to some La Salle students about my work here and about my time in Kenya. I’m really excited about it!
P.S. I wrote this yesterday and I didn't check the shower last night, but the water was back on when I went to take a shower this morning! Yay!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Easter: 1, Ebola: 0

     Easter weekend was one of the best weekends I’ve had since I got here. Both Good Friday and Easter Monday are public holidays in Sierra Leone (I would have gotten them off anyway since they’re holidays for CRS employees everywhere else too) so I had a four day weekend. It was like a flashback to the first 21 years of my life when I didn’t realize that not everyone got those days off. My supervisor was in the field so I had the apartment to myself and the other CRS employees in my compound went to the beach for the weekend so I was all alone. On Friday I got to enjoy my usual Good Friday tradition of watching “The Passion of the Christ” and otherwise spent the day relaxing. Saturday was pretty much more of the same. The highlight of the weekend was Easter Sunday. We’ve been strongly discouraged/prohibited from attending church while there are still Ebola cases, but for Easter I managed to get special permission to go to any one of the churches within our neighborhood. It was a big deal. It felt like a turning point because it meant that case numbers had gone down enough that we no longer needed to be hugely concerned about gathering in larger groups. Precautions were still taken at church and I stayed as far away from people as I could, but I wasn’t really worried anyway. I did realize that every disease other than Ebola is just an afterthought at this point. Malaria is far more common, but I haven’t worried about it for a second. I’ve been asked to compile the quarterly CRS – Sierra Leone newsletter and when I was asked, I was told that it would be a good way for me to learn more about what’s going on in the other programs (education, malaria, food security, etc.) that CRS runs. My reaction was basically, “Oh. Right. There are programs other than Ebola response. Hmm. I forgot about those.” Sorry to all the people working hard in those programs, but infectious disease is my thing. If that’s not involved in your program, I probably won’t be all that interested.

     Anyway, I went to Emmanuel Baptist Church which is right around the corner from the compound and I made some new friends there. I met an adorable little boy named Gino and an adorable little girl named Malia and her mom, Hawa. I was, not surprisingly, the only white person so when I walked in and Malia saw me she immediately told me she wanted to be friends with me. It was so fun to have all the kids around and be able to actually talk to them. That doesn’t happen very often here because kids aren’t the best at following the no touching rules so we tend to stay far away from them. Church itself was pretty interesting. Thankfully the majority of the songs, many of which I already knew, were in English. The sermon was a mix of English and Krio so I understood a fair amount of it, especially the parts about how we need to both pray and follow proper medical advice to stop Ebola. Other than that, there was dancing, a happy birthday song, a choir decked out in graduation caps and gowns for their choir robes and a very long communion process because Ebola restrictions have forced them to make some changes to how it's done. I didn’t get communion because that seemed a bit too risky, but I thought it was interesting that the women covered their heads when getting communion. So old school. The terribly awkward highlight of the service was when the pastor asked if anyone was attending for the first time. He had been talking in Krio so I had zoned out a bit, but luckily I caught that part. Naturally I was the only one and I had to stand up and when I did, the entire church (probably around 150-200 people), said in unison, “We welcome you. We love you. God bless you. Come again.” It was pretty interesting. I was sweltering after a 3 hour church service in an unairconditioned building so I decided to go for a swim. Later in the evening I got to Skype with my family which made the whole day even better.
     Last week case numbers were down in the single digits for the previous week which is really exciting. Hopefully that will continue. On Tuesday we finished up with the training of our Social Mobilization Rapid Response Teams. We distributed their t-shirts, caps, manuals, flipbooks, tablets and everything else they need and wished them well before their deployment into the field. On Thursday and Friday I went to Makeni with Annisha and Amy. The two of them went up to Kabala on Thursday while I stayed in Makeni. It has become swelteringly hot and humid and the frequency of rainstorms has increased, but the rainy season won’t begin for a few more weeks. Hopefully it will at least cool down when that happens because I’m not the most pleasant person when I’m hot. We were all in Makeni Thursday night and were a little disappointed because we all got terrible rooms at the guest house. We all have our favorite rooms in the main building and none of us were in the main building on this trip. Apparently, the President was in Makeni (which is his hometown) last weekend to visit the Command Center and observe how things are going so the guesthouse was filled with Sierra Leoneans who were streaming back to Makeni for the President’s visit. So, to make up for our terrible rooms, we spent some time playing cards which was especially entertaining when Jethro started observing our game of Bull and got a kick out of it when someone would call “Bull!” We all love being in the field way more than we enjoy being in Freetown. Our office is just so depressing, but life in the field seems so much more real. When you’re out there you can really see the impact that your work is having. The people are way friendlier too. They’re friendly in Freetown, but it’s not the same…it’s more relaxed in the field, despite everything that’s going on. On Thursday afternoon, our Rapid Response Teams arrived in Bombali. One team member came into the office and saw me and was really excited. We talked for a minute and he left and I thought that was the end of it. Within a few minutes, there was a steady stream of RRT members coming into our very small office (which is just a temporary room built of plywood) just to say hi to me. It was so funny. Before we left to head back to Freetown on Friday, we stopped at Caritas Makeni to see the teams again. I believe they deployed to the field for the first time last weekend so hopefully they're doing well!

The two Rapid Response Teams for Bombali district

Alima and Joseph displaying the "Ebola - A Poem for the Living"
flipbook and tablets they use in the field
     On our way back to Freetown, I saw someone on rollerblades holding onto the back of a van and just riding along. I have nothing else to say about that, I just thought it was really funny and it would have been a dream come true for me as a child (or as the 25 year old that I currently am). When we got back to the compound, everyone (literally) was at Sasha’s house. We hung out there for a while and played the drums, guitar and piano and sang along as Sasha played songs on the guitar, including a song that he wrote called “Freetown” which he wants me to write an arrangement for on the piano. After that Nicole (our new HoP’s) left and Sasha, Meredith, Eve, Jackie, Zholtz (that’s definitely not how you spell that…), the new finance guy and I went to Lagoonda for a crazy night out on the town (okay, we actually just had dinner, but that's exciting enough here). I haven’t been there before and it’s in a really cool spot overlooking the lagoon. I’m sure it’s probably amazing at sunset so we’re hoping to go back soon. I spent a good amount of time explaining what party pizza is and promising to send some to Meredith and Jackie when they're back in the US on leave in May. On Saturday we went fabric shopping again and got lunch and milkshakes at Brews and Bread, my favorite restaurant in town. There's one fabric shop that is run by the most adorable elderly man. His stuff is priced better than everyone else's and he always warns us to make sure we hold onto to our bags tightly as we're leaving so that nobody tries to steal them. Well, last weekend he did something even better. We were in his shop looking at fabric and a woman came in looking for bottles to collect so that she could turn them in for money. The old man didn't have any bottles to give her so he told her to come back the next day, but the woman looked so sad and disappointed that the man ended up giving her some change (I assume it was the same amount she would have gotten for at least one bottle). It was so sweet. We also went to see Foday, the tailor, and gave him our fabric so he can make stuff for us. On Saturday night I ate chicken liver (!!) at Sasha's and watched episodes of "Doug" (the Nickelodeon version, not the terrible Disney version) with Meredith because we randomly remember how Doug hated liver and onions and we had just eaten liver. On Sunday, Sasha, Meredith, Nicole, Jackie and I went to a place called Franco's. Franco's isn't known for its service and it took us well over an hour to get food, but the view makes it all worth it. It was good to get some of the group together before Jackie left for Liberia on Monday.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Lockdown Life

     Last weekend there was a lockdown. Technically I’m not supposed to call it a lockdown. It was a “Stay-At-Home” which meant that from Friday at 3pm to Sunday at 6pm, people (not all people though…our staff who have vehicle passes used them to come visit us at the compound multiple times over the weekend without being stopped by the police) were restricted to their houses and all businesses were closed. The point of the “Stay-At-Home” was to allow surveillance, contact tracing and social mobilization teams to go from house to house to actively search for cases and promote important messages. Unfortunately, nobody visited us at the compound to share any of these important messages with us. As far as I know, the lockdown resulted in an increase in reported cases, but I haven't seen any increase in the number of confirmed cases on the NERC website which is concerning because it's likely that there are, in fact, a lot more confirmed cases now. There were also some reports of "corpse smuggling" coming in. Basically, some of the people who went for treatment died and, although they had been willing to be treated at a medical facility, it would appear that their families were unwilling to allow them to be safely buried. So these families smuggled the bodies of their loved ones out of government run morgues so that they could perform traditional burials as opposed to the safe and dignified burials that are needed to prevent the spread of Ebola. You can see just how spiritually significant traditional burials are thought to be if people are resorting to corpse smuggling to ensure that they happen.

     Anyway, the lockdown weekend was actually a pretty stressful though (I was remarkably unproductive on Friday so that probably contributed to the stress experienced over the next two days). Annisha and I were working hard to complete the training manual for our Social Mobilization Rapid Response Teams as well as the flipbook of pictures they will be using to share a story about Ebola with the communities they visit. It required a lot of work, but the final product looks great!! On Saturday we had a compound lockdown BBQ. There was food, swimming and good company so naturally it was a blast. Friends from the other compound (which is about a three minute walk away from our compound) came as well. I made Rice Krispie treats which apparently aren’t a common thing in either Europe or Africa so I forced everyone to try them and pretty much everyone loved them. I was convinced I was going to mess them up because I don’t know how to cook anything at all, but they were pretty good. Success.

     This week has been a whirlwind. Annisha and I held training for our Social Mobilization Rapid Response Teams. On Wednesday I led a few of the sessions. I spoke about the details of Ebola with an emphasis on transmission, symptoms, treatment and prevention. I also led a session where we discussed the concepts of surveillance, contact tracing, swabbing, the difference between a confirmed and a suspected Ebola case and frequently asked questions about Ebola and how to respond to them. The teams are great. Many of them were far more knowledgeable about Ebola than I expected them to be. I had been trying to keep things simple, but then they started asking me about different strains of the virus and talking about how bats are the host and I realized they knew a lot more than I thought they would. So I got to talk about Ebola at almost the same level as I would if I were talking to my classmates at BUSPH and it was awesome. One guy in particular, Mohamed, is easily one of the nicest people around. Today before he left he started talking to me about my time in Sierra Leone and wanted to make sure I felt welcome here. He's really a stand up person and I'm so glad he's working with us. I think he will be very beneficial to have in the field.

      On a totally unrelated note, today (well, yesterday for me at this point) is Holy Thursday. Good Friday and Easter Monday are both public holidays here in Sierra Leone which means I have a four day weekend. My supervisor is in the field and all the other people that I know in my compound are going to the beach for the weekend so I will be alone for most of the weekend. I think that this is a suitable way to spend the weekend because I’ll have the opportunity to really reflect on the meaning of these few days without any distractions. One of my favorite stories from Holy Week is when Jesus washes the feet of the disciples. I’m sure you all know the story. Jesus gets up during supper, wraps a towel around His waist, pours some water in a basin and begins to wash the feet of the apostles. This was something servants did for their masters and when Peter sees Jesus, the Master and Savior of the world, trying to wash His feet he refuses to let Christ do it. Jesus’ level of humility was as baffling to Peter as it is to us at times. In the face of Peter’s refusal, Jesus lays things out pretty clearly and calmly replies, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Then Peter, the eager beaver that he was, says “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” But Jesus says no. He tells Peter, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.” So, on the one hand, we have Peter refusing to have his feet washed and being unwilling to humbly and obediently accept Christ’s will for him and on the other hand, once Christ directly tells him he needs to be washed, we have Peter overreaching a bit, trying to do more than needs to be done, trying to make up for refusing Christ two seconds earlier. And isn’t that a typical scenario for a Christian? Like Peter, we have been saved by our faith in Christ. We have been washed in His blood and we are clean. Yet sometimes we refuse to allow Christ to change us (or, to wash our feet) because we’re stubborn and changing is hard and we don’t want to submit to someone else’s will and then, when we realize what we’ve done, we try to make up for it in all sorts of ways. But here’s the thing…we’re already clean. We don’t need to do things to make up for our dirty feet. Our feet will always be dirty just by virtue of our humanity and the fact that we live in a fallen world. We will never be perfect and yet through Christ we are made perfect. When we repent and submit to His will, we are allowing Him to wash our feet, but our feet are part of a body that has already been made clean through nothing more than our faith in Christ. Jesus then asks the disciples, “Do you understand what I have done to you?” (I think we can probably assume the answer was pretty much no). He goes on to say, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” I don’t know if this is the case in all translations, but in the translations I’ve read, this chapter doesn’t refer to the twelve as “apostles,” but instead refers to them as “disciples”. I think this is important because an apostle is a messenger or a champion of a particular cause, but a disciple is a follower and a student. The disciples had spent three years learning from Jesus Himself and they still didn’t understand everything that was happening. Ultimately, He is our example and we are meant both to champion his cause as an apostle would and continuously follow and learn from Him as a disciple would.