Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Four Months Down

     Today I am exactly 2/3 of the way through my 6 months in Sierra Leone!! In light of this, I thought some reflections were in order. This is really just an update about the current situation and a random assortment of thoughts I’ve had about my time here. I’ve been very busy lately analyzing burial data. I’ve created a database of about 7,000 burials and it just keeps growing. I’ve gotten quite sick of it. But yesterday I gained a newfound appreciation for the task. Like I said, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time cleaning, sorting and analyzing all this burial data. Going through a list of 7,000 burials to ensure the data entry people have entered everything properly is a bit tedious and since a lot of the data was NOT entered correctly, I’ve had to go back and make changes. Until yesterday I was rather annoyed by this because I’m so sick of looking at spreadsheets. But then I realized something. Apart from in the hearts and minds of their family and friends, this database is where all these people who have died are being remembered. And I’m in charge of it. It sort of makes me feel like The Giver (if you haven't read that book, do it now). When I realized that I was a bit taken aback. I’d never really thought of it that way before. But these people mattered. Whether they died from Ebola or something else, they shouldn’t be forgotten and the least I can do is make sure their name, age, sex, date of death and the location of their grave are entered properly in this database so that it’s always searchable. It’s easy to start getting lazy about how things are entered and whether every single little detail is correct when you have so much data to sort through so realizing how important this actually is to honoring those who have died has really reinvigorated me.
     My supervisor is leaving on June 14th and that means that I am probably going to be working harder than ever from then until I leave in August. Davor will be taking over for my supervisor temporarily, but I’m being tasked with a lot of her responsibilities such as attending weekly burial pillar meetings as the only CRS representative and probably managing a few other staff members. I attended the burial pillar meeting at the NERC today and learned a lot about where things stand right now. First and foremost, there are approximately 250 quarantine escapees from Guinea whose whereabouts are unknown. They have most likely crossed into Sierra Leone and will probably cause issues for us. Also, there are secret (unsafe) burials taking place in funeral homes when the relatives of the deceased can afford to pay 1.5 – 4 million Leones (~$340 - $900) to make it happen. Most people can’t afford this, but it is definitely happening among more well off families. Now there is some talk of following Liberia’s lead and getting the funeral homes involved in the solution by training them on how to conduct safe and dignified burials and swabbing so that they are able to safely prepare bodies and families will be able to have a more traditional funeral for their loved ones. Typically burials teams collect the body and take it straight to the cemetery to bury it. If funeral homes get involved, there can be a more proper ceremony instead of just doing something at the graveside.
     The rainy season has started to pick up even more. Last night we had the most intense storm I have ever been in. The thunder literally sounded like there was a gunshot right next to my ear. It’s helped to cool things down a ton and that is fantastic! I got to go back to the field again last week. I hadn’t been in two weeks and I think that was really making me miserable because being stuck in the office in Freetown is no fun. All of my colleagues that are based in Makeni were back from R&R and it was such a fun trip even though I didn’t get to come back to Freetown until Saturday. I wasn’t thrilled about having to lose a good portion of the day traveling, but at least I got to get out of the office for the two days before that.

The staff at the hotel in Makeni decided to put the chickens in the pool for safekeeping
      Last week I realized that by the time I leave here in August, I will have spent 8 of the last 13 months in Africa. Last summer I was working with the Maasai in Kenya and waking up to views of Kilimanjaro every morning. Now I’m in Sierra Leone fighting Ebola and enjoying nonstop ocean views. No matter how stressful this job is, my life is really good. Not just right now, but always. I’ve almost always gotten the big things I wanted. I’ve had endless opportunity in my life. There’s a song by Matthew West called “My Own Little World” and the lyrics always make me think, but being here in Sierra Leone, they seem to be even more poignant. I’ll post a link to the video at the end of this post, but the song starts like this…

In my own little world it hardly ever rains
I've never gone hungry, always felt safe
I got some money in my pocket, shoes on my feet
In my own little world
Population: Me

I try to stay awake during Sunday morning church
I throw a twenty in the plate but I never give till it hurts
And I turn off the news when I don't like what I see
Yeah it's easy to do when it's
Population: Me

What if there's a bigger picture?
What if I'm missing out?
What if there's a greater purpose
I could be living right now
Outside my own little world
Stopped at a red light, looked out my window
I saw a cardboard sign, said "Help this homeless widow"
And just above that sign was the face of a human
I thought to myself, "God, what have I been doing?"
So I rolled down the window and I looked her in the eye
How many times have I just passed her by?
I gave her some money then I drove on through
And my own little world reached
Population: Two
     For the majority of people in this country, the first verse is something unimaginable. I’m sure it’s uncommon for a child here to have a life free of worry. Considering the number of children I see every day walking around the streets trying to sell random trinkets (seriously...you name it, they have it...you could do all your shopping from the car if you wanted to) or bread or whatever to people driving by, I am quite certain that their childhoods have not been the carefree experience that mine was. If you have a roof over your head, access to clean water, more than one pair of shoes and if the thought of getting excited to get a $0.50 tip seems crazy to you then you’re probably more well off than you realize. I can’t even count the number of people who have told me they are proud of me for coming here, as if coming here was somehow more admirable than simply working in the US. I'm certainly proud to be part of this response effort, but dealing with an emergency situation and realizing just how inadequate you are will knock anyone down a peg or two. What I really like about this song is that it shows that you can be part of a greater purpose wherever you are. I know it sounds cliché, but you can make a difference wherever you are. That helps me to remember that my small little piece can actually help make a difference in ending this outbreak and I'm honored to have the opportunity to work with so many amazing people committed to the same cause.
     One other thing I’ve realized is that when I get home, there will be ZERO people in my life that actually understand exactly what it has been like to be here. I'm not trying to guilt trip anyone and I’m not upset by the fact that nobody understands how difficult things have been for me. That’s completely irrelevant because no matter how difficult or stressful my time here has been, pretty much everyone else in this country has it far worse simply by virtue of where they were born. I’m upset (or maybe just saddened) because most people will never have experiences like this. Not even just in terms of being part of the Ebola response, but in terms of experiencing life in Africa or the developing world in general. They’ll never drive from Makeni to Kabala and watch naked children with bellies bloated from malnutrition lounging around in the dirt, lethargic in the brutal afternoon heat. They’ll never see children no more than 8 or 9 years old stand outside on the street all day trying to sell food or random goods for literally CENTS to help support their families. They’ll never spend a Sierra Leonean rainy season living in a sturdy 3 bedroom house with tile floors and air conditioning while just outside their gated compound people live in houses with tin roofs and bamboo stick or mud walls that must be grossly unhelpful when there’s a serious storm. And on top of all that, there's an Ebola outbreak. I feel totally inadequate to describe it to anyone and, worse yet, I’m not sure anyone who hasn't been here would truly understand even if I explained it in the best prose ever written. It really bothers me that people just outside our compound are so poor and I'm living here with many of the same luxuries I have at home. I don't want to diminish the suffering of people in the developed world. There are certainly struggles that everyone faces and I know sometimes it’s fun to complain about first world problems and completely idiotic things, but sometimes it just makes me angry. But I am just as guilty as everyone else. I hope that when I come home something in me is changed, but I know I’ll never be perfect. There will still be days when I’m too lazy to get up and walk ten feet to get a drink of water from my continuously flowing tap or when I get annoyed if the power is out for an hour during a storm despite knowing that here in Sierra Leone people live year in and year out with serious water restrictions at the end of the dry season and a power supply that’s almost nonexistent for the majority of the year. Sometimes I feel so guilty about it. I've been afraid that by being here everyday I'd become numb to the problems the people here face. Certainly some things that may have surprised me initially have become no big deal. For example, I'm no longer surprised when, despite the plethora of "No Urinating" signs, I see men urinating on the side of the road all around Freetown because they certainly don't have indoor plumbing in their homes and in a crowded city there aren't many places for latrines. I'm also no longer overwhelmed when a million people surround our car at Ebola checkpoints trying to sell their goods for a few cents or when soldier with very large guns that I'm not entirely convinced they know how to use safely, saunter up to our car trying to prove to us that they're in charge of all things Ebola related. These things don't even phase me. I was afraid that I would eventually feel the same way about the overwhelming poverty. While many of the signs of poverty that are all around me have become part of the background of my daily life, there's usually at least one thing everyday that reminds me just how lucky I am and that spurs me on to give everything I can to finish the job I came here to do.

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