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The first rule about run club

This is what death will be like. My heart is pounding, chest constricting, I can barely lift my foot from the ground. The sweat pours from me and my head pounds.
It is Thursday run club.
An hour ago Ibby was rounding us all up, exhorting us to get a move on, and allocating us to vehicles so we could lurch through Freetown’s commuter traffic to Lumley Beach on the west side of town.
Half way there, the traffic solid and the heat stifling we hailed a street trader and we bought packets of drinking water (improbably branded “CLIMAX”) and biscuits (incongruously labelled “made in the UK for Aldi”).
A King’s Sierra Leone Partnership tradition – started by Ibby some years ago – the whole team go beach running after work every Thursday. “The route’s fine” they tell me. “Flat, and you can 5k or 7.5k”.
It started well enough but it’s 28 degrees and my pale body is unprepared.
The route is straightforward but weaving in and out of other runners, stray dogs, unexpected gaps in the pavement, and…

Survivors

The hills of the Freetown peninsula fade behind us into the morning haze. Before us the road snakes through a panoramic landscape of palm trees and villages. As we pass through one village – marked only by an increase in dwellings and people by the side of the road – our driver slows, and shouts a greeting to a passerby. “This is my village,” he says as we pull away.


An hour later we slow and stop at an elderly single lane bridge spanning a wide slow river. Congregating traders gravitate towards the vehicle. “Chips?” says one, 30 plastic bags of fried plantain slices upon a platter balanced on her head.
“Apple, banana?” says another.
“Water?”
“Popcorn?”
We get bananas.
Another hour and we arrive at our destination, a small hospital where we are to meet survivors of ebola. This part of the country was devastated by the virus. I am told of entire families who died and houses that still stand empty. But the staff we meet are inspiring. Doctors who have chosen to work here and are comm…

Commuter

The car is stationary in the busy morning traffic, the queue snaking down the hill in front of us and up the slope beyond. The windows are open, the humid morning breeze carrying upon it the shouts of the street traders, and the never-ending hoots of Freetown’s bikes, tuk-tuks and cars. “Tissue, tissue, tissue!” cries a man carrying a metre-high stack of tissue boxes as he weaves between the queues.
The sky above us is hazy – the sun a dull red disc just rising into a white sky above the city hills. It is harmattan, they tell me: Saharan dust caught on the trade winds and carried high across West African skies from November to March. “You think this is hot? Wait until after harmattan!”


Weaving inbetween the lines of traffic, a fleet of wheelchairs ascends the hill towards us. People affected by polio, I wonder. Several have a weak or wasted arm or leg. Their family push the chairs from car to car and gaze impassively at the occupants.
The car begins moving again and our driver weaves…
The plane comes to a stop and everyone stands. Between the jumble of shoulders, heads and arms reaching for overhead lockers I catch a glimpse through the window – outside, flood lit and stark in the darkness, a building bears the uneven label “Lungi International Airport”.
We all move slowly to the exit, the conversation a babble of Krio, European and Chinese languages. At the plane door, a blast of heat and humidity as the West African night assaults us and my shirt is wet by the time I reach the bus that takes us the fifty metres to the airport building.
I strike up conversation with the person next to me – a European doctor returning from holiday. She was present throughout the ebola epidemic and talks passionately of the country. We walk past an unmanned health screening station – a piece of post-ebola heritage – for a quick passport check. Beyond, behind a dirty glass screen, men shout out offerings of currency exchange. I hand over £100 and in return receive several hundred no…