Skip to main content
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 notes in neat stacks. Flustered I stand clutching them and attempt to count. The teller looks at me bemused, and takes one of the piles and rapidly counts them in front of me “1, 2, 3, 4…”. I stop him when he reaches 80, “I’ll believe you!”

The pile is almost 2 inches thick – I stuff a few in my wallet and the remainder in various pockets.

Suitcases collected I step outside. The airport is on the farside of the bay and a boat transfer is necessary to get to Freetown itself. My new doctor friend reassures me the process is straightforward, and indeed within seconds I am swept into a flow of people moving from the arrivals area. “You need a transfer?” someone asks. Money is taken, my bags numbered, receipt given. The noise, crowd, activity and heat is startling.

We all climb onto coaches and a 10 minute ride takes us to the jetty. “Have you been here before?” a Chinese gentleman asks me as the coach bumps down the dirt track.

“I haven’t.” I reply. “Why are you here?”

“I work in construction. My boss told me to come,” he says grumpily and gazes moodily out of the window.

We walk down to a shelter just above the water line – a rickety wooden jetty reaches out to sea, disappearing into the darkness, and the waves break onto the littered sand just below us.



Twenty minutes later we are called to our boat. I see it at the end of the jetty, rocked alarmingly by the swell. We clamber into the enclosed passenger area.

“How long is the ride?” I ask my new doctor friend, anxiously, as a wave of nausea passes.
“About 30 minutes.” We sit together and she tells me something of her 4 years here, of working before Ebola, of seeing the first cases at the hospital in Freetown, of the deaths of patients and some colleagues, of the fear, of the amazing commitment of many, and of the recovery.

We pull alongside the key in Freetown and climb off. We are reunited with our bags and outside a driver stands with a sign bearing my name. She knows him and gives him a cheery greeting. He walks me to his car. “Ah,” he says. “In ebola she was a machine! She saved many lives.”

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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…

Otherwordly isolation

I lean across the reception desk and catch the attendant’s eye. “Sawubona,” I say, dusting off my rusty Zulu. I see you.
“Sawubona, ninjani?” she replies. I see you, are you well?
“Ngiyapela.” I’m fine. She grins at me.
“You must be a doctor.”
“I am! How did you know?”
“It is only the doctors around here who use Zulu. Even if it is only the greetings.” She arches an eyebrow.
“I used to work here, at Hlabisa hospital up the road. I have a few other Zulu words, you know like ‘Does it hurt?’ and ‘Take a deep breath’.” She laughs. And then launches into an excellent impression of an elderly Zulu lady rattling off a series of complaints, waddling across the reception area clutching her back in mock agony. She gets it exactly right.
I have come up to KwaZulu-Natal for a few days. Tonight I am staying in the Hluhluwhe-iMfolozi game park, 20 minutes or so from where I used to work. Awarded my entry ticket, I drive into the park. The sun is low in the sky, the kills bathed in amber light. I take…