Freetown is a city where rush hour traffic is stopped by a marching brass band funeral procession, where people in wheelchairs get to their destination by holding on to the back of motorbikes, where people go out and party on a Sunday night because they would rather be hungover at work than during their own free time or in church and where chicken walk freely among the houses (and apparently know their way home). I love it and it is home for the next 12 months!
I got asked the other day what the most unexpected thing I have experienced in Sierra Leone has been and I think I just talked straight for 30 minutes. That may be an exaggeration, but it did feel like I was the only one talking for quite a while. Almost everyday I have seen, heard or experienced something new and unanticipated, ranging from the daft (wheelchair motorbike riders) to cute (children in my street asking if I can give them whatever I use on my hair because they want hair like mine). However, the biggest and best thing I have experienced so far has definitely been the warm welcome.
When it comes to my welcome, I struggle to explain what my expectations were
I had been here before for a short visit, but for some reason knowing that this move was longer term definitely made me more anxious about how I was going to be received (both by colleagues and Sierra Leoneans). Some of the anxiety may have been shaped by experiences in the UK where there is often judgement whenever something new is happening or someone new is joining a team or workplace. The mindset towards a student physio is often that they better be good and not waste my time and often judgement is based on a single phone call, email or even just a name. New starters are made to work to be accepted rather than embraced and made to feel welcome and offered the opportunity to flourish and achieve their potential. Outwith the workplace, I have been able to walk in and out of new churches without anyone saying hello to me and I have witnessed (and contributed to) the cliquey nature present in all large groups of people.
Regardless, these experiences, combined with my own personal flaws and moments of self doubt, led to some big worries; I am not a neurological paediatric physio but I moved over here to perform that role. I do not speak Krio but that is the language that the majority of people speak here. I have some, but limited, experience in teaching and training on anatomy, physiology and pathology but here I will spend time training others. I have never had to chair meetings and take minutes but again will have to do that here. I am a white man from Scotland moving to West Africa. All of these thoughts made me question how I would be received and if I’d be safe.
But from the embracing hug received at the airport from a friend of a friend to children waving and smiling in the street I have felt a real warmth and friendliness wherever I have gone. Admittedly, there have been a couple of children who have run away, hidden, cried and screamed at the sight of me, as they think I am some sort of bogeyman or demogorgon or just simply scary looking (I’m actually more amazed that this doesn’t happen more often back in the UK with adults as well as children). Additionally, regardless of the (huge) gaps in my knowledge, the team seem happy with what I bring, even if they are embarrassed but slightly intrigued by my dancing. I’ve tried (unsuccessfully) to pick up a couple of dance moves, it is safe to say that I lack any rhythm and style.
The warm welcome has definitely helped me settle in to Sierra Leone life. It has allowed me to ask for Krio phrases to be repeated (usually slower) so I can try and learn the language. It has allowed me to jump in to performing assessments and giving exercises to our patients. It has allowed me to go to a hostile international football match between Sierra Leone and Liberia. It has allowed me to walk around markets independently and it has allowed me to have a sense of pride in calling Freetown home. I have felt safe everywhere I have gone (although I have not been on a night out yet).
As much as I have been loving my time it has not all been easy
On my first day at the children's hospital it was the wailing of mourning mothers that greeted me; their grief loud and uncontrollable. A child was receiving CPR on the first ward I visited and on the second ward I met two disabled children who have been living at the hospital since being abandoned there about two years ago (I have been told that being abandoned at the children's hospital is a better fate than being abandoned in the wild or under a tree as happens to many disabled children).
The tiredness at the end of each day is high. The sensory bombardment of being somewhere new, using my brain to learn how to be a neurological paediatric physio, having to try and understand the local language of Krio while also trying to learn how to speak it myself and then the heat and humidity (the locals here claim it is cold as it is the rainy season, I have to disagree) all combine to drain and sap my energy. I have even slept in, I have promised Arthur, one of the teams drivers (he picks me up in the morning), that if it happens again then I will take him out for food.
Other (slightly negative) bits and pieces that I've experienced have been the power cuts, the constant threat of being run over, the self inflicted terror of using a motorbike taxi (I had one driver riding with one hand while he was cracking open and eating monkey nuts (groundnuts) with his other hand), the cold showers, large flying cockroaches, rats and their droppings, no running water, torrential rain (although I was laughed at when I commented
on how heavy the rain was, the rain in August here was non-stop and life threatening). So far I have not suffered from any “travel sickness” (or as I prefer to call it, sloppy jobbies) but have been warned that it is part the parcel of living here. I just live in hope that my morning oats keep everything nice and firm!
The part that amazes me is my joyful acceptance of it all
Ultimately I am fortunate that I have a comfortable bed to sleep in that is covered by a mosquito net, I can always boil some water and use that to wash myself instead of the cold showers, I have a sturdy pair of flip flops that I can skelp and squash cockroaches with, I need to be thankful and praying for as much rain as possible because come the dry season there is no rain and the whole country needs the water collected from the rainy season, I could always walk or use a different form of public transport, I am also spoilt as I have Aunty Yenkain who comes and cooks (also she makes the best ginger beer) and cleans for me, and Alusine who does my laundry and odd jobs around the house.
I also just need to look at the team I am working with at Enable the Children. They inspire me, sharing the burden of the devastating cases with them makes the work easier and sharing the small triumphs of getting a child to sit, roll, stand or walk independently or getting a family to take an active role in their child rehab is joyous, they have such big hearts and such willingness to work for the children of Freetown and Sierra Leone. They get up early and never grumble (well only occasionally when their belly's need feeding but I’m usually happy to listen to those grumbles and offer a solution). So please do think of and pray for Anna, Rob, Paul J, Abu, Abubakar, Ambrose, Alfred, Eva, Paul B, Alieu, Aminata, Evelyn, Arthur, Kadiatu, Mohamed, Pastor J and Pastor Finnie.
Finally, there has been a thought occupying my mind for the majority of my time here; it is that we are all made in Gods image and that everyone should be treated with love and respect. I know this is something that I fail to do regularly, in a whole number of different ways, and at times can be thoroughly embarrassed at how I have acted. However, this thought has stuck with me every day since I have been here, so it is my goal to live by it both in Sierra Leone but also when I’m back in the UK.
Thanks for reading, much love and God Bless x