Today marks the end of my first week in Freetown – a week filled with beauty and a week filled with death.
Flying into the Sierra Leonean airport at Lungi, you are captivated by the beauty of the lush green forest that touches the Atlantic Ocean. As your plane descends, you see coconut trees lining golden sand beaches. Fishermen in canoes on the sea. Women with baskets on their heads filed with fruit or fish, walking by the ocean. A land of pure beauty!
An estuary of the Ocean separates the Lungi airport from the capital city Freetown. You can either drive around this estuary or take a 30 minute sea taxi. In the daytime, you approach a bustling city perched on lush green mountains that appear to rise directly out of the ocean.
I arrived at night via sea taxi and as usual, I was struck by the beauty of a mountain of twinkling city lights rising out of the Atlantic Ocean. I was exhausted from the 24 hour trip and quickly went to bed after arriving home – I was staying at my mom’s house as our future home was still being renovated. I spent the rest of the weekend visiting family, unpacking, fussing about which veranda provided the coolest breeze for Sheba, and getting ready for work on Monday.
On Monday, I woke up early, got dressed, and it hit me – I was actually going to work in Sierra Leone! My frequent trips home over the past 26 years had been brief vacations or mission trips lasting 1-2 weeks at a time – this time, I was actually going to be working-working! The driver was waiting, and my commute to work was a quick 20 minutes, compared to my usual 1-1.5 hours fighting Atlanta traffic! I eagerly spent the next couple of days being oriented at work – meeting everyone, reading multiple documents, learning about work in progress, and beginning to formulate my ideas and workplans.
At home, Sheba was doing well – ignoring her dog food and eating cassava leaves, potato leaves, and rice! Most importantly, it wasn’t as hot as I imagined, and she did quite well lounging on the various verandas, enjoying the sea breeze, and barking at every single neighborhood dog that walked by the house.
There were frequent black-outs, but not as bad as I remembered – we had electricity about half of the nights and used a generator the other half. There are water shortages since this is the dry season, so we had a visit from the “bowser” truck which filled up our water tank at home.
I went jogging up the road one morning but it was pretty dark and there were no street lights since we lived off one of the non-lighted side roads. There were a few folks on the roads, but I didn’t feel as brave as I did during my early morning jogs in my gated, guarded, well lighted, suburban Atlanta subdivision! I decided to jog on the beach on weekends, and suspend early morning neighborhood jogs for now until the hubby joined me.
I spent my days at work dissecting maternal and child mortality data and debating and planning strategies to decrease mortality, not realizing that death was close by. On Thursday, my mom mentioned that one of her guards had a son who was ill and she had given him money to take his son to the clinic – he reported that his son had sickle cell disease and that they had treated him. On Friday, I heard a wailing crowd in the neighborhood.
I went outside and found out that his son had died.
Just. Like. That.
Sick on Wednesday. Clinic on Thursday. To the clinic again on Friday – diagnosed with malaria – given IV fluids and medications. He came home and he died an hour later.
Just. Like. That.
I don’t even have the words to describe my shock, sadness, and helplessness.
What happened? Did his son develop severe anemia from sickle cell disease complicated by malaria? Did they recognize that he needed a blood transfusion in the clinic? Did they recognize the emergency? Did they refer him to the pediatric hospital and he couldn’t go because of cost? Could I have helped if I had seen the child and recognized the emergency?
There is so much to do …