Goodbye to Sierra Leone, for now

Wow, that escalated quickly! 

When we moved to Salone we had always planned a 10 day trip back to the UK in mid-March, mainly so Elsie could get her all-important 1 year immunisations from Western docs. As we got in to the first week of March and the coronavirus story started developing we began to wonder whether it was a good idea going home for the 10 day break. There were no corona cases in Sierra Leone and we didn’t want to risk being the ones who brought it back. We checked with Doctor friends and concluded that it would be fine to delay Elsie’s immunisations for a while. Brussels Airlines had offered a free flight change to anyone needing to change their travel plans, so on March 13th we delayed our return flight to the UK to 3rd June. We’d sit tight in Salone we decided, and wait for the coronavirus story to play out. If we needed to get home we reasoned that, as a last resort, we could always fly via Casablanca, Nairobi, or Accra, if for some reasons we couldn’t go via Brussels or Paris.

But things were moving rapidly – way faster than we’d anticipated or thought possible. A couple of hours after re-booking to delay our trip home, news started breaking that countries including Morocco, Kenya and Ghana were starting to shut their borders and airports. Coronavirus cases worldwide seemed to be suddenly skyrocketing and governments everywhere were taking measures that no-one could anticipate. We didn’t sleep well that night. We quickly realised that if we weren’t careful we could get trapped in Salone with no way of getting back to the UK. Before embarking upon our adventure to Salone, one of the key principles we’d agreed was that if Elsie got any sort of non-straightforward illness we’d immediately head home. That was always our fallback – Sierra Leone is great in many ways, but it’s not known for it’s medical facilities. We’d play it safe when it came to Elsie’s health. 

With the speed at which previously unthinkable decisions were being made by Governments and businesses around the world, we decided we couldn’t risk being stranded, and on March 15th we changed our flights back to the date we’d originally booked to fly back to the UK – the 17th March. It was a nervous 2 hour wait on-hold to get through to Brussels Airlines, who like most other airlines were going in to absolute meltdown. I finally got through to them around 11am on Sunday 15th and fortunately re-re-booked our seats for the 17th. 

We breathed a sigh of relief, but an hour later Brussels Airlines announced that their last flight out of Freetown would be 20th March, and as they don’t fly every day our flight would be one of the very last ones departing. The news was moving quickly now, with more and more countries shutting borders, announcing lockdowns and suspending flights – with little or no notice. We were really worried that our flight would get cancelled and we wouldn’t make it out in time. We had Sunday and Monday to hurriedly pack everything up, say goodbye to the MEANS team and our friends, and arrange transport back to Freetown, to leave at 08:00 on Tuesday. Our flight wasn’t until 19:10, but we planned to get to the airport around 14:00 and be at the front of the queue, in case they overbooked the flight. 

Morning of departure from The Bo Inn, our home from home

Time

So out of nowhere our time in Sierra Leone was up. It felt surreal and frustrating, because there weren’t (and still aren’t as at 26th March) any confirmed cases of coronavirus in SL, and with the news coming out of the UK it felt like we were going back to a more risky/dangerous place. Who would have thought that Sierra Leone was safer than the UK! In Bo the shops were fully stocked with toilet roll, hand sanitiser, rice, pasta, beer and all the other essentials that were being stockpiled back home. 

Downtown Bo

We were gutted to be leaving – Kirsty had been making really positive progress on the AdAmi front, and we’d settled in to a perfect routine, with everything we wanted and needed. It wasn’t going to be for ever, but we’d anticipated at least a few more months living in Bo, and had started thinking about where in the world we’d go next. 

(Post-edit note – finally getting around to posting this blog on 10th April and as at today SL has 7 confirmed cases of COVID-19, one of the lowest in the world. Being bottom of a league table is quite normal for SL, but in this case the Government seems to have learned valuable lessons from the ebola epidemic and, fingers crossed, have got this one under control with their strict border controls)

Salone Good

Sierra Leone is such a life-affirming place, and spending time there makes me appreciate everything I have so much more. For a people who don’t have much, they are really really happy. Many people in more developed countries, the UK and me included, complain about things too often, see themselves as victims or think they have suffered hardships or been unlucky or hard done by, when, compared to almost everyone in Sierra Leone, those thoughts and feelings couldn’t be more misplaced. People are neighbourly and friendly to others in a very positive way – they genuinely see fellow nationals as their brothers and sisters. They are strong-willed and resilient in the face of the many daily challenges they face – but this is just normal for them – they don’t perceive the obstacles they face as obstacles or challenges in the same way I see them – so they just crack on, with hope and in high spirits. It’s great to see, and has taught me a thing or two about resilience. 

Some of the young mothers supported by The AdAmi Project

I couldn’t see myself living in Sierra Leone permanently, especially with Elsie, but my limited experience and time there definitely gives me new perspectives on life, what’s important to me, and what constitutes success, happiness and contentment. 

Brett Moaning ‘n that

While Salone is awesome in so many ways, there were a couple of things that frustrated me while we were there, namely…

The noise! Sierra Leoneans, men in particular, talk really really loudly. The TV volume is usually about twice as loud as it needs to be. Car horns are used all of the time, to no effect. Men seem to enjoy blasting out talkshows from crappy portable radios while they sit eating breakfast. Sometimes two or three of them at the same table, all listening to different stations. Churches – the happy-clappy type – are everywhere, and not limited to Sunday afternoon services. These guys love to celebrate and thank the Lord Jesus Christ at an incredible volume with real vigour, for ages and ages and ages. The Church next door to our guesthouse also had a drum kit which was used almost every day by anyone who couldn’t play drums. During the hours long sermons I prayed for their generator to run out of diesel every evening to limit the preacher’s volume to that of his own voice, and not the PR system that they definitely don’t need considering the size of the room. On the rare occasions when all the noise died down and you could only hear the birds tweet – someone would start up a generator nearby or a car would arrive on site and start beeping it’s horn to let everyone know they’d arrived. 

The heat! Wow, Sierra Leone in March is hot!! Really hot! It starts as soon as we step out of the room to go for breakfast – it’s in the mid-20’s by 8am. By noon it’s over 30, and around 2-4pm peaks at about 38dc. Our veranda and room caught all of these lovely rays all afternoon, heating up our room like an oven. During the heat of the day, if we weren’t out on field trips, we had to cope with a solar-powered fan and any wisps of wind. On trips out I just accepted that I would be a sweaty mess for the next few hours, and looked for shade everywhere we went. Kirsty always manages to look cool calm and collected in the heat, whereas i’m usually complaining, dripping in sweat, getting suncream in my eyes, and dreaming of the shower i’m going to have when we get back. Elsie is more in my camp than her Mum’s, but she doesn’t complain about it or seem that bothered. Everyday I looked forward to 18:45 when the generator was fired up and I could put on the aircon. 

Successes

We had planned to be in Sierra Leone for 6-12 months – the first part of our gap year/years. In the preceding months we had pondered what to do with our lives while Elsie was a baby -> boddler -> toddler, and Sierra Leone was the first step in the loose plan that we made. We took a leap of faith, I quit my job and we went all in. It’s gutting to have had to leave after only 2 months, but we’re also grateful that we had the opportunity to do it in the first place. Most importantly we kept Elsie safe and happy, although the 4 days when she had a fever were terrifying!

Kirsty has made good progress with AdAmi – spending extended time on the ground with the MEANS team has been really beneficial to her thinking and ideas for the future. I loved being full time Dad and feel privileged to have had, and continue to get so much time with Elsie. It was an honour to get to know the staff at the Bo Inn – originally we’d planned to get our own apartment, but actually, living at the Bo Inn was much much better. They were so friendly towards us and Elsie and we were so lucky to have accidentally ended up staying there on our first night in Bo. 

Along came COVID-19

After an epic journey back to the UK and a stop off in North Wales to re-supply we are now cocooned up in the Orkney Islands, living on the dairy farm which is run by Kirsty’s brother. The farm has a couple of cottages which are usually occupied by staff, but luckily one of them became vacant just as we were wondering where we’d live. We’re incredibly lucky to be able to call this place home for the next few months while this coronavirus pandemic plays out – such strange and sad times. 

Elsie’s New Friends

Elsie has adapted well and is loving life in the cottage and on the farm. She hasn’t seemed bothered by the 30 degree drop in temperature, and is now slowly getting used to having her own cot again after 2 months sleeping in bed with us. She’s just learned how to walk and it’s going to be awesome letting her explore the garden and farm over the next couple of months, when (if?) the weather improves. 

Barrier 1 Beach – our daily walk

Who knows when we’ll manage to get back out to Sierra Leone, or what comes next. For now my main plan is to help keep Swannay Brewery in business, and try and stay one step ahead of Elsie. 

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