The real irony and lesson is that the fears that confront aid workers in Guinea Forest are similar to fears promoted by Donald Trump and all his supporters.
I was accompanying a cameraman, Leo, who was contracted by WFP to take some photo and video footage of WFP activities in the three most affected countries, Guinea was his last mission. A very interesting guy, who has lived all over the world and worked as a foreign correspondent for two years in Baghdad. He was really good fun and easy going so he was a good companion in the field.
It started with boarding the 19 seater aircraft (managed by WFP) where we had to be weighed beforehand. The flight took an hour and a half and I realised just as I sat down that I hadn’t kissed the plane (something Granny does for good luck which I now have to do every time I fly) so I was sitting ridged for the whole journey. Actually, it was a surprisingly smooth flight. We had to wear face masks, which was quite a funny image. Not that Ebola is airborne, but it is just to cover all measures for any other airborne diseases. It was incredible to see the dense forest of palm trees as we came to land.
Leo interviewed the Chief of the village who cried as he explained he had lost four children. It started to all feel very real.
We then hit the road again for a two hour drive to another treatment centre run by MSF. We saw the food being prepared. WFP provides three hot meals a day to the patients in the treatment centres, as well as to their families and contact cases. The meals consist of liquid foods, such as rice with sauce and porridge. Afterwards we visited the orphanage next door. It was too difficult, I think the saddest I’ve ever felt. I didn’t want the children to see me upset. I won’t forget the image of baby Marie and it breaks my heart thinking about her. She had lost all her family to Ebola. But the children are being well looked after, by wonderful doctors who cuddled and fed them and the area was colourful and full of toys and what is most important is that they are not forgotten.
It was in Gueckedou where the first outbreak was discovered. It’s not a very big town. WFP have another office here, set up in response of Ebola as well as a guest house, which is where we stayed. Very basic with no electricity and a two day bucket supply of water. Chickens roamed around scratching in piles of rubbish, everywhere you looked there were goats with plastic caught on their hooves, up to four people packed on motorbikes with babies squashed in between, children tugging empty cans of sardines along on string or makeshift kites out of plastic bags, lots of smiling and curious faces, and funny English slogan t-shirts and ski jackets!
One thing I have to mention is the cooked ground that they were selling at the market. Apparently pregnant women crave it!
I have seen a Christmas tree in the hotel, but I couldn’t feel further away from Christmas! I will start to play Christmas songs in the office this week.
The training bought together 25 colleagues from offices around West Africa. There were colleagues from Sierra Leone and Liberia too and twice a day, as per usual, we were taken out of the class to have our temperature taken. On the first day, when everyone shook hands to introduce themselves, the three of us didn’t.
People wanted to know what it is like working for WFP in the Ebola affected countries and it made me aware of how quickly you can get used to a routine, because having your temperature checked and washing your hands with chlorine up to 4 times a day isn’t the most normal of routines! My colleague here was refused entry into a shop because her temperature was 38 degrees. We walked around a bit, came back and it was down to 37 so they let us in. But what I had to clear up was that we do not see people dying in the street or bodies left by terrified families. Even though one of the Ebola treatment centres is a stone’s throw from the office in Conakry, the city doesn’t look like it’s been taken over by a terrifying and deadly epidemic. Life goes on as it must, with kids running in and out of cars and motorcycles, teenagers holding up traffic by playing football in the road, men talking on street corners and women washing clothes and peeling potatoes outside their house.
It is mid December (and I haven’t heard one Christmas song!) I remember when I arrived, I wondered how I would find the energy to stay here. It’s been such a roller-coaster of emotions and although time has gone quickly, three months in an emergency has felt a lot longer than in normal life. It has felt a bit like a sink-or-swim situation and I have been sleep deprived (I say as I am writing this at 4:30am on a saturday morning) and snappy at family at home. Sorry Dad! It has been emotionally and physically exhausting but believe me I have laughed a lot. Every day brings new stories to tell and new memories that I will carry for years to come.
I have met so many incredible people from all over the world and from all backgrounds. My colleagues are so dedicated, working late in to the evenings and throughout the weekend. The national staff are always smiling and have been welcoming to the influx of new staff. The bonds that are formed working together in intense situations are very powerful and I believe these friendships I have formed will be long lasting. I am inspired by their determination, ingenuity and resourcefulness and I count myself very lucky to experience working with WFP here.
And December also marks a year since the first case of Ebola was recorded in Guinea. No caring for the ill and no handling of the dead, Ebola is a disease that destroys people’s ability to be human.
I feel more optimistic than when I arrived in September with things getting under control but there is still a lot of work to be done. I will return to Guinea in the new year and hope that when the time comes for me to leave, the situation will only be better. And to end on a quote from one of my favourite films, Shawshank Redemption, “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”