Monday, March 21, 2011

First Weeks in Freetown


So much has happened in the past 6 weeks. It has been an amazing experience and I certainly don't feel like the same person anymore. My time here in Freetown started 2 and 1/2 weeks before the ship arrived. I arrived with 30+ others who I had been training with in Texas. Our time in Freetown before the ship's arrival was meant to be a time of serving, as well as bonding with each other and experiencing the country we will be serving in. Here are some of my thoughts and experiences from my journal....
February 11, 2011:
One of our poda poda's

We arrived ar
ound midnight Febuary 9th after 3 long flights, first from Texas to Washington, DC, then DC to London and from London to Freetown. The last two flights were the longest, about 7-8 hours each. Airports in Africa are nothing like airports anywhere else, arrival was a dirty, sweaty, smelly experience. After arriving we took a water taxi to the part of Freetown we were staying in. A “water taxi” is really a very old, small, barely motorized, minimally seaworthy vessel that somehow manages to pound through the waves and make it to the other side of the bay. It was a harrowing experience in the pitch black darkness. We all miraculously arrived safe and sound at the other side and continued our journey in taxi vans called poda podas which sped through the dark, bumpy, smelly streets of Freetown. 

Street in Freetown
The only lights visible in the streets were little oil lights lit by roadside street venders. It was hot, humid and smelled like a mixture of urine, garbage and smoke. I kept expecting to drive out of the “bad” section of town and into a nicer section, but it never happened. That was Freetown, nice as it gets. Now I've learned there are nicer sections, with actual houses and buildings instead of shacks. It was quite shocking that first night, it really hit me that this was going to be my life and I wasn't in America anymore. Driving less than a mile from where we were staying we suddenly heard a large clunk and the vehicle shut down. Turns out the drive shaft had fallen off. With no explanation, our driver took off running down the street. For a few minutes we were pretty worried, but he came back in a few minutes with another van. 
My room at the hostel
Arriving at Stadium Hostel was another experience in itself. Set up with a couple of single beds in each bare room, complete with mosquito nets and air conditioning units.  The bathroom is  a tiled room with a toilet, sink and a pipe sticking out of the wall for a shower which sometimes has hot water. Soon after we arrived the power went off in the hostel and the entire place went pitch black, which we soon learned was a common occurrence. We learned to say the phrase "this is Africa" (TIA), very quickly.

February 13, 2011

Garbage along the street
Yesterday we went to have a look at the Hospitality center. Driving through the streets I was again overwhelmed by the amounts of garbage and poverty everywhere. People really do live in shacks; they live, bathe and play in the streets. I was so overwhelmed and felt like I had nothing I could really offer them. I truly felt culture shock, it was like nothing I had ever seen or experienced before. I don't think there is anything that could have prepared me either. Until I came here and experienced it I don't think it would have ever been real to me.
The hospitality center is right next to the docks; perfect location, since it will be really close to the ship when it arrives. It will be used to house patients who need longer to prepare for surgery and house our dental clinic. When we arrived the hospitality center was just an empty building with no running water (so no toilets). It will be our team's job to put up walls to create patient rooms and wire the building for electricity and air conditioning for burn patients rooms. A few of us are going to volunteer at a local orphanage for disabled children called the Cheshire Home.


February 21, 2011
Kids at the Cheshire Home
A small group of us have been working at the Cheshire Home doing teaching and helping repair some of the buildings. Our program theme is the Fruits of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We painted a tree on a big sheet of wood and have been hanging a different fruit of the spirit on it everyday. We do teaching and then fun, silly-songs and they have been teaching us their songs as well. Afternoon is craft time, and each day we come up with a different craft that kind of goes along with the fruit of the spirit theme for that day. 
The kids love crafts and doing any kind of art. They will sit for hours and just color with crayons. Some of them have mobility issues with their hands so we try to come up with crafts that everyone there can do. The kids range in age from 6-18 years old. Some of the disabilities are from polio, birth defects, or burns. Some kids are in wheelchairs, some on crutches, but all are amazingly mobile. There are not adequate ramps or facilities for the whole property, but the kids will just throw themselves out of their wheelchairs and pull themselves up over steps and into seats in the classrooms. 
One of the older kids, Foday, was telling us there really are no rights for handicap people in Sierra Leone. There are no special ramps or doors and employers may not hire you if they see that you have a handicap. There needs to be major reform in the government for these kids to have a chance at  a normal life. I hope I get to visit the orphanage even after the ship arrives and keep doing crafts with the kids. They love working with their hands and spend hours doing whatever project Herma and I think up.
Febuary 27, 2011
The Ship is the little white dot!
Today the ship came. Everyone was pretty excited to leave the hostel. We left at 6:45AM to head over to the docks. When we got there there the Africa Mercy hadn't arrived, there was a ship in our berth space and the dock workers were on strike. Some of our team had to help remove the mooring lines for the other ship to leave the berth space. Then we all watched the Africa Mercy sail in. It was a pretty awesome sight. It is seemed really big, yet small at the same time. I feel so overwhelmed about the prospect of getting to know so many more people and knowing this is where I will be living for the next two years.
February 28, 2011


One of the wards before cleanup
I started my job today by helping set up the hospital. Everything has been packed away for the sail so we are cleaning and basically building a hospital!  So far the rest of this week most of the hospital staff will be helping set up the hospital and preparing for screening day which is in week. 
My box of dietitian stuff
It feels so weird to be here on the ship; it doesn't feel like we're in Africa. I feel such culture shock. The ship is another world far away from Freetown. It is controlled and clean, with familiar food, consistent electricity, and most of the comforts of home. Which is wonderful, but some reason it is hard to get used to after our experience living in Freetown. I'm getting acclimated quickly though,  I only got here yesterday and I already feel like I've been here a week!

March 4, 2011
So much has happened in the past few days.  I've jumped right into my job this week. One part of my job is going to be working with the infant feeding program, making sure the cleft lip/palate babies who come to us gain enough weight to qualify for surgery. 
Ola During Hostpital
On tuesday I went with the infant feeding program leader to Ola During hospital, a maternity and pediatrics hospital just around the corner from the port. It was dimly lit inside, and the wards were large rooms with patients lying next to each other in iron beds. It reminded me of how they depict hospitals in WWII movies. There is a clinic for malnourished infants started by UNICEF at the hospital. They have a inpatient center as well as outpatient and a weekly clinic. All is free to children under the age of 5 as part of a  government program in Sierra Leone providing free healthcare for pregnant women and children under the age of 5. 
There were so many textbook examples of severe malnutrition in the patients there. Something I never thought I would see first hand when I was studying in school. One thing is certain, I am going to do and see things here as a dietitian that I would never see or do anywhere else. It's both exciting and overwhelming. I am praying that God will equip me to do my job very well and show what I need to concentrate on and do each day. 
March 7, 2011

Today was screening day. We made it through Freetown with little traffic and got to the stadium. Right when we got there the power went off. Very typical for Freetown. Thankfully a few people brought flashlights and the sun had just started to come up.
My job was to help schedule the patients appropriate for the infant feeding program. Our first baby had several birth defects and was extremely malnourished, 3 months old and weighing 1.75kg (3.85lbs). She was rejected for surgery because she's too small but we're following her to see if we can get her up to weight and for surgery. Our translator from Sierra Leone, Helga, was telling us that it is believed that when a baby like that is born it is a result of a demon that entered a women and became a baby. She says she knew of a woman who left her baby like that at the base of a tree and watched as it turned into a snake and slithered away. It is a common practice here for women to abandon babies with clefts lips or deformities to die.
The rest of the day was intense, the crowds outside the stadium became out of control and some of the  people waiting in line were trampled. Part of the chaos was due to the sheer number of people who had showed up for the screening. Sadly a lot of the people in line were not appropriate for what we treat and we didn't get to see half the patients we needed to screen.
They pulled everyone who was screening out of the stadium. It was a very long quiet ride back to the ship. Everyone was in shock that something like that happened.  The desperation people have here is like nothing else.  
Today

There have been so many changes in the past 6 weeks. I am so far out of my comfort zone I can't even remember what or where my comfort zone was to begin with. My view of the world has certainly changed and in the process I have learned to trust God in more ways than I can count. If I've changed this much in the past few weeks I can't imagine what will happen in the next 2 years!

4 comments:

Emma said...

Jessica,
I loved your blog and I loved the pictures. Amazing experience for you. You will do well and I will pray that the good Lord does give you His wisdom every day for the work ahead of you. You will be a blessing to everyone that you work with and to everyone that you minister to. You are a blessing to me! I love you! Auntie Emma

Liberty said...

This is truly amazing to read about and I am so proud of you for doing all this! God will bless you in ways we don't yet know, and already He is changing you from this experience! I'm going to pray that I can maintain an attitude like yours when I am working in Detroit this coming year... I love you and will be praying for your safety and God's guidance during your adventures in Africa. Love you!!! Reading this has been a HUGE blessing, more than you know. Please keep posting and inspiring the rest of us to do more to serve God with our lives... I feel challenged!

Mike said...

Jessica,
I have looked forward to your first "newsletter" and it vividly gives the reader a first hand account of what Freetown's people and surrounds live with.
Your own part makes an immense contribution along with the amazing "Gateway"team.
I had the benefit of being part of that team and maybe one day return to the AFM and recapture the goodness of your work amongst the poorest of the poor.
Your personality and caring is unforgettable.
Love and Blessings

Hope said...

Wow, Jess. Thank you so much for sharing. I know how hard it is to verbalize what you're experiencing in a way people back home can grasp. It's greatly appreciated, though!