In early August, while I was in central Sierra Leone spending time with our project teams there, a continuous heavy rainfall led to a series of landslips & mudslides on a few faces of a mountain just above downtown Freetown, the capital, which is on the central west coast of the nation. This massive displacement of earth then added a huge surge to already flooding streams and destroyed homes, communities and families downstream to the coast. I’ve been slow and reluctant to post these photos, because there was such media coverage, and I don’t want to pile on or seem ghoulish. Since I’ve spent the past four months watching the impact of a major natural disaster in my immediate home area, I feel doubly sensitive to this. But at the same I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the impacts and effects of such events in a wealthy and well-resourced place, like the US — versus the impact of such natural disasters in countries which struggle with basics even in best times. I also wonder when our global community of humanity will establish more sustainable and fair global economies – too many countries I’ve worked in recently will be extra-heavily hit as global warming raises sea levels further — island nations which may vanish entirely due to blind over-consumption in the richest nations like…well, like mine.
What Freetown had to deal with was far worse than what we’ve had to deal with here – much more loss of life, and the destruction was so fast and complete in the affected areas. And of course California (let alone the US) has a lot of resources and expertise to rely back on. Sierra Leone (population less than 1/3 of California and economy even smaller by proportion) has had to deal with more than its fair share of hard luck in recent years. I found that folks responded strongly yet again, and did what they could. I was glad to be there and able to help provide some immediate support, even though most of our work is with maternal-child health in areas other than Freetown. I won’t say more – there was plenty of public coverage at the time; this is my own salute to the folks I worked with and this warm country that has had to deal with so much in recent decades.
This post I’m sharing more photos from my seven or eight weeks back in Sierra Leone, July-September last year. These were all taken around my birthday, on a lovely trip to work with our project teams in Tonkolili district – green forested hills, red-dirt roads to small villages, lots of outreach to make sure folks got the care they needed and knew where and when and why to go for care. It was the first birthday in a few years I’ve been in small villages on health outreach, since I usually time vacations and a break from responsibility for my actual birthday — but what a great way to spend it, shaking hands with community members, seeing the rainbow from the very last photo in this post and the social weaver birds in their tree (just below, with some close-ups in the gallery below that), and reconnecting with small-town life in new places.
Linger on the photos just above this text, long enough to see all six of my favorite photos taken in & around Freetown, during the eight weeks or so I spent in Sierra Leone between July & September of last year. I’d gone for a short assignment to cover for a friend who took an extended vacation. While there, I ended up working a bit more intensely than expected since my Sierra Leonean friends, colleagues, hosts and interlocutors all found themselves having to deal with yet another unforeseen crisis when massive rains led to flooding and landslides right in the hills above Freetown. That sad reality, yet another time this nation has had to demonstrate its resilience, is documented on many a news site from August and September. I’ll likely post a few personal photos from some of those affected areas in coming weeks – but in honor and thanks to the warm and hard-working colleagues and friends I’ve worked with on my now two short assignments in Sierra Leone, I want to begin simply by showing again some of the beauty I enjoyed when I went for walks or drives, evenings or weekends. It’s such an honor and a gift to broaden my horizons and experience humanity in such variety and richness as I do through this work. The silly complaints of the privileged, spoiled and unappreciative individuals in places like my home country then come into a more meaningful and constructive focus for me. There really are times when I wonder what the end-game for all these greedy, destructive capitalist captains of industry is… Peace and health, friends.
My wandering field life passed the ten-year mark earlier this year. That’s ten years of finding my way into a new work environment and getting to know new colleagues once a year or so. In a more mundane way, it’s ten years worth of photo files to keep up-to-date and to try to remember to share on my blog. A cousin (thanks, Juliette!) noticed that the entries from my earliest days had lost their photos: mine was a rather early blog, and the ways of uploading photos have changed since then. (Many of those earliest posts appear frankly so embarrassingly shallow to me now that I’m tempted to simply wave my editorial wand and have done with them…but thus far my sense for historical accuracy is controlling that temptation…) If my continued research succeeds, many of those photos will be directly restored onto the blog as I find their originals in backup hard drives and other obscure locations: ah, new year’s resolutions before the old year has even wrapped up!
In the meantime, I’m uncovering little treasures that never made it up here, while fondly remembering where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I was recently saddened to learn that Nancy Schrom Dye, former president of Oberlin College, had passed this year. During my years of active alumni-association work I greatly appreciated her contributions to my alma mater – so I was proud to join some other colleagues in taking her for an end-of-year meal which, the digital date stamp tells me, occurred in Beijing on December 31, in 2005. Up above are also a few rediscovered December 2005 Beijing-area shots which somehow didn’t get posted at the time. (Posting photos was more challenging in those early days…)
Just below are some previously-unposted 2015 shots: early-morning moonset at my home here in Haiti; me with my brother and a colleague when I gave a talk at Carnegie Mellon University earlier this year; and some shots from the lovely Frick House & museum in Pittsburgh, from the same visit. And since this put me in the mood, I’ve wandered through the many countries & continents, family meals & trips & assignments on four continents that have filled the years between these two sets of photos so very fully. Assembling them’s been fun for me so I hope viewing them is fun for you too :-).
This time last year? In December 2014, I returned from Sierra Leone & later went with great friends to enjoy the Ai WeiWei exhibit on Alcatraz Island (more photos from that one in the original post….though that particular set of great friends – you know who you are! – are remarkably camera-resistant):
Where’d I spend 2013? Living in PNG, participating in meetings in Amsterdam & dive trips in Australia, then celebrating the holidays with Steve & Mom in New Zealand:
I began 2012 in the US (where I visited Washington, DC in cherry-blossom season), turned 50 in the company of Howard & Gene at Kakadu National Park in Australia, and finished the year in PNG:
2011 was mostly Mweso, a little Lamu, a little London and a year-end back home seeing Frank Lloyd Wright homes of Pennsylvania with family:
2010…wow, what a year. Just seeing all the continents and countries where I spent time (actually meaningful time, with friends and family and work) makes my head spin even now. The photos evoked so much for me that I just couldn’t narrow it down to three or four…so I’m giving you a lot from 2010, a mix of Manipur (start of year) and Mweso (end of year), with a sprinkling of Sweden, Berlin, Paris & California in between:
I entered 2009 in Tahiti, yes it’s true: during the year I took off from work to help Mom with her house, I dedicated two months to exploring Australia (and watching the Australian Open!) and New Zealand, flying in via Tahiti with a few nights in Papeete, just because I could. The year ended, of course, in Manipur and included a great trip to see excellent sites of Rajasthan with Howard & Gene:
2008 started in Nigeria, and ended in Tahiti…with a lot of good work in Nigeria, a short assignment for the earthquake in China, visits in Germany with my exchange family friends there….and a good deal of time in and around NYC (Mom, aunt Judy & I enjoyed a harbor trip past Ellis Island where our own immigrant ancestors entered the country, and also a trip to our favorite sculpture park up th Husdon)…with a side trip for some hiking in Sequoia and other California adventures:
2007…I began the year based in Colombo but spend the new year’s period with Mom & Steve at Angkor Wat, returned to Colombo to finish out an assignment, headed on for training in Paris where I also got celebrate Mom’s 71st birthday…back to the US to reorganize my life after my first two years in the field, and then off for a new assignment in Nigeria. At the time it felt big. Now it’s all fond memories:
…which will bring us back to year two of this current phase of life’s great adventure, the lovely year 2006. From Beijing & Yunnan in China, to Polonnaruwa & Sigiriya in Sri Lanka (where I was based at year’s end), with family time on Cumberland Island (Mom’s 70th birthday dinner!) and in Germany in between. With a special souvenir from Seoul, where I had the opportunity to work a bit with the young ladies pictured with their daffodils. In a small-world twist, I had dinner with one of those two young ladies just a few nights ago in Port au Prince, which she visits sometimes in her current work with the CDC. So much small world, so little time for it all. Happy end of 2015, and many good hopes for a 2016 of more peace and health to everyone, everywhere.
Human resilience, basic human interpersonal warmth and gut-level acknowledgement of our shared humanity and interdependence – these are things I’ve learned to respect, value and appreciate more and more each day, as I both age and accumulate more human working and interpersonal experiences in many varied points around this globe of ours. I’ve spent most of the past few months in Sierra Leone, a place which resonates for many developed-world folks in a sort of “walking wounded” state right now. But I found there, as I found living in NYC during the 1970s when most of the US was too scared to visit it for fear of being robbed (or so at least it seemed), what I’ve found pretty much any place humans seem to congregate. Which is that life goes on, that people care for their loved ones, look for a meal when they can and look for fun and friendship where possible. It’s remarkable, and a gift, to have a chance to get out of my bubble and experience more of the resilience, warmth and kindness of humanity everywhere. I won’t say more here – with all the media attention to what’s happening on the negative side of the register in SL just now, I wanted to just take a moment and tip my hat, as it were, to the colleagues, neighbors and partners who welcomed me and continue to make good work possible, sometimes rather against the odds. Happy holiday season, if you happen to be celebrating a holiday this season…J
So like I said in the last entry, I’m in a place now where I will be a bit too busy and too sensitive about anything I see or do to want to post much in this…but I did pull some shots off my camera this morning and realized what an interesting juxtaposition there is between the photos I took while in Brussels for the introductory training about Ebola response, and the photos I took while here in Sierra Leone: and most of these shots were taken within the space of one week. So I’ve alternated shots in this entry – mostly because my friends and family have been curious what it looks like here, and all you find on the general media are shots of boots drying or people dressed in their PPEs. But meantime, of course, in a country of 5 or 6 million where (according to the latest UN figures) there have been 1500 confirmed deaths out of the 5235 total cases they report now), life does continue in the streets and homes of Sierra Leone, with all the warmth and smiles, play and hustle you’d expect, in amongst the reasonable concerns about family health and all the other daily cares and struggles, and of course sadness at the loss of so many in the communities and families already. (Side note: I think everyone acknowledges those numbers are probably lower than reality because of unreported cases etc.)
I also, while in Brussels, fell in love with a little run-down brick building just next to the training site for MSF, and how the rising sun warmed its bricks each morning as I walked into the site for training. (Look closely & you’ll see the MSF flag in the background on the wide-angle shot; you’ll also see my self-shadow-portrait in each.) I’m sorry that I’ve not gotten out more with my camera – I hope before I leave to do so, and perhaps engage in my usual fun pastime of sharing some of the faces of colleagues and people-on-the-street the way I usually do on assignments in (for me, and maybe you) new places. For now, I can only offer a small window to both Brussels and two towns in Sierra Leone: Kailahun, way out east; and Freetown, way out west — Kailhun nestled in its lovely lush green hills, and Freetown graced by dramatic bays and hills on all sides, and especially lovely at night when the town’s lights glitter like jewels strung up the hillsides. OK, yes, Freetown is also a bit too crowded and hustly-bustly, honk-happy and loud for me…and many of the streets are mighty muddy, rocky, bumpy. And maybe we should all pause to consider a world in which two national capitals can look so different, when the countries in question probably have access to a similar set of foundational natural and human resources…just sayin’, don’t ya know… All ye students of the human condition, go consider that juxtaposition and how it squares with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights‘ statement that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” Peace, out, and remember this blog be very personal and in no way representative of anyone’s ideas or views but my very own.