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.
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.
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.