Magazine article Geographical

From South London to West Africa

Magazine article Geographical

From South London to West Africa

Article excerpt

Eleven years after the end of a brutal civil war, Sierra Leone is still low on most people's must-visit lists. Georgina Martin travels to the capital, Freetown, to take part in a volunteer programme in the city's paediatric hospital and gets an inside look at a country in transition

'Hold the door. I told you hold the door!' bellowed the taxi-driver. We watched forlornly as the door that had seconds previously been attached to my side of the car fell into the path of the other vehicles that use Freetown as their daily dodgem circuit. I turned to the driver, aghast.

'White man, I told you--HOLD THE DOOR!' Krio, the most widely spoken language in Sierra Leone, allows no gender distinction, so I had quickly learnt to deal with being called 'white man'. Besides, there was no time to be affronted. I was being driven around the roundabout once more while hanging on for dear life until the driver stopped, got out of the car and walked across several lanes of oncoming traffic to rescue his wayward door.

He sauntered back across the dusty road, lugging the heavy and now even more misshapen door and tried, rather ineffectually, to reattach it. I was ordered to fasten my grip on the handle until we reached our destination, whereupon I thanked him ('plenti tenki, sir'), paid my fare and scuttled away.

VOLUNTEER SCHEME

I had been in Freetown barely a week at this point and was beginning to wonder what I had let myself in for. After graduating with a BA in geography, I had agreed to participate in a volunteer project as part of the International Citizen Service (ICS) scheme, which is funded by the Department for International Development.

Created in 2011 on the back of the UK-based Citizen Service, ICS provides young volunteers with the opportunity to spend three months working in partnership with specific charities around the world that have requested help. Run by six of the UK's top international volunteering organisations, including the Voluntary Service Overseas and Restless Development, the scheme marries small groups of volunteers with teams on the ground in their destination country to work together on a project. These projects can vary hugely, from building schools and teaching to auditing medical equipment in a hospital and qualitative research. The ICS now operates in more than 25 countries, including Ethiopia, Nepal, Bolivia and the Philippines.

I was one of a team of four; my peers were all at various stages in their medical degrees. Our expenses were covered, including flights, visas and vaccinations, and we were given a modest weekly stipend with which we had to cover food, accommodation and travel.

The project was overseen 'in country' by the Welbodi Partnership, a British charity working in the only government paediatric hospital in Sierra Leone. In 2010, the government had introduced the Free Health Care Initiative (FHCI), a scheme that provides free medical care for under-fives and pregnant or lactating women. The bulk of our research consisted of conducting focus groups with people in the communities local to the hospital and asking for their thoughts and experiences of the scheme.

After some initial hesitation, combined with the promise of anonymity, people began to open up to us. We were provided with a translator, but I understood most of what was said, largely due to the context. Matching their disappointment in the system with the grief-stricken mothers I saw daily in the hospital was heartbreaking.

INSTANT CELEBRITY

Although the civil war that engulfed the country in 1991--eventually killing some 50,000 people--ended more than a decade ago. Sierra Leone (lovingly known as Salone to its inhabitants) hasn't experienced the same tourism boom as nearby The Gambia. But this may be a blessing in disguise the country's unspoilt beaches have often been voted among the best in the world. However, the raw beauty of Salone is illustrated not just by the scenery, but the people and their indefatigable spirit. …

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