Saturday, October 22, 2011

Adventure at the Game Park!

When I started talking about moving to Sierra Leone, one of the things that people always asked me was what kind of cool animals they have here. Unfortunately my answer was always “ummm, none really.” Then I head about this game park about an hour away from where I’m living. They have monkeys, elephants, rhinos, etc. Awesome! I definitely needed to go.

I put it on my bucket list of things to do before I leave this year. My roommate will be leaving about a week after me and we have a midwife friend from Nigeria who will be leaving in December. We decided to make it a girls trip and invite my Sierra Leonean friend Kadiatu too because she’d never been before.

My friends and I waiting at the "ferry"
As I started asking people about this game park, I started getting nervous for a couple of reasons. Number one. In order to get to the game park, we have to cross ariver, in a "ferry". And this ferry is super sketchy. It’s pretty much just a bunch of planks put together…somehow. They have a big cable that stretches across the river and 3 guys literally pull the “ferry” across the river by hand. In the dry season, this isn’t really a problem, but in the rainy season, when the river is high and fast well….you catch my drift. Rainy season is still upon us, so this was almost a deal breaker for me. But not quite. Oftentimes, when I'm contemplating doing something I will ask myself, "Emily, if you die doing this, when people come to your funeral will they be crying on the outside but thinking on the inside that you were really an idiot for doing that?" This one was on the line....and in tennis, lines are IN!!! The "ferry!!"
The second thing that made me nervous was the fact that because the ferry was so sketchy, we were strongly encouraged NOT to take a car on it (although one could theoretically squeeze on). This meant that we needed to hire motorbike drivers to take us up there and back. Motorbikes are one of my other fears. I’ve seen too many accidents firsthand and have taken care of too many accident victims in the hospital. However, I didn’t want to let irrational (or slightly rational in my point of view) fears keep me from doing something awesome. So this morning the four of us headed with our rent-a-bike drivers up to the game park.

The trip started off great with some beautiful scenery. However, I was quickly faced with a dilemna. I wasn’t sure where to put my hands. I didn’t want to wrap my arms around this guy….but where do I hold on? I had my fingertips lightly resting on his jacket ( I didn’t think he could even feel me!) but after a little while he swatted my hand away. Oops….must have broken some motorbike etiquette there. My bad. Then I remembered that I’d seen people hold onto a little pole in the back so I leaned back a little bit and grabbed on there. With both hands. Perfect! In hindsight, I think this is where the trouble began.

Since I was holding onto the back, I tended to lean back, putting my weight to the back. I also had a pretty heavy backpack on because the other way Africa tries to kill me every day is through the painfully slow process of dehydration. So we brought a lot of water! Every time we went up a hill my backpack tried to pull me off the back. Abu told me I needed to scoot closer to him. I tried, but if I scooted too forward, I couldn’t hold onto my lifeline at the back.

Then it happened. We started up the hill. It was rocky so Abu (my driver) had to slow way down. Way way down. As we slowed down I started to feel the pull of my backpack try to pull me off the back. And off I went. Right off the back of the motorcycle.....while it was still moving. As I slid off, I’m not sure exactly what happened but the next thing I knew, the motorcycle was on top of me. I don’t think Abu really knew what happened either because it took him a few seconds to turn around and when he did and saw me on the ground with the motorcycle on top of me he said, “Oh $*&#!!!!!” But then just stood there. I laid there long enough for the thought to cross my mind…. “Ok, this motorcycle is kind of heavy….and it’s getting hot!” Then he sprang into action and helped me get it off.
Unfortunately we didn't have the presence of mind to take a picture when it happened, but we did a re-enactment while waiting at the ferry. But he wouldn't actually drop the motorbike on me like in the original.
I felt bad for the guy because he looked just horrified….even though if it was anyone’s fault, it was mine for hanging on the back and having the heavy backpack on. I started laughing and everyone kept asking “are you ok? Are you ok?” I thank God that my friend’s dad made us all wear helmets because I did smack my head on a rock on the way down, but aside from some scratches and a sore back, I’m no worse for the wear. Also, since I didn’t actually get to see how it happened, I only have the mental picture for myself…and I’m cracking myself up on the replay!

After that little drama, our adventure continued and we got to the game park. It was deserted. It was at that moment we thought…hey, we should have called ahead. But alas, no phone service so we couldn’t have even if we’d have thought of it. Eventually somebody found somebody who found somebody who could help us. Since they told us the monkeys had just been there but had left to go eat, we decided to go see the hippos first and come back for the monkeys.

Our hippo hunt meant that two of us went in a canoe with one of the “park rangers” who would take us to where we could find them. They told us we needed to go one guy, one girl but I didn’t come all that way to hang out with my motorbike driver so I told them I wanted to go with my Sierra Leonean friend. They handed me a paddle. Ohhhhhh…THAT’s why it was one guy, one girl. Cause one of us is paddling. No problem. I’ve been in my share of canoes. Granted, never on a river with hippos….but still. So we paddled down, down, down the river. Apparently there was a monkey but I didn’t see it. We kept paddling and paddling, but no hippos. The further down river we went, the more I was thinking “shoot man, we have to go all this way UP the river on the way back.” Eventually, my friend in the other boat made the call to turn back because her boat captain kept saying “they’re running down, down, down” and she said “well why are we chasing them??? Let’s turn around.” So back we went. As we were paddling, I noticed little blood spots on my legs. At first I thought they were from my accident but then realized that I was being bitten. A lot! I was being bitten by these flies that cause elephantiasis (where one appendage (usually the leg) gets REALLY swollen! I am sitting here now and lost count after 55 bites…on one leg. So I guess I did see SOME animals! (Yes mom, I’m taking the medicine to prevent the disease when the pharmacy opens on Wednesday!)

The next group got in the canoes and headed up the river. When my roommate got back she reported that while she hadn’t seen any animals either, she had seen some elephant poop. So that’s something.

We walked around the game park a little, saw the little huts that people can stay in if they want to….but didn’t see any monkeys. And then we decided to call it a day. And nary an animal did we see.
On the way back Abu saw a big snake on the side of the road but didn’t tell me about it until we’d passed it because he didn’t want me to jump and scream and make us both fall off….again.

When we got to the “ferry” and were waiting for it to come across and pick us up, one of the motorbikes started hissing from the tire. They got someone to come look at it and started to fix it on that side but everyone yelled at him to bring it across to the other side. So they hauled it onto the ferry. As we were crossing the ferry (which takes about 10 min. to cross) the mechanic started working on the bike….and dropped a really important piece into the river. Seriously? So when we got back to the other side, the hunt was on to find the right piece so we could go back. When I asked them what plan B was if we couldn’t find the part (keep in mind we’re in the middle of nowhere) they said we were going to put 3 people on the bike. Say what? When my Nigerian friend heard that plan she said, “But we’re all fat! How will we fit??” Abu said, “Yes, that is the problem.” Yes!! Quite a problem!

Fortunately they were able to patch the bike back together and we all made it back in one piece. Although I never did see one animal at the animal game park, it was a really fun trip with some good memories that I’ll have to take back with me when I go home next month. I’m going to miss this place and these people!!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011


Some events have arisen recently, which have highlighted the differences in my culture and the people I live and work with. I was chatting with another American friend the other day and he illustrated it this way. When he arrived in Sierra Leone he was doing some training with his organization before he started working. He was in a classroom with a bunch of ex-pats and Sierra Leoneans. The teacher posed this question to the class. “Picture yourself on a boat in the middle of the ocean. You are there with your mother, your spouse, and your one and only child. The boat starts to sink and you only have the ability to save one person. Who would you choose to save?”

My friend said that in his class the answers from the ex-pats were either spouse or child. Every single Sierra Leonean chose their mother…..because you can get another wife, have more children, but you only have one mother. I was kind of floored.

Since this conversation 2 days ago, I’ve been conducting my own non-scientific experiment by asking all my Sierra Leonean and ex-pat friends the same question. All my ex-pat friends have chosen either their spouse or child…..BUT so have all my Sierra Leonean friends! Interesting. So far, not a single choice for mother (sorry to all the mothers out there….no offense intended).

When my friends tell me their answer, I follow it up with "why? THIS has been the interesting part. I will give you a sampling of the conversations.

Me: “Ok, you’re on a boat….blah blah blah….Who do you choose to save?”
Sierra Leonean friend: “My child.”
Me: “Why?”
SLF: “Well, I only have one child. I need someone to go on after I die and this is my only child. So I will save my child.”

Me: “Ok, on a boat…blah blah blah.”
SLF: (After thinking about it for awhile) “I would save my wife.”
Me: “Why?”
SLF: “Well, she came from somewhere else. From a different family. Her family gave her to me. I am responsible for her. If anything happens to her, her family will be very angry with me.”

Me: “Qustion”
SLF: “I would choose my daughter”
Me: “Why?”
SLF: “My mother is getting old. She will soon be a dependent. My daughter is a dependent right now but I am thinking ahead to when I am old and will need someone to take care of me.”
*We then ended up having about an hour long conversation about how his wife left him for another guy and he tried to get her back for a year but she wouldn’t come back and now she’s not even taking care of their child but has given her to someone else. He ended the conversation by saying that he would probably push his wife out of the boat, even if it wasn’t sinking.

So our answers were mostly the same….but I feel like the reasoning behind the answers showed our cultural differences. Instead of the answers being about taking care of the most vulnerable ones, or the ones we are closest too, my friends’ answers tended more towards survival. This isn’t surprising at all when considering the recent civil war and the survival instincts that that would hone.

Anyway, I’m not sure how good I feel about asking my friends to choose the most important person in their life…..but I did enjoy picking their brain and trying to understand them a little better!

Monday, October 3, 2011

So proud!!! :)

Two days ago I probably had one of my favorite moments since moving to Sierra Leone. A few weeks ago, our doctors returned from their leave in the US. This has been a huge blessing! Since we now have doctors to do the rounds on patients, I’ve been spending some more time working in the peds ward with the junior staff. The junior staff are technically supposed to have the role of a nursing assistant in the States, but since we’re so short staffed, they pretty much act like nurses- giving meds, assessing patients, etc. Unfortunately though, their training has not adequately prepared them for the fire that they’ve been thrown into, so there are lots of teaching opportunities.

One of the areas that I’ve been trying to work on with the staff is assessment- picking out those kids that are really sick. This week it was myself and a junior staff person taking care of 34 kids, so being able to figure out which ones are the really sick ones is really important. Unfortunately I’ve done rounds before and been in the ward for an hour before stumbling upon a kid that was barely breathing—but nobody who had been working in the ward for hours before had bothered to tell anyone. So assessment is key.

I try really really hard not to be preachy, so the way I tend to try to teach is that when I decide to do something (give a certain med, add an extension to the IV etc) I explain to the person I’m working with what I’m doing and why.
Two days ago I was working the evening shift, so that morning I was lounging around, reading. At 8:30am one of the junior staff at the hospital called me at home. The conversation went like this.
Junior Staff: “Emily, I have a child here who is very sick. I checked his blood sugar and it just says “low.” (Note: This made me proud in itself because we’d been practicing taking blood sugars all that week. The quinine that we give the critically ill kids tends to drop the sugar and since they usually haven’t been eating much in a few days when they come in, their blood sugar is often critically low. So the fact that he’d checked it made me really excited!)
Me: “Ok, that means it’s too low for the meter to read. Has the child been breastfeeding?”
JS: I don’t know. The mother has left, said that the child is dead already.
Me: Ok, does the kid have an IV?
JS: Yes.
Me: Ok, we want to give some D50 through his IV. Do you know where it is?
JS: Yes, I’m looking at the D50 right now, I just don’t know what to do with it.
Me: Ok, give him 5ml’s of the D50 and then check his blood sugar again in 15 minutes.
15 min later he called me back

JS: Emily, the blood sugar is now 101.
Me: That’s good! Ok, check it again in 30 minutes.

About 30 minutes later I went down to the hospital to check on the kiddo myself. When I went to the bed, the kid was wide awake and was eating. I went and got the junior staff and clarified, “Is this the kid you called me about?” He was beaming. Yup, that’s the one. I jumped up and down and gave him a HUGE hug and said, DUDE (I really said his name) YOU SAVED THIS KID’S LIFE!!! He got a huge smile on his face and just nodded.

I found out later that the child’s father came back a couple hours later and asked for the child’s body. The Junior Staff said, “Look, there is your child in the bed.” The father had already gone and dug the grave and prepared everything for the funeral. The junior staffer started explaining all about how the blood sugar works, etc. Not sure if the father understood but he got a lesson anyway. J Love it!