Sunday, 28 December 2014

An Alternative Christmas

At about 4pm on Christmas Eve wherever you are in the world it seems there is always some element of desperation to leave work on time/early, the last-minute dash to the shops and frustrating traffic jams. For a few of us at Connaught this process was interrupted by a phone-call from the group that had already made it to the beach the day before warning us that we may have difficulties. There were soldiers on the beach warning them that there would be military personnel on the beach to enforce no swimming or use of the beach on Christmas Day and that there would be absolutely no travel allowed out of Freetown on Christmas Day.

Since I was fortunate enough to be in the group due to be leaving on Christmas Eve and returning on Boxing day we chose to risk it and set off for the beach in the afternoon via the supermarket for that all important ‘dash’. We were stopped at a number of check-points along the new Chinese-built super highway to Burreh Beach but had no trouble passing through them as we were ushered along with chirpy “Compliments of the Season”, the Sileonian equivalent of “Happy Christmas”.

And oh my goodness was it worth the ‘risk’. A beautiful white-sandy picture-perfect expansive beach. We were staying in little huts (well actually I was camping, why not make it an even more alternative Christmas?!) right on the beach, nestled in amongst the bustle of Burreh village and next door to the Sierra Leone’s first surf club. Unfortunately, the swell was less than 1 foot high so no actual surfing took place! Instead, Christmas Day for me entailed a 3 or 4 mile run barefoot along the beach, followed by a dip in the bath-like clear warm sea, omelette and coffee for breakfast and then present opening courtesy of guess who? My wonderful Mum for a little pack of goodies including yet more Christmas yummy-things for my colleagues, she’s getting quite a reputation! There was not a hint of military presence on the beach all day and another car load of volunteers arrived in the afternoon having worked the morning shift in the unit – they had no troubles getting through the road blocks either.

After being here nearly two weeks without a day off (completely self-inflicted as I went on a general medical ward round with Dr Terry on my day off!) I was more than ready for this break. It certainly felt like we were a world away from the stresses of the ebola epidemic and daily challenges at the hospital. And yet, I was also very aware that we were the privileged few that could leave all that behind and comfortably turn our backs on the situation for a day or two. Even taking the risk of meeting resistance at the road blocks or the potential of defying the police presence by going to the beach sat uncomfortably with a few of us. We felt like we were taking the luxury to celebrate Christmas when others had no opportunity to do this. As a dear friend of mine wrote to me in an email this week... "isn't the world a strange place, where you can have such beauty and enjoyment in close proximity to such suffering." Too true.

On the way back in the evening of Boxing Day, feeling refreshed and happily sleepy from maybe a little too much sun and fresh air, the polluted stench of Freetown hits you a hundred times worse than you’re expecting. Overwhelming rancid fumes of exhausts mixed with burning plastic, as my housemate Katie puts it, simply ‘the smell of poverty’.  At a roadblock just entering the outskirts of Freetown we all had our temperature taken by some guy in a grubby t-shirt who definitely didn’t know what he was doing. They use these infra-red thermometers which are a bit like a plastic gun, that you hold at your temple at a distance of 5-6cm to get an accurate reading. This guy half-heartedly leaned across the driver to point it vaguely at Pete who was sat in the passenger seat at a distance of maybe 50cm and told him his temperature was 30 deg C. He then directed it towards me, a bit closer, and told me my temp was 34 deg C. He obviously had no idea what he was doing and certainly didn’t know the range of a normal temperature. Frustrated, I started to teach him how to use this thermometer, but he shrugged his shoulders and claimed ‘but it’s quicker like this’. Oh dear, where to start?!

If you haven't already seen it, tune in to Channel 4od to watch friend and colleague, Will Pooley's Alternative Christmas Message for a few scenes from Connaught Hospital. 

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