Ebola Response

Much to my joy, I found myself in Dakar again for some training on Donor Relations last week. I arrived at the weekend so I had a chance to enjoy the freedom to walk around and explore the city, eat out at restaurants, sleep in a comfy bed with air conditioning and a duvet and go for a run along the seafront! I am a keen runner but since being in Guinea I have managed one run and I will not repeat it. I had to concentrate on not spraining my ankle or being hit by a car whilst stopping dust getting in my eyes, and on top of that breathing in the car fumes, I think it probably did more harm than good.

The training bought together 25 colleagues from offices around West Africa. There were colleagues from Sierra Leone and Liberia too and twice a day, as per usual, we were taken out of the class to have our temperature taken. On the first day, when everyone shook hands to introduce themselves, the three of us didn’t.

People wanted to know what it is like working for WFP in the Ebola affected countries and it made me aware of how quickly you can get used to a routine, because having your temperature checked and washing your hands with chlorine up to 4 times a day isn’t the most normal of routines! My colleague here was refused entry into a shop because her temperature was 38 degrees. We walked around a bit, came back and it was down to 37 so they let us in. But what I had to clear up was that we do not see people dying in the street or bodies left by terrified families. Even though one of the Ebola treatment centres is a stone’s throw from the office in Conakry, the city doesn’t look like it’s been taken over by a terrifying and deadly epidemic. Life goes on as it must, with kids running in and out of cars and motorcycles, teenagers holding up traffic by playing football in the road, men talking on street corners and women washing clothes and peeling potatoes outside their house.

I was interested in how their office works, how do they get to work, do they have power cuts and running water, can they take a taxi, and whether they have supermarkets and what they eat! I have to admit I have been absorbed by news only related to Ebola and what the training bought back home was that there are so many other crises in the world and so many countries in need…

It is mid December (and I haven’t heard one Christmas song!) I remember when I arrived, I wondered how I would find the energy to stay here. It’s been such a roller-coaster of emotions and although time has gone quickly, three months in an emergency has felt a lot longer than in normal life. It has felt a bit like a sink-or-swim situation and I have been sleep deprived (I say as I am writing this at 4:30am on a saturday morning) and snappy at family at home. Sorry Dad! It has been emotionally and physically exhausting but believe me I have laughed a lot. Every day brings new stories to tell and new memories that I will carry for years to come.

I have met so many incredible people from all over the world and from all backgrounds. My colleagues are so dedicated, working late in to the evenings and throughout the weekend. The national staff are always smiling and have been welcoming to the influx of new staff. The bonds that are formed working together in intense situations are very powerful and I believe these friendships I have formed will be long lasting. I am inspired by their determination, ingenuity and resourcefulness and I count myself very lucky to experience working with WFP here.

And December also marks a year since the first case of Ebola was recorded in Guinea. No caring for the ill and no handling of the dead, Ebola is a disease that destroys people’s ability to be human.

I feel more optimistic than when I arrived in September with things getting under control but there is still a lot of work to be done. I will return to Guinea in the new year and hope that when the time comes for me to leave, the situation will only be better. And to end on a quote from one of my favourite films, Shawshank Redemption, “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

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Mission to Forest Guinea

After my trip to the field, I will admit that I was looking forward to coming back to Conakry. As beautiful as Forest Guinea is, it was challenging not to have running water and clean sheets. But I am very glad that I went. It was interesting and necessary to put everything into perspective.

I was accompanying a cameraman, Leo, who was contracted by WFP to take some photo and video footage of WFP activities in the three most affected countries, Guinea was his last mission. A very interesting guy, who has lived all over the world and worked as a foreign correspondent for two years in Baghdad. He was really good fun and easy going so he was a good companion in the field.

It started with boarding the 19 seater aircraft (managed by WFP) where we had to be weighed beforehand. The flight took an hour and a half and I realised just as I sat down that I hadn’t kissed the plane (something Granny does for good luck which I now have to do every time I fly) so I was sitting ridged for the whole journey. Actually, it was a surprisingly smooth flight. We had to wear face masks, which was quite a funny image. Not that Ebola is airborne, but it is just to cover all measures for any other airborne diseases. It was incredible to see the dense forest of palm trees as we came to land.

First we went to the WFP sub office (there are 5 in total in Guinea) and met some of the field staff who work endless hours, every day of the week and are still full of spirit. We attended a distribution to a quarantine village which provided enough food to feed 40 people. I felt uncomfortable wearing plastic gloves and a face mask, as if I was judging the village and stigmatising them but they are protection measures that have to be taken. Saying that, no one was judging me and everyone was smiley and friendly and wanted their photo taken. It was encouraging to see some families wash their hands with chlorine before collecting their rations. Leo interviewed the Chief of the village who cried as he explained he had lost four children. It started to all feel very real.

The following day we visited the final construction of the first WFP built Treatment Centre (of which there will be four in total) which will eventually be run by the NGO Alima. It truly is amazing how it has been built in the middle of nowhere,  how all the material has arrived there, how the workers keep going in the heat and it has only taken a month. This time it felt very surreal, as if I were walking around in a film set. It became operational on Saturday and will eventually have 100 beds.

We then hit the road again for a two hour drive to another treatment centre run by MSF. We saw the food being prepared. WFP provides three hot meals a day to the patients in the treatment centres, as well as to their families and contact cases. The meals consist of liquid foods, such as rice with sauce and porridge. Afterwards we visited the orphanage next door. It was too difficult, I think the saddest I’ve ever felt. I didn’t want the children to see me upset. I won’t forget the image of baby Marie and it breaks my heart thinking about her. She had lost all her family to Ebola. But the children are being well looked after, by wonderful doctors who cuddled and fed them and the area was colourful and full of toys and what is most important is that they are not forgotten.

We were then back on the road for another four hours to Gueckedou, what we decided felt like the end of the world. This is when the road condition started to get really bad. The first half hour I found it funny and by the end I almost wanted to cry. When you step out of the car you feel like you’ve just completed a marathon bike ride. Your shoulders and legs ached so much, bruised from hitting the side of the car! But the whole way I was fixated out the window, at the beautiful dense forest (tried to spot monkeys!) and everyone waving and smiling at the car.

It was in Gueckedou where the first outbreak was discovered. It’s not a very big  town. WFP have another office here, set up in response of Ebola as well as a guest house, which is where we stayed. Very basic with no electricity and a two day bucket supply of water. Chickens roamed around scratching in piles of rubbish, everywhere you looked there were goats with plastic caught on their hooves, up to four people packed on motorbikes with babies squashed in between, children tugging empty cans of sardines along on string or makeshift kites out of plastic bags, lots of smiling and curious faces, and funny english slogan t-shirts and ski jackets!

Leo had a drone which was fun and we took it out to the forest. It looks like a space ship and some kids were hiding in a bush watching us. They must have been so curious! When I tried to approach them they ran away. We went through a village where they were not sure about the white vehicle. At least three people ran away from us, dropping their buckets and hid in the bush. It’s a real worry because this resistance is still a big problem. There are still many who believe that is is a manmade disease and a rumour spread that WFP food is poisonous. Leo was surprised to see that Conakry, and most of the forest region (south east) is still busy and bustling. Markets are still taking place and restaurants and bars are still open. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, he felt everywhere was deserted.

One thing I have to mention is the cooked ground that they were selling at the market. Apparently pregnant women crave it!

I have seen a christmas tree in the hotel, but I couldn’t feel further away from Christmas! I will start to play Christmas songs in the office this week.

Une semaine au Senegal

I am so grateful for my week off in Senegal. Dakar was a really great city with so much to explore, I loved it.

I took the UN plane which I was quite excited about. It’s managed by WFP and is based in Conakry and flies 15 times a week between Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. There were only three of us and it started moving before I did up my seatbelt! The most efficient plane journey I think I will ever take. Once we landed in Dakar, at the French Military base, we were screened by people dressed in their PPE kits and then that was it, I was allowed to go free! After that, there was nothing to do with Ebola in Senegal, no billboards along the road or no hand gel at every entrance. When I was asked where I came from, my response depended on who it was. If it was someone I wanted to get rid of quickly, I would say Guinea and they would step back or make a joke about not coming near me. In fact one maid in a hotel cowered in the corner of my room. Another taxi man asked how one catches the virus, so there is still work to be done.

Unfortunately, I have to say one thing very exhausting about Dakar was that people in the street did not leave you alone, even if I did use the Guinea trick. They were constantly trying to sell me something (no I don’t need a colander, a wall clock or a box of tissues) or try and lead you somewhere. Even if you ignore them, they will continue to walk along beside you. Apart from that, it was so nice to walk around freely. There were even zebra crossings and bins on the pavements! It felt strange shaking people’s hands, getting in a taxi and not having to rise my hands in a murky bucket of chlorine.

I spent my first full day walking around getting lost in Dakar. A city where elegance meets chaos, noise, vibrant markets and glittering nightlife. You come across stalls selling bright fabrics next to modern fashion shops, french patisseries and coffee shops.

The next day I took a taxi to a town called Saly which was about an hour and half drive through barren land, so dusty and dry it made you thirsty just looking out the window. Horses and carts rolled alongside these huge ancient Baobab trees (a wide trunk with spindly branches). Saly is a seaside resort so it really felt like a holiday. The sea was so calm and clean and warm. I went from my bed to sun bed to the sea for two days, it was lovely! But people still come up to you on your sun bed and sit at your feet, trying to sell you the same shell bracelets and necklaces. And a chopping board, which he insisted I needed. I had to put earphones in and sunglasses and hide behind my book. It wasn’t very busy with tourists as it’s just the start of the season. I then headed back to Dakar for the next four days and stayed in a lovely hotel on the sea, which had a monkey and pelican as residents! I had a balcony that looked on to the sea and I slept with the doors wide open listening to the waves. There was an island not far out which on the first day I took a pirogue (a long skinny wooden boat) packed so full of people, we almost sunk. So the next time I swam (25 minutes) which was a bit choppy and I saw a fish that looked like a snake with a shark fin?! Never have I swam so fast. The island had a small population, lots of beautiful holiday houses and beachy restaurants. Life felt slow and lazy and time stopped.

I had a friend join me for the last 4 days so it was nice to share the holiday. We took a boat to the island of Goree (UNESCO) and spent the day there, visiting the Maison des Esclaves. From the 15th to the 19th century it was the largest slave-trading centre on the African coast. It’s rich in history and is probably the area’s favourite and most famous tourist attraction, every colour of bougainvillaea flooded the island.

I think you could have a very nice life living in Dakar. The climate is lovely and you have stunning houses, no power cuts, a good supermarket. I’ve been told it is like the Paris of West Africa!

So back to Conakry. When I arrived, three macho men with tattoos and shaved heads were sitting in my office, one from Belfast, one from Essex and the other from Northumberland! (there is a tendency to hot desk in the office because there’s not enough space) Their profession is a bodyguard. They are hilarious and it’s been a nice distraction in the office. They were telling me stories of working for Paris Hilton, in Iraq and Afghanistan (both of which were easier than working with Paris Hilton), being placed in jail in Iran.. Five of us in an office that’s meant for two! But they are really nice. You will be asking what they are doing here! As well as bodyguards and ex-army, they are medics and are here as health advisors. When they saw I wasn’t feeling well they tested me for Malaria (but it was just some dodgy fish I ate) so I am in good hands!

I’m missing home a lot a lot a lot! I would love for it to be cold enough to wear a coat and gloves!!!

Love and kisses from a fever free 36.8°

Diary from Conakry

I have finished a whole jar of vitamins! This is how I’ve been counting down the days so it’s a real sense of achievement today! Saying that time is now going quickly. I still feel like a newbie but many international staff who arrived with me have already left (because they come on temporary assignments) and with new people coming every other day, I should feel well established.

The other week, I attended the opening ceremony of a Transit Centre just outside of Conakry. (Transit centres are put in place to help reduce the risk of contamination. As soon as someone feels ill, they can go there to be ‘quarantined’, if Ebola is confirmed then they will be sent to the nearest treatment centre, which could be two hours drive away. With terrible road conditions. So a transit centre is an intermediate area and they will be building 16 around Guinea and 9 actual Treatment centres each having a capacity of 100 beds) WFP’s role is to provide hot meals to patients and their families and to build the centres, because WFP has a huge logistic capacity too.

It was so nice to get OUT of Conakry. It took us 3 hours drive and once out of the traffic, the route was really beautiful, and I felt that maybe I could like Guinea. There is an abundance of resources here. Paddy fields, lakes, mountains!, green, lots of green, and small huts with straw roofs dotted along the side of the road. I was feeling so tired but there was no chance of having a nap as every 3 minutes you hit your head on the window because of the holes in the road. And every 30 seconds, the driver hoots his horn at a person walking by, or a goat, a chicken. A bit unnecessary.

We arrived at the town hall where they had arranged a ceremony for the opening of the centre. There must have been about 300 people inside this hall. And I was stuck between two bands who continued to play different music. I tried not to laugh at the organisation, but it was really so funny. When someone was giving a speech, another person would be waving at him to stop / or mouthing something incomprehensible, and people did not know what to do next. They were talking in Susu, one of the 4 local dialects here, so I couldn’t understand. It was so boring and I was so hot. Fortunately a kind man saw my suffering and tore off some cardboard for me to use as a fan. The camera men would approach you and film you for 15 seconds which was really awkward, especially because I could feel sweat trickling down my forehead.

When it finally finished, we walked out and the 30 degrees c hit us like fresh air. We went on to visit the transit centre, which was not yet operational. But they had everything in place and we had to get our feet sprayed with chlorine before entering. They showed us the rooms equipped with plastic mattresses and buckets and they demonstrated how to take off the PPE kit. It felt eery walking around, as if it was a prison camp.

In other news, I realise that Aja, our house keeper can only cook 2 dishes, oily meat or oily fish with rice. Both taste very nice but I don’t want to know how much oil she uses. The avocados are huge here and such good pinapples and papayas. But it doesn’t last long, even if we put it in the fridge which defrosts during the day when the power is switched off. I am used to walking in puddles in the kitchen.

The highlight of my week is getting the washing machine fixed. Yes, I haven’t been able to do a wash for SEVEN WEEKS. I tried hand washing but it was a disaster. So a washing machine has bought much joy! And also I spotted someone cleaning the pool so I have been trying to go swimming although I won’t put my face under.

Yesterday I went to the airport to take some photos of an Antonov 124 , the second largest plane in the world, land in Conakry. It was bringing 50 tonnes of WFP cargo – tents and generators as well as a UN van. Considering the fact the runway got struck by lightening last week forming a huge hole in the surface (I’m not leaving here until we are 100% out of lightening season!)  it was quite impressive to see this gigantic plane land at little Conakry airport. But what was so bizarre was when the back lowered the Russian crew, about 8 of them, stepped out in their PPE kits like a space ship! Gloves, boots, googles everything. After the unloading of the 5 containers, they hosed down the boot of the plane  and took off their kits, making sure not to step on the runway, leaving it in a bin bag which they left on the runway. And it took half an hour for the aircraft to leave because the crew refused to take the bin bag with them out for health and safety reasons, and the airport refused to dispose of it out of pride! So my colleague collected it and we had to bring it back with us.

Rachel, who I share my flat with, is the most inspirational lady I have and will ever meet. I’ve told her that she must write a book which she says she will when she retires in a couple of years. She has lived through two wars, a famine, extreme poverty and across 6 countries. She was sponsored to study nutrition in Cairo where she received her diploma in her mid 30s and last week she had her promotional interview at WFP to get to L4, the same level as Luca as a country director  🙂 we’ve started doing water aerobics after work. She wears a swimming cap over her braids which she ties in a topknot. She really makes me laugh and we have the same sense of humour.

Daily Routine

Bonjour!

I have made it to 5 weeks here… it does feel like a lifetime. This city is hard to like! I thought that you might like to know what I am up to day to day here and a bit about my role with WFP.

After a night’s distributed sleep of generators buzzing, dogs barking, the morning prayer from the Mosque (Guinea is 85% Muslim) and the cockerel, I wake up at 6:30. I take breakfast at home, (bread and jam, fruit) whilst we watch the BBC World News then I walk to the office which takes about 10 minutes, jumping over open drains and puddles.

I quickly check through emails before our daily meeting at 8:30 which is for the key members (and then me!) in the Ebola Response. There are about 15 of us plus an extra person every week; security, health advisor, HR, finance, logistics, airport staff… we go around and say our key priorities for the week/day. On Monday by noon I have to get the internal and external situation report out to the West Africa Regional Office (based in Senegal, Dakar) which means rounding up all the information, it’s about 5 pages long. I normally start on a Sunday evening.

The rest of the week I have to give regular updates to UNMEER (United Nations Mission for the Emergency Ebola Response), write media messages (an outline of our activities for the week, how much food we’ve distributed, if there are any new treatment centres opening), donor relations, which involves meeting with our donors (Japan, China, USAID, World Bank) and discussing what visibility they would like for example having their flag printed on a bag of rice. I have to go to the airport and the port to take photos of cargo arriving. In between that, I have to keep our fact sheet updated, check on the order for new signs/ vehicle stickers/ flags and other visibility material. I’m always chasing people, it’s quite testing on your patience! I had asked a driver to deliver some flags urgently, making it very clear about when they had to go and who to. The next day the box was by the door and he was looking at me blankly… it’s the second time it’s happened…my french isn’t that bad! What I’m finding interesting is the amount of new staff we employ, there is no time to invest in training so do you deploy experts who come and go, or find local staff who you must babysit but won’t it be better in the longterm? It’s a conundrum. There’s not enough time in the day. There’s always something to do and I tend to not leave the office until about 7ish. For lunch it is either rice with fish or a baguette.

I’m now settled in my apartment and have taped up all the holes to stop cockroaches entering (Argh! Thanks Dad for packing duck-tape for me). I have also set up a local bank account. To do this they asked where I lived (next to Bar Loft) where I work (next to supermarche bobo) and the names of my parents. There are no address here. I then had to sign my signature two times identically. When I went back to the bank last week to collect my cheque book I had to sign and my signature didn’t match up so they made me tipex it out and re-do it!

Another experience was going to a market. It was so hot and busy and colourful. You could buy anything there. I came back with a curtain pole which is just what I needed. Lots of cats running in and out of the stalls, jumping on the smoked fish, and babies sleeping on the tables, and on top of bowls of fruit, their eyes half open because of the heat. I’m not sure I will go back soon. It’s difficult for us to buy food during the week because of work so we send our house keeper to a local market, which means it’s a lot cheaper, as they of course put up the prices for us.

Last weekend, we walked across the beach, passing piles of rubbish, and kids playing football (everywhere you go they are playing football) and people jogging with such funny arm gestures, such as running with two dead arms by their sides! Or running with one arm in the air. A lot of footy teams are doing exercise along the road but the drivers are so erratic I don’t feel brave enough to run, plus I think it might do more harm running with the car fumes. We found a ‘beach bar’ and watched the sun set and a distant storm. They were playing some nice African music and then this man approached everyone with a little banjo singing a terrible jingle right in your ear, and he only went away when you gave him money! I though this was a clever idea, I think he earned quite a bit. Apart from the fact the sewage was running past us into the sea… it was good to be out of the office/ apartment bubble. It’s not really a good idea to take a taxi so it limits us an awful lot. We have drivers at work but we can’t use them at the weekend.

Hope that gives you a bit more of an idea of life here in Conakry! 2 more weeks and counting and I get a week of rest in Senegal, I can’t wait.

Three Weeks in Guinea!

Hullo from Guinea!

It has been an interesting 3 weeks. I feel like I’ve learnt a lot and the fact that everything is in acronyms and most of my written work is in French it’s definitely putting my brain to good use!

Before the Ebola outbreak, WFP here in Guinea was a small office and didn’t have much outside attention from donors. However since September, the office has almost doubled in size with international staff as well as national staff. There are now 150 staff altogether, and not much additional office space! There are 20 international staff, and more to come, working on the ebola Emergency Operation (EMOP). These WFP staff are deployed from all over the world at last minute to come and work in emergencies so they have a lot of experience and have seen all sorts. This emergency is different to anything though because it’s invisible, it’s not like there is a natural disaster or we are in a war torn country. It’s new for everyone which is why it is posing such a challenge.

In terms of Ebola in Conakry, people are still going about their normal day. I’m more focused on not getting hit by a falling coconut or falling down a drain. It was everyone’s own decision to come here but there are some people who are more paranoid than others, of which I try to not spend too much time with.

We are now having our temperature taken on entering and leaving the office by this plastic looking gun which they aim at your forehead. My colleague’s temperature was 32 degrees by which the security guards nodded that this was absolutely fine. We tried to explain that this is not normal and she would be a snowman by the end of the day. We have got a health advisor on board who is really good, although he doesn’t speak French so that’s a bit tricky.

It is just coming to the end of rainy season and the tropical storms only seem to occur at night which in a way is quite nice because it blocks out all the noise from the streets and turns it into a blackout. But it’s also quite scary. The other night I woke up in such a fright because of the lightening and thunder, I jumped out of bed to pull out all the plugs, even though there was already a power cut.

I am finally moving into an apartment, on the third floor in a block of flats. It has a balcony that looks over the (rubbish strewn) sea and a shared pool that looks very murky. I’m living with Rachel from south Sudan, she is a nutritionist in her late 40s. The apartment wasn’t furnished so we had to buy everything, even a cooker, fridge and bed etc. Rent and supermarkets are expensive here, the same price you would expect to pay in Europe, which continues to surprise me. You can order a big plate of rice and fish for 1euro, and that’s about all I eat at the moment. Rice, bread and miniature bananas.

The currency here is very funny. There are no coins. And each note is worth 50p. So when you go to do a shop that costs £40, that’s a stack of 80 notes. And rent, which you have to pay 3 months in advance, that’s a whole rucksack of money!

Anyway, it was lucky that we found someone who was leaving so we bought all the furniture in one go, but we had to get it from their flat to ours. I can’t tell you how they piled up this pick up truck and the bumps and holes that we went over on the road, I couldn’t believe nothing fell off! And someone was sitting on top of it all.

It’s really hot and I don’t know how everyone manages to look good in the office. My hair is not coping so I’ve given up altogether trying to control it.

Last weekend we took a boat to the islands, which was amazing. You just completely forget where you are, the peace and the view of blue water. There are wild dolphins! It makes it worth it because it’s quite testing living here, even though there’s potential, I just feel there’s no hope. People do live on the islands, not many.  There’s still rubbish on the beach but not as much as here in Conakry. And the green trees make it look so tropical. I think that will be the plan for most Sundays as there really is nothing, and I mean NOTHING to do here in Conakry. I’ve been to all the restaurants that are acceptable to eat in. We went to a funny bar which consisted of plastic chairs in a line in the dark under a canopy, and I got eaten alive by mosquitos. The thing is we’re not advised to take taxis which is fine by me as there are no road rules. One hour the road will be one way and then next it will be a two way. Undertake, overtake, the rules are up to you! There are so many cars, the traffic is horrendous. Where are people going??

But travelling in a car is when you get to see all the side streets. Children playing football everywhere. Schools are still closed because of Ebola. Women washing, sewing or peeling vegetables outside their house, which look like garden sheds with a tin roof and grills for windows. Everyone has a TV, because they have nothing else to do… Girls having their hair braided and men hanging around chatting. It’s all very open and friendly.

The people in the office are really nice. They are so friendly and they have such interesting backgrounds. And the people in the streets are friendly too, everyone says hello and they’re not interested in you that much, except the kids who run up and help you with your bags. They were so grateful when I gave them the only note I had, the equivalent of 50p to share between 4…. moments like that are special.

Me. Hello!

Originally from the UK, I moved to Guinea, Conakry in September 2014 to work for The World Food Programme during the Ebola Response. An experience that is changing my world view and that will live with me forever. I’d like to share what it is like to be on the ground.

I studied languages at Nottingham University which got me interested in travel and different cultures. This is my first time in Africa!

The United Nations World Food Programme is the largest humanitarian agency fighting global hunger. I work as a Reports Officer, helping ensure operational information on WFP’s activities flows both internally and externally.