Most people were happy to see us. One or two of the ladies would shout at me to not take photos but most wanted to pose and see the results in the viewfinder. One or two people wanted to shake my hands but as soon as they did they withdrew their grip immediately and said “ooooh – smooth hands”. It happened a number of times. Yes, compared to the hard calloused fingers and palms, my pussy little hands were like silk to these people. I admit – apart from a little gardening and the odd piece of restorative DIY, I never do manual work. All I have to show for hard graft is the RSI that I have from years of typing at a computer. They laughed and giggled and guffawed at me. I took it in good heart but it was a good example of the rift between these hard working people collecting raw material and using hand tools at the end of a supply chain and my internet and interconnected life where my skills are passed through my fingertips to machinery. Not even machinery; digital electronic symbols.
Jan had a chat to some of the village elders, apologising for not bringing the photos he promised, and we started to head back to the vehicle. We left them behind collecting new wood and busily making their fuel in the hot steamy sunlight. When the Ebola crisis emerged, it was this isolated village that my thoughts turned to first; how many were affected, how long was it before anyone from outside realised they might be ill or dead. How many survived. I’m sure many did. Despite the uncertainty of this disease, I’d seen in the countryside around Freetown how resourceful and hard working people can be, how they had already survived years of abuse, civil war and poverty, and I am sure they would have found a way to deal with these new challenges.
I’ve yet to mention the horror of Ebola that hit Sierra Leone about a year after my last visit. Through all the deaths, the scares, the inhuman but essential ways to isolate, treat and reintroduce people in the community, it did cause a wholesale change in attitudes to hygiene in the country and I hope that so many unsanitary practices, including open air defecation, have at last been eradicated from the culture of Sierra Leone.
Many times over the last few years I have thought of all the people I met in Freetown and the villages around, and those areas in the north where I worked. I wonder how many are still alive since Ebola struck, what stories they have about their families and friends. How many lost their livelihoods, or have been made pariahs in their own communities. Sierra Leone, along with Guinea and Liberia, have been through the most traumatic of epidemics; a silent killer that goes against logic. It shook up traditional practices. Many in Sierra Leone ensure that a dead relative is bathed and given a fond farewell in a ceremony where family and friends kiss the body. But Ebola unlike many diseases remains active in dead tissue and can easily be transferred to a huge number of people at a funeral in this way.
The final village that Jan and I visited that day is another one I feel must have been so vulnerable to Ebola. We ended up by the same river as the collapsed bridge but we had travelled up the old railway several kilometres before finding a track which managed to cross the swamp to the next little peninsula of dry land, and then drive back south to reach this remote community. The road was narrow and full of deep potholes. Jan said it would be completely impassable in the wet season. It was damn near impassable at the height of the dry season. Several times I thought the ruts in the road would swallow up the axle. We passed through several areas of low lying ground saturated in water. The word swamp has so many bad connotations but during a dry season in Africa, the presence of any standing water and all the lush green vegetation that goes with it is a sight beholden. We stopped off at a couple of places and observed waders stalking through the lilies, smaller birds zipping in and out of the undergrowth, and the loud plops as fish broke the surface to entrap the odd fly.