'How di bodi?' - Welcome to Freetown

MaryBeth McKenzie is an information officer for the Candian office of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), currently visiting the MSF projects in Sierra Leone. These accounts are from her journal reports of her experiences in the field.

Freetown Sierra Leone, West Africa 'Welcome', is how I am constantly greeted by the people of Sierra Leone. After seven shots for various tropical diseases, two travel visas and 18 hours in transit that have included cars, trains, planes and a helicopter; I have arrived in Freetown. The flight in brought me over the many backwaters between Guinea and Sierra Leone. From a few hundred feet in the air, the entire world seemed to be made of green plants, trees and water. When I looked to the west, I saw the never ending Atlantic. The sun was brilliant and direct, being so close to the equator. My team mate (from Holland) and I were met by Abraham, part of the local MSF team, upon landing early morning this morning. At the MSF office - a converted house in Aberdeen - I met members of the MSF expatriate team, comprised of people from Europe, North America and Africa and the Sierra Leonese team. Everyone is nice and the Sierra Leonese staff are the warmest people I have ever met. I feel very welcome. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) considers Freetown a post-conflict capital city and Sierra Leone, is still viewed as a country in conflict. Security of all team members is of utmost importance. Immediately upon my arrival at the MSF office, I received a security briefing that included radio use, curfew, where I am permitted to go in Freetown and plans for my evacuation - should it be necessary. As well, I was informed about keeping doors locked and checking in with the MSF office to inform them of my whereabouts at all times. The offices and houses in Freetown are walled in, with broken glass bottles or even barbed wire embedded atop the walls. Since the uprising, looting has been a problem as many, many people have few means to restart their lives. For me, the number of locks, security guards and restriction in movement is difficult. For someone from Toronto, who is used to moving about almost without worry, the entire scenario of locks, radios, security guards and curfews makes me feel a little like a prisoner. Freetown is squeezed between the Atlantic ocean in the east and large hills in the west. The city is congested, polluted and dirty. Red dust is everywhere. Today the temperature reached almost 40°C plus humidity - an environment shock for this Canadian who left Toronto as spring was just beginning. Street life is amazing - WOW!!! Immensely crowed, narrow streets filled with people selling everything from towels to chewing gum to newspapers - right in the middle of the road to the few cars passing by. There are many roadside stalls, constructed from iron sheeting, cardboard, discarded wood - anything - and they sell anything from food, shoes, clothes to hubcaps. You constantly hear Creole as the language of choice. Despite the appearance that Freetown is open for business, the vast majority of people are extremely poor - in fact the poorest I have every seen. As I passed through certain parts of town, especially the western area, - the epicentre of the conflict, children were wearing only ragged underwear for clothing. And, although not exactly starving, people are very thin. I was told that, since the invasion of last year, the people of Freetown have not had a large variety of food. Most eat rice with potato or cassava leaves as their staple food. Nor are they able to purchase extra food. A 50kg bag of rice costs one third of a decent, monthly full-time salary. There are some signs of life getting back to 'normal'. Part of a main road downtown is being expanded due to increased vehicle traffic. In the Eastern part of the town - there are many buildings filled with bullet shots or that have been burnt down. Construction is, however, underway and many buildings are being repaired and rehabilitated. Overall, the greatest first impression I have is of the people of Freetown. People are so, extraordinarily friendly, with big, open, incredible, genuine smiles. And when I think of the atrocities that happened in Freetown only one year ago - these people seem all the stronger and more strong, resilient. I am blown away. As I mentioned earlier, the heat was incredible when I arrived with temperatures topping 40°C. They told me later that March 23 and 24 are often the hottest days of the year. Reggae is hugely popular here. I have already heard Bob Marley's Legend album ... in its entirety ... twice. When I slept that night, one of my feet escaped the security of the mosquito net and now I have nine beautiful, plump new bites. Malaria medication is very yucky. Vultures fly overhead. There are lizards and gekos throughout the city. Large black ones with red tails and they stare at you moving their heads up ad down. You see mango tress here the size of old chestnut trees. There are some advantages to being in a city with not much electricity. You get to see the stars at night.