Lonely Fake Handshakes, Sierra Leone Part 3

In Humanitarian Response, Sierra Leone, Travel on April 16, 2015 at 2:17 pm

17 February 2015 3:15 Freetown, Sierra Leone

I got here very early on Sunday. Before I came, I was advised to get out of the airport quickly and on to the water taxi. The Ebola screening wasn’t too bad. I had to fill out a form from the World Health Organization asking if I’d had any of the key symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, bleeding, fever, etc. Everyone has to wash their hands before they would let us in the airport. The visa was easy: I presented my letter and I got my passport stamped. The airport is pretty nice, recently renovated, way better than Juba or Bangui, for example.

The Freetown airport is an old British military base, to drive from the airport to downtown Freetown would be a 3–4 hour drive, I’m told. So the best way to get to the airport is by water taxi. It was a speedboat with about 15-20 spots on it. It took a long time, and it wasn’t a particularly picturesque ride since it was still before dawn with almost no moonlight. The only lights were the distant coastal lights of Freetown and the random boats in the bay. The distance was huge. In my NGO’s office, we’re up on a hill and I can see that the bay is comparable to Monterey Bay in size. So it would be like landing in Santa Cruz and taking a ferry to Monterey (which would be awesome, by the way, someone should start that service, I’d totally take it).

Everywhere I go, I have to wash my hands. Before I entered the office here, I got my temperature taken. It’s in Celsius, so I have to be 37º or below to not raise the alarm. They keep reading me at about 35º. Maybe I’m cold-blooded, or all their thermometers are under-calibrated to reduce the risk of quarantines. I’m not shaking anyone’s hands, people have varying mechanisms to display that they would shake. The Country Rep for my NGO had the best, where he just touched his heart and nodded in my direction. I’ll do that one, I think. I’m here to hire a lot of people. So far we’re setting up interviews. I expect I’ll be doing that handshake substitute a lot.

21 February 2015, 12:30pm

Freetown, Sierra Leone, from a colleague’s house

I left my hotel on Thursday, a colleague generously is letting me crash at his place. It’ll save my NGO some cash and I think we both like the company. It’s bittersweet for a lot of international staff here. Until the Ebola pandemic crisis, this was an accompanied post, that is, most international staff were here with their families.  I can see why my colleague offered for me to stay with him: he had lived here with his family for 3 years, and they only left last June for home leave, but never came back, staying with his family in New England. So here he is, in his family’s house, with the vestiges of a family life but a very empty nest – a lonely spot. A few of my other colleagues have the same situation. And not just the loneliness and empty houses. This used to be a place where you could hang out at the beach, go on day trips, sail. Now movement is restricted and most businesses close early to limit people from circulating around too much.

Of course, the loneliness and shift in lifestyle pales in comparison to the tragedy and social scars that Ebola is leaving behind. A devastatingly high number of health professionals were killed by Ebola, because of their incomplete understanding of how to prevent getting infected during the early stages of this crisis. Many Sierra Leoneans have been shunning survivors and children orphaned by Ebola, either believing them to be bad luck, through an over-abundance of caution, or fear.

Like I was told before I came, Sierra Leoneans practice a level of “social distancing”- no one shakes hands. There have been a few times where I’ve seen expatriates forget for a moment and embrace each other the way you’d greet any good friend you haven’t seen for a while. I met dozens of my NGO’s staff and have now interviewed 22 candidates for several jobs I am here to recruit for, and I’ve not shaken one hand. Some people hold their fists to their heart/chest and do a slight bow at me. I’ve been telling everyone that I owe them a handshake, that gets a smile.


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