Saturday, 11 October 2014

Back to Conakry...

"I went to Lunsar this morning to check on the 7-month-old baby (now 8 months old) with his family. His name is Yaya Bangura. Miraculously, Yaya was not only alive but was much better than the last time I saw him on 11th September. And guess what! He has not been infected with the Ebola virus. Remember, Yaya was nursing from his mother’s breast milk when she died of the virus. I was so delirious with joy I couldn’t contain myself! I wanted to pick him up and dance out of sheer relief. But I didn’t and it broke my heart a bit. Two other siblings also did not contract the virus."


The remainder of this email (above) to follow...

I've run Conakry before. 21-March 2014. Post number 7. Now we're at Post 25. So much has happened in the intervening 6 months. Who'd have thought both countries, along with Liberia, would be in the tight grip of national crisis. 

I first became aware of Ebola when last here. Initial reports had begun to emerge from the forested regions of southeast Guinea. A quick Google search confirmed a deadly virus, linked to bushmeat, which had first surfaced in Congo in the 1970s. Named after a river in the affected area. Ebola had never reached a major city before. Nothing to worry about then? Wrong. This time would be different. Very different. 

I did a run early this morning around the filthy streets of this impoverished West African capital. Provided space for thought. Time for reflection. Some of the run was quite fitting, and funny in parts. Matched my mood. For instance, I've never seen a good sunrise in Conakry. Too hazy. Smog. Fumes. Regrettably, I can't paint a picture of galloping east into the rising sun. Instead of carbon monoxide poisoning...

When you run, or so they say, you add time to your life. Albeit with knackered knees, stiff achilles, and hip replacements. I'm never sure in Conakry the value of running. Is my life being extended or actually shortened? Sacre bleu... as I ponder this thought I'm nearly taken out by an errant taxi driver. Fortunately, I have no hip replacements, I manage a sidestep Welsh rugby legend Phil Bennet would have been proud of. Good job too, or I'd have inflicted more dents on the taxi.

An out and back run, from my guest house in Rotamu. In the dirty streets and haze of early morning Conakry you have to wonder when the best building you pass is the Korean Embassy. About this point, I fall into a set pace behind two locals. We run about 15 minutes at group pace, without them realising I'm here. Then, as African runners sometimes do, they started doing things with their arms. One arm stiff by their sides, the other up in a jogging motion. Then windmills. For some reason, I'm doing the same thing. Some locals are smiling. They start running with both arms up in the air. So do I. Not sure why. Actually more difficult than you think. I laugh thinking this must be a French legacy?

Let's get serious. I travelled Freetown to Conakry by road last Wednesday. 314 km. 6 hours. Seemed longer. Border procedures on a closed border... that's for another day...

Since my last post, things have deteriorated further. Yesterday was yet another red letter day in this Ebola battle. The death toll moved through 4,000. This is increasing exponentially, which has always been the real danger. When's it going to stop? In Sierra Leone things are bad, Liberia far worse. Here in Conakry seems better, but what's happening upcountry?

In Sierra Leone, there are reportedly 304 beds for Ebola. The country needs at least 4 times this amount. Last weekend saw a record day. 121 new cases. 5 an hour. Unbelievable. It has genuinely penetrated all of Freetown, including Western Area. You remaining expats don't get too comfortable. Spot those symptoms early, get tested. Better still don't contract in the first place. Keep doing the right things, don't become complacent. Maintain discipline.

Trip down memory lane as the British Army arrives in town. 700 troops coming, about 100 in-country so far. The British Government has committed huge funds (thank you from all in Sierra Leone) and will build hospitals and treatment centres with 700 beds. Hopefully, they'll move quicker than some aid agencies. 

In my day we'd (Army) turn up to save the day, to rescue the 'damsel in distress'; it was a case of, 'relax, the army's here' - followed by 'tea and medals all round' following the necessary deeds of daring do... We all wish the military every success in this deployment.

'Food Basket Appeal'. I launched this in the last post with a personal donation of $500. I asked if any of you, with absolutely no pressure, would like to donate up to a maximum of $100 to what was then the 'Food Box Fund'. I hadn't set-up an account on Paypal or anything. 

The inspiration came from a lady whom I'm now about to introduce. It happened the day I wrote the last post. This pocket dynamo stood up in a meeting I attended at Balmaya Restaurant. It was hosted by the British Chamber of Commerce to discuss how the private sector could best support the crisis. This lady's name is KAB (initials). She was passionate. She had energy. I liked her immediately. She'd got off her backside and contributed. She delivered food by herself to quarantined houses over the 3-day lockdown. All from her own resources. I had to first track her down which took a couple of days. We finally met the day before I moved north to Guinea. A real ball of fire with a passion to burn. I knew instantly I'd made the right decision. Let's work together. We are. 

We've finessed the 'Food Basket Appeal'. KAB has shared her ideas. We now have an inventory of 2 different sized boxes. Some houses will require a box A, some B, some both - depending on occupants. Included is the staple food - rice. Other food and cooking oil. Foodstuff for babies, including milk powder and nappies. For children (schools should have opened weeks back) there's toys, notebooks, crayons etc. Baby Diva has volunteered to source what we need as cheaply as possible. We want to get these boxes packed and begin delivery as soon as possible. Freetown will be first.

To all of you who've sent emails of support, to those who have donated generously, either in cash or in other ways, I'm incredibly grateful. So far the pledges have reached nearly $3,000. We'll do as much as we can. Of course, I'd like to raise more. Please pass this to your own contacts. Let's see what more we can do?

I promised I'd mention everyone in the post who has donated. I've written and replied to you all I think. Some original codewords have also come in. These will be covered in the next post. I want to first get this one out as quickly as possible to keep up momentum. Payment details also to follow. Also, please feel free to contact directly:

The opening paragraph is part of an email from KAB to me, received 2 hours ago from Freetown. Here's the remainder...


"I wanted to take some food but didn’t out of fear that he might not be there and it would have been too emotionally draining for me. I did give money once there.

Five of his older siblings (2 girls between 6 and 8 years old and 3 older brothers) contracted the virus, but all five have survived. The two girls have been sent back home and were there today when I visited. The three older brothers are still at an Ebola treatment centre in Hastings and doing well. I spoke to them on the phone, and they said they are likely to be released next week! I couldn’t believe all five survived the virus. How beautiful!

Unfortunately the eight siblings—ranging in age from 20 years old to 8 months old—have lost both parents and their maternal grandmother to Ebola. A woman name Kadiatu is presently acting as guardian and taking care of Yaya and his siblings. She seems to care a great deal for Yaya. When I arrived, she was playing with him. She had no idea that I was coming. I had no contact number for the family. So it was not a set up for my benefit. All the same, eight children are a lot for her to care for. Therefore only God knows what is going to become of these children, especially the younger ones.

Of course, I wish I had the money and energy to take Yaya and raise him. I don’t. However, I thought perhaps we could use some of the proceeds from the 'Food Basket Appeal' (I love the name - brilliant) to set up a scholarship fund for the children, especially the girls and Yaya. What do you think? If even one of these children makes it to University, imagine how great the human story.

Also, Yaya desperately needs clothes, diapers, toys and of course food, as the rest of his siblings. I would like to propose that we use some of the US$500 to purchase the items the baby needs and food for the family. Oh, Mark, you have got to see this blessed child!

If ok with you about using the $500, perhaps we could travel to Lunsar next week so you can meet Yaya and the rest of his siblings. A 7-month-old nursing baby who lost his mother but didn’t contract Ebola despite feeding on his mother’s breast milk at the time of her death.

I would have like to have sent you a photo of Yaya, but sadly, my stupid phone died before my arrival in Lunsar. Oh so happy about Yaya… can’t wait until you meet him!"


KAB - you won't know I'm using this email until you read this post. Hold yourself together. Enjoy your glass of wine. You deserve it. See you when I get back to Freetown at the end of the week.

Emotive stuff. Beautifully written - by KAB that is, not me! 

P.S. Did my tight-fisted Scottish neighbour donate? This guy is tighter than a camel's backside in a sandstorm. However, the moment I knew this appeal was going somewhere. He gave over the fence in my home village the sum of 10 Guineas, and 7 shillings & sixpence he had in loose change. 

P.P.S. Thanks again everyone, fantastic effort. Brilliant. Proud of you all.  

Everywhere has at least one good watering hole where you can be inspired. Even Conakry...