Sampson’s Story (in his own words)
There’s nothing quite like driving your family through 12 African countries to bring you together. We’ve been incredibly close for a whole year, literally: within 3 metres of each other at all times. We have been forced together so powerfully that at times we’ve been on the verge of family fusion. The energy created may be beyond measure but the process can be risky. It’s a lot of pressure to put on. Any family that includes a nearly 13-year-old daughter can explode at any moment. We’re truly a nuclear family (groan – Ed).
So my sadness at being left alone in the truck was matched by a sense of peace and tranquility. Did I say matched, sorry, I meant outweighed. Suddenly all the space was mine. Every single bit of the 6 square metres. No more jostling to get to the fridge, no more trying to barge past in the ‘corridor’, no more tripping over each other trying to find your shoes. And no more being shouted at for stinking out the truck, when all you’re doing is having a perfectly normal, completely natural, inevitable, inescapable, tiny little POO.
Best of all I get to watch surf movies whenever I like on my Digicape MacBook Pro or simply sit back and enjoy the silence. Well, at least enjoy the sound of the traffic as I lie in the truck on the edge of the biggest highway in Monrovia. Tubman Boulevard, named after William V.S. Tubman, the ‘father of modern Liberia’ and its 19th President, is a four-lane commuters’ nightmare, heading through Congo Town to the CBD.
I spend my first week alone in Monrovia trawling up and down this highway approaching every hotel and restaurant I can find. I use my charm (otherwise known as The Art of the Blag), the press file and a few magic tricks to convince them to keep their used cooking oil for us over the next two months. My hunt for oil gets much easier when the heart-of-gold Councillor of the South African Embassy, Sean Pike, kindly lends me his Land Cruiser Prado.
After one week I have commitments from 17 different hotels and restaurants. The people here are so enthusiastic and happy to help. The only issue is that normally the burnt, dirty, carcinogenic old oil is given away to their staff. I feel bad that for this period of time the staff will miss out, but on the other hand they could use a break from this toxic oil. It’s upsetting that this is the norm in Africa: extreme poverty means you can’t take dirty old oil out of the food chain; for most people it’s better to eat unhealthily than not at all…
Monrovia is not what you’d imagine. It has a population of more than a million – one in three Liberians live here – but it is such a laid back African city, full of charming, funny people. I meet mainly Lebanese hotel owners with a few British, a couple of South Africans and one Romanian along the way. I have a great time chatting with many proud Lebanese-Liberians. Their innate generosity will ensure the continuation of our Guinness World Record attempt. Thanks go out to PA Rib House (who have already given us oil), Level 1 Restaurant, Golden Key Hotel, Mamba Point Hotel, Kendeja Resort, The Royal Hotel, Angler’s Restaurant, Palm Springs Resort, Golden Gate Hotel, Krystal Ocean View Hotel, Bella Casa Hotel, Evelyn’s Restaurant, Golden Beach Restaurant, Corina Hotel, Cedars Restaurant, Uncle Sam’s and The Sajj House Restaurant.
It isn’t until 10 days into this mission that Ebola starts to make its presence felt. Visiting Evelyn’s Restaurant, I’m asked to wash my hands before going in. Suddenly everywhere I go there are plastic canteens or buckets with taps on the side full of bleached water at the entrance. People seem to be laughing off the danger with lighthearted quips like “Please wash your hands sir, nobody wants to die of Ebola” with a wink and a smile.
The main effect seems to be that we all have something to chat about. A shared sense of wonder: “Is this really a threat? Does this really affect me? Ah well, on with my day…”
In my second week alone in Liberia things slowly start to change. The first thing I notice is that people are wearing surgical gloves while pushing their trolleys around the supermarket. Then I’m getting my change at the till from ladies also wearing gloves, ladies who, despite the gloves, are making a concerted effort not to touch me. It seems people are beginning to take this seriously.
On 27th July, Ruby’s birthday, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (Liberia’s 24th and Africa’s first elected female head of state) announces she’s closing all of Liberia’s borders with the exception of the airports. Flights fill up so fast, people are paying up to £5000 just to get out as quickly as possible. What should I do? The Big Green Truck is now definitely stuck.
I chat to the South African Ambassador who suggests I go and join my family in UK. He seems very worried about my safety and is convinced all borders are firmly shut for the foreseeable future. I’m unwilling to abandon our attempt on the Guinness World Record and decide to check with the British Embassy. I get through to the lovely Elaine who explains that main border crossings are still open and that nothing major has changed. She says relax, there’s no need to rush off just yet.
But in Monrovia there’s a shift happening: people won’t shake your hand anymore. Signs like this have started appearing:
Yet the general feeling is still one of stoic good humour. I love these people; they love to laugh and they make me feel so welcome. They also speak English, or rather their version of it, which is a huge advantage for me. I wouldn’t have coped so well alone in a Francophone country.
But I am beginning to be worried. Monrovia has had several Ebola deaths by now, many of which are health care workers who’ve been caring for the dying. What if I have to visit a hospital for another illness, and risk coming into contact with doctors and nurses who have just been treating Ebola patients?
An English health worker tells me Ebola is not like a ‘flu virus, it’s not transmitted by air, so it is relatively hard to get infected. You can only catch it via body fluids. The virus only survives for 30 minutes on the skin so you’d have to touch a person who is already showing symptoms and it would have to enter through a cut, or by eating something from your fingers. But if you do catch it, you are very likely to die. In every epidemic so far, between 50-90% of people have.
I’m a rationalist and I worked as a medical technologist, so I can put this all into perspective. The threat is minimal. But the paranoia is very real. No matter how unlikely I am to get infected, the fact that infected people are walking around this city next to me is rather scary. We are all starting to get just a bit nervous.
On 1st August, I get good news: the Guinness World Record office have given us permission to suspend our attempt, so now I at least have the option of leaving.
The next time I try to phone Elaine, I find out that not only has she left, but the Liberian gentlemen employed by the Embassy to take over her reassuring advisory role has the most fitting, the most ironic, the most unbelievable name: Exodus!
“Movement of Jah People”
However, increasingly it’s The Clash not Bob Marley playing in my head – “Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?”…
I decide to head to Robertsport, just four hours west of Monrovia, in Sean’s car, to check out the possibility of hiding out in this Ebola-free area. Plus it has a world-class wave…
It’s great to leave the stressed city behind. I was really starting to feel like an extra in the movie Outbreak. The pictures in the papers of WHO workers in full white isolation outfits are scary, like the aliens have landed. No wonder rural villagers are starting to freak out.
“Who are these crazy strangers, dressed like the devil himself? They all appeared at the same time as this evil disease. Is there a link? Are they to be trusted? Why aren’t they talking to me?…”
It’s not surprising that some people are taking their sick relatives and fleeing into the bush. At this point knowledge is everything and sadly most people still don’t know the facts about Ebola.
Getting there isn’t easy. Only an hour out of Monrovia, my front tyre shreds, so I have to head back and buy a new one. The four hour drive thus becomes eight but eventually I arrive.
Robertsport is a small fishing town of about 12,000 people. It’s truly beautiful with a huge lagoon and lush tropical vegetation. The beaches are gorgeous and the waves are fantastic. I head straight for the Kwepunha Surf Retreat http://www.kwepunha.com, a lodge run buy two Californian guys that I’ve been emailing for 6 months now. They have a German snowboarding professional on his summer surf mission and a couple of American NGO workers keeping the place open. There’s more staff than residents but who’s complaining? Only four of us in the water and a big swell on the way. Awesome.
Robertsport is the wave of my dreams, a superlong barreling left hander. It’s a solid six foot plus on the second day and I’m exhausted in no time. Tired and battered by the third day of swell I crawl into my room and sleep for 12 hours.
I awake to find my guts are not right. When I say not right, I mean, well… you don’t need to know. My fever hits 38.5˚ and I sweat and shiver my way through the next 24 hours. Two days and one malaria test later, I’m convinced it’s just ‘Traveller’s Diarrhoea’. I never think it’s Ebola, but I’m a bit scared about the possibility of having to visit a clinic or hospital. So I just rest, drink lots of water and hope it will go away. Three days later it does.
At this point, it’s just me and the American boys, as the paying customers all got a bit concerned about the Ebola crisis and brought their flights forward. The Exodus continues. I get back in the water but a part of me is now a little more concerned: what if I get really sick or injured – there are some nasty rocks in the surf, I saw a local get smeared across one on my first day – what if I have to come into contact with healthcare workers? At least there is no Ebola in Robertsport.
The next day, I get back from the surf and Kwepunha owner, Daniel, tells me that a woman has tested positive in the local hospital. Ok, now I REALLY don’t want to risk getting injured. I phone Sam and tell her “I think you should look at getting me a flight.” “Great” she says. “About bloody time” is what I hear!
She can only manage to get me on a flight in 9 days, just time for a couple more surfs before heading back to Monrovia to pack up the truck. The car is not feeling right, I’m sure the suspension needs a look, so I take it to the local fundi. He’s a classic bush mechanic, the sort of guy who can fix anything and keep any vehicle on the road. A cross between the bloke from The Mosquito Coast and an African MacGyver…
I’ve hardly ever had more fun than just joking around with Ammar and his crazy buddies. We spend a couple of hours chatting about life, laughing about politicians, police and the wonderful world of West Africa. When I tell them about the language of the Xhosa people (my son Zola’s heritage), the clicks sound so strange to them – “Are you talking or chewing something?!” We also laugh about the “Ebola Hand Shake”: we don’t shake hands any more, we don’t even bump fists now, we just carefully bump elbows.
I have them in stitches when I relay how driving my truck means at every roadblock, every policemen, every soldier is looking for “something for me” or “un cadeau” so I’m constantly doing my magic trick and talking my way out of paying a bribe. Now I’m driving around Robertsport in Councillor Sean’s car with the diplomatic plates, not only do they not stop me but they actually salute as I pass by! Gotta love those black plates.
Ammar re-enforces the springs and I go back to Kwepunha, where Daniel has the latest news. He was walking down the road and noticed a woman staggering along being held up by her family. He asked the local UN about her, and it turns out she is the Ebola case and her family didn’t believe it was Ebola so they broke her out of the hospital. She is currently living in her house just up the road from us, constantly touching the five members of her family. Apparently the UN is trying to track down another thirty people who have possibly come into contact with her.
I don’t mention any of this to Sam; she has enough to worry about grieving for her grandfather. But now I’m happy to be leaving, as there really is no other option. Before, I hoped I might bring the truck back here for a month or two while the epidemic ran its course. Now the roads have been closed, and a full quarantine imposed, Robertsport is more dangerous than Monrovia. Luckily with my black diplomatic plates, I should be able to get through the roadblock. Hopefully.
After two solid days of downpours, the rain finally stops and with my boards packed inside Sean’s car, I’m ready for the drive back along the bumpy dirt road. With the USB stick in the stereo, I start slowly working my way through the potholes to the sounds of The Jam, Boomtown Rats and Bob Marley, heading for home.
Forty kilometers and over an hour later, suddenly the front side of the car drops to the ground as I skid to a halt, with the sound of scraping and gouging making my stomach drop even further…
I get out to find the swing arm has cracked through and the whole wheel, ball joints and all, has broken off and is wedged under the car.
It starts to rain. I’m in the middle of nowhere, with no cellphone signal, and no way to fix it.
I hear my Dad’s voice: “Panic slowly”.
A motorbike stops and I hop on the back and am taken to the local bush mechanic. Now this guy is REALLY in the bush – living in a small hut in a tiny village of about twenty people. Mohammed and his friends immediately rush to my rescue. These people could restore faith in humanity to even the most jaded, cynical, corrupt city capitalist.
The power of African friendship never ceases to astound me. Mohammed removes the wheel and realises it can’t be fixed without a part, but he tells me that if I have money ok, if I don’t then it is fine. He is here to help, no matter what. I pay him $20.
My heart bleeds for this man and all the incredibly generous, caring, poverty-stricken people we have met on this journey. These people have nothing: nothing but spirit, nothing but kindness and a shared sense of humanity. They seem to already know the answers we spend our lives questing for, all the years questioning and philosophising, of soul-searching, of therapy.
They accept we are one family, all connected and all equally important. They understand that happiness, contentedness, comes from sharing our problems, from helping and being helped. From needing and being needed. We are here for each other, we are all brothers. Let me help, I know you would help me.
I phone the Embassy and tell them we need a tow truck. Dominic, the Ambassador’s driver, finds out that tow trucks can’t make it through the roadblock so he grabs his Embassy ID and borrows a car to come rescue me. The crash happened just before 1pm, it’s past 3pm when we know for certain that Mohammed can’t make a plan to get me moving again. At 4pm Dominic heads out. I sit in the car for a total of seven hours in the rain, in the middle of a dirt road, in the middle of the bush.
Lonely you’d think, but every few minutes someone from the villages a few kilometers on either side would walk up to check on me. One girl returns an hour later with her Mum, just so she could meet me and keep me company for awhile. Once a soggy thin character walks past in the rain and stops to ask if I have any food. All I have is the cold leftover porridge I’m eating, so we share it, then he continues his long walk, at least now with something in his belly.
My new friends agree to keep watch over Sean’s car for the next day or two as we organise the parts and send back mechanics to retrieve it using Dominic’s Embassy pass. We strap my surfboards on his roof with my leashes and get back to Monrovia around midnight. My bed in the truck is a little slice of heaven. I sleep like a baby. I can’t thank Dominic enough for all his help, what a crazy day.
It’s a few days before my flight. This is the worst outbreak of Ebola in history with over a thousand dead and it’s just getting worse. The authorities are unable even to isolate infected cases, civil unrest is building, people are starting to panic and it feels like the wheels have started to come off…
Ebola now seems like a very real threat to my health yet strangely I’ve realised I’m still more likely to be killed by the wheel falling off my car. I can now think beyond the Ebola danger to my life and rather feel the fear of the whole country. More than four hundred have died here in Liberia and many, many more will be taken before the pandemic is brought under control.
I am overcome by a deep sadness for these wonderful caring people. Most Liberians have almost nothing but will do anything they can to help you. Such giving people should not be suffering the effects of such a terrifying disease running rampant. They cannot catch a plane to safety; they have to carry on as before, but now they can’t even shake each other’s hands or comfort each other with a hug.
It’s time for the rest of the world to step up; this has gone too far. It’s 2014, this should not be happening. The people of Liberia need our help. They would do the same for us.
So tomorrow I’m leaving Liberia. I wanted to stay in the truck and see this through with the people of Monrovia, but I have to be with my family. The fear has finally got to me – not the fear of the disease, but the fear of quarantine and being stranded for months apart.
I have locked up the Big Green Truck and hope it will be safe here at the Urey Compound on Tubman Boulevard. It may be a month or two, the head of Médecins Sans Frontièrs is saying it may be six, before Ebola is finally brought under control.
Now it’s back to England and a chance to see my brother for the first time since our mother died. A chance to spend time in her house, reliving the memories of a truly special childhood. A chance to show my children Cornwall for the first time.
I’m not happy to be leaving Liberia but this trip has taught me that I have a much bigger family than I ever realised. A family consisting of many people I have not yet met. They are all here, waiting to greet us.
I just hope they will be ok until we get back.
Written August 16th