Bizarrely, even though the UK government website categorically states the need for a postal application to renew a British passport from Sierra Leone, the central Post Office in Freetown refused to let Sampson send mine from there saying the UK won’t accept them. To send via DHL costs more than $200, which was out of the question in this month of two-sets-of-visas-plus-a-new-gas-bottle-plus-breakdown-plus-more-expensive-food-than-usual. So we went to the British High Commission to ask for advice.
We arrived on Wednesday 20th Jan too late for the consular office hours of 8.30-11.30am. Security officer Joseph Sesay kindly arranged clearance for us to stay overnight.
The next day, ex-Durbanite Security Manager Geraint Jones told me sadly that officially assistance with transport of passports to UK was out of the question; Consular Officer Alfred Sivalie did his best to help through unofficial channels.
A lovely Irishman in the car park suggested I appeal to a local Yahoo group, Freetown Announce, to find someone flying to UK who could take my passport over, but before I could set up an account, I became unwell again. More terrible diarrhoea in the night made me realise these symptoms were not going away, so on Friday we contacted Manu who told us there were no further Ebola cases and we should come in that afternoon.
At the Emergency Hospital, built by the Italian government and staffed by a majority of Italian medical staff, Manu introduced us to the tall, dark and scrawny Dr Paulo. He’d spent the morning attending to more than 100 pediatric patients and was about to embark on his afternoon clinic monitoring underweight children. “I am good for this because I am malnourished myself” he quipped self-deprecatingly, pronouncing it “mal-norr-eesh-shed”. I immediately fell in love with him.
For two hours I sat with Zola’s head on my lap, fixing his dreadlocks, while we watched Dr Paulo attend to a dozen young worried mothers, as nurse Fabiana weighed each of their tiny babies in turn. He was so patient and unhurried, with a kind word and little jokes for every one of them. Ruby made me proud by jumping up to help the exhausted mother of twin toddlers who were miserable with malaria.
When the clinic was over, I described our dodgy stomachs, persistent weariness and confusion and my suspicion that we had typhoid again. He nodded sagely and told us that there is no sure way to avoid it. Even if we were vaccinated before we left. Even if the water we pumped up from the river was safe, even if our brand new filters can resist all known bacteria and even if Ms Obama had definitely washed her hands. Even if you never ever eat street food, enjoy a frozen yoghurt or snack on plantain chips. Because the organic local vegetables you buy have been watered from a source that may be compromised, and you can’t wash the typhoid bacteria out of them.
Dr Paulo said the clinical symptoms were so obviously present, he discounted malaria and immediately proscribed typhoid meds for Sampson and I. On Saturday morning, the kids’ Widal tests came back negative but their white blood cell counts were half what they should be so Dr Paulo was convinced typhoid was still the issue. But he said if we weren’t feeling better by Monday to come back in for more tests. We parked off down the side road next to the hospital, outside Josephine’s house, took our pills and lay down. I didn’t get out of the truck for 48 hours.
The ladder to the ground looked way too long.
The fact that we watched 7 episodes each of Rizzoli and Isles and Arrow in three days tells you the state I was in. Normally I’d have to be brain dead to watch such formulaic Barbie-filled dross. The kids had the best weekend ever!
On Sunday I had a bit of an epiphany when I realised I would rather be ill with typhoid in the truck than well back in my old life at home. That has a lot to do with the fact that I allow myself to be properly sick here. I don’t try and manfully carry on, dragging myself around trying to fulfill my responsibilities to other people; I listen to my body and lie down. I don’t have any responsibilities here, beyond those to my family, so I don’t have to. On this journey, I am glad my kids are learning how to be properly ill i.e. stop and rest. We even managed to have fun.
But we weren’t bouncing back as quickly as when we took typhoid drugs in 2014, so on Monday we queued several hours with the waiting mothers again for tests. No one was more surprised than Dr Paulo at the result: “Your husband is a strong man, no?”
It seems in the previous week, Sampson had been battling amoebic dysentery, typhoid and malaria all at the same time – one more than me in Côte d’Ivoire. When I reported back, he triumphantly thrust a fist in the air: “YESSSSSSSSS – I get the hat trick!” Trust Sampson to treat wrestling germs as a competitive sport.
Thanks a million to Manu, Dr Paulo and everyone at the Emergency Hospital, and especially to the Italian government for providing an enormous amount of expensive medication to us and the mothers of Freetown for FREE. As Liberty Health declined to renew our health cover (their sponsorship emphasis has shifted to education), we are immensely grateful.
More Things I Have Learned From Malaria and Typhoid:
- that my husband is braver than he looks
- that I’d rather be ill in the Big Green Truck than well at home
- that typhoid tests are no more reliable than malaria tests and you have to trust your motherly instincts and watch their eyes
- that typhoid-induced confusion, like PMT-induced irritation, by its nature precludes recognition of itself, even though it’s blindingly obvious to everyone else
- that for me, the meds are heavier going than the illness
- that my ME relapse in UK midwinter this time last year was way worse
- that for Sampson, malaria plus typhoid is a phenomenal weight loss plan
A few days later, when I was able to stand up to do T’ai Chi again, I reflected that I also don’t have the constant pumping adrenalin that wears me down in Cape Town. From the moment I wake up, I am anxiously reviewing a list of tasks to accomplish which is never achievable in one day, so I feel constantly on the back foot. It’s ridiculous, but I’m not the only one. People like me are reading this going “Ah, yes” and nodding too fast; everyone else, like my husband, is looking at me like I’m the saddest thing in the universe, which in some ways I am. Fancy having to set off on a mammoth trek around Africa just to grant yourself some peace in your own mind…
On Tuesday morning, I was finally strong enough to walk down the road towards the sea that had been twinkling at me all weekend. I was surprised at how large the mansions were that I was passing, and took note of the shards of glass lining the outer walls. The bottom of the road suddenly opened into a ghettoland of shacks, hanging precariously over the cliffs that had been quarried out by the sand-miners in the lorries that relentlessly rumbled up and down.
A posse of about 20 young men were hanging out, the shininess of their T shirts, caps and bling contrasting sharply with the dinginess of their surroundings. Strong tea was brewing and strong smoke hung heavy in the air. I was regretting bringing my camera bag but took a split second decision to go balls-to-the-wall rather than back out and went forward with a hearty greeting of ‘As-Salaam Walaikum’. Thanks to Sampson’s Saudi experience, when the Arabic rejoinder came back I automatically retorted “Alhamdulillah!” It was a good start. Rasta Hassan, who’d chatted with me on his way past the truck yesterday, claimed me as his friend.
Having won over the youngsters I moved on to the end where an older, gnarlier set were gathered on a bench drinking sachets of spirits and looking suspicious. Ms Obama had shown me a sample of what she sells – at only 1000Le for a shot, it’s a cheap breakfast. I felt there was no option but to go full monty.
I greeted confidently and, asking for a flat space to do my exercise, launched into a very martial-looking short form of T’ai Chi. Their reaction was fabulous: incredulity melting to amazement. Another Hassan, on his way to work with a shovel over his shoulder, stopped to reciprocate with a full karate kata; I was deeply impressed and made him an ‘I am not worthy’ obeisance. Everyone was delighted. Rasta Hassan patted my arm, “I love my Mommy, I be her soldier to South Africa”.