It's been a week since my last post, but with good reason. Last Monday, 11 April, I found out that I would be going with the rest of the Eye Team on the upcountry trip to Koidu, Kono District, to do eye exams for school children. I was supposed to be attending the trip at the end of the month, but with an open spot and less-than-finalized plans for the second trip, I was invited and gladly accepted to go on this trip. I found out that evening so I had a lot to get ready, mostly mental preparation, for the following morning. I went to bed at about 11:15pm that night. We would be meeting at 7:30am the next morning to pack the Land Rovers.
At about 12:15am, in the middle of a deep sleep, my bunkmate woke me up, handing me a pack of children's multi-vitamins that was taped to our door--a birthday gift from the pharmacist (Thanks Miriam!). Oh yeah, did I mention that the first day of the trip would be on my 23rd birthday? Anyway, I was EXTREMELY confused as to what time it was and my first thought was that I had overslept and missed the trip. I quickly fell back asleep with the bag of vitamins still in my bed.
Hours later, I re-awoke, finished packing, and got some breakfast, packing extra bread and peanut butter just in case. After a quick meeting with the team, we started gathering the equipment and materials we would bring with us. I was under the impression that we would be leaving around 8am, but I was sadly mistaken. Other team members planned on leaving around 9am. They were sadly mistaken. It took quite the while to load up the two Land Rovers, including hoisting several items on to the roof and strapping them down. I believe we finally set off around 9:45am, sweaty and tired from packing, but excited nonetheless. I was looking forward to potentially seeing some monkeys, which my day volunteer, Sylvia, promised me I would see. More on that later.
From Freetown we headed northeast towards the city of Makeni, the country's fifth largest. This would be our halfway point where we'd stop for lunch. The drive was pleasant: sunny weather and a paved road. Our air conditioning didn't work, but with the windows down it was just cool enough to keep us from sweating. About three hours later, we arrived in Makeni and stopped at a gas station. Some locals quickly approached us, selling corn and mangoes. I headed for the little store to get a Fanta and what turned out to be some very plain tasting crackers. We ate in the parking lot: bread, peanut butter, nutella, jam, and other snacks. We then piled back in the cars and continued on east.
The road was still paved. A pleasant surprise. Our surroundings were a mix of mountains, grassy plains, and lush hillsides. We passed over several rivers and streams of varying sizes. One of the more striking:
About an hour outside of Makeni, we reached the small junction town of Matatoka. Just past a police checkpoint, the real adventure began. The up-til-then very pleasant, paved, not-unlike-America road became a mess (for lack of better description). The road was paved at one time, but decades of rainy seasons and presumably zero maintenance left the highway pock-marked, stripped, dusty. Ohhh the dust. Craters. Literal craters in the road. Potholes that make the ones in Pennsylvania look like mere divots. Rocks. Lots of gravelly rocks. Our speed decreased considerably as we wove, left and right and left and right, around the cracks and crevices in the road. Half the time we drove with to wheels on the dirt shoulder and two on some version of pavement. Remembering this, Elvis' song "All Shook Up" seems appropriate. If that Land Rovers had front-end alignment before the trip, the most certainly did have such alignment by the time we reached Koidu. The following picture truly does not do it justice:
We passed through several villages and towns. And saw lots of goats. Actually, the whole trip was marked with the welcome sight of goats.
Two hours of bumps and rattles later, we reached the Koidu city limits. With instructions to stop at the World Vision warehouse first, we collectively wondered how we would find such a place in the middle of this wilderness town. Then all of sudden, it magically appeared, like a beacon in the night. We stopped and met Michael, a World Vision administrator who guided us to our accommodations in town, Uncle Ben's Guest House. Not the Uncle Ben of rice fame, but the guy did actually go by Uncle Ben. After getting settled in, we had a quick meeting followed by a dinner of chicken and chips, cards, and bed. The rooms at Uncle Ben's were quite nice by Sierra Leone standards (generator power from 7pm to 6am, en suite bathrooms, air conditioning), but did lack a few basic amenities (i.e. my room did not have a toilet seat and the A/C didn't actually work). That being said, they were private, clean, and the roof didn't leak during the nightly thunderstorm--we were satisfied.
The next morning, we had a breakfast of tea, bread, and an egg and onion omelet. We piled back into the vehicles and followed Michael out to our first school. We would be working in the Fiama Chiefdom. Sierra Leone is subdivided into 3 provinces, then 14 districts, then several dozen chiefdoms. The road to Fiama was even less evolved than the one into Koidu. To illustrate the dust and rockiness, please observe:
I'm pretty sure that Koidu is the Krio word for "dust." Anyway, our first school was a United Methodist Church-sponsored school in the village of Njagbwema. When we arrived, the students were outside, lined up for roll call. We exited our vehicles and began to prayer, when the children were released like water from a dam. The ran over to and surrounded us, waving, smiling, and repetitively saying "Hello! Hello!" It is quite possible that this was the first time some of them had ever seen white skin. I quickly became friends with a little boy named Samusa, who I later found out didn't actually attend the school, but was just hanging around for all the excitement.
Screening went well. The World Vision folks were really organized and we saw around 350 students, plus the teachers. Not one student needed prescription eyeglasses--they all had great vision. We handed out loads of vitamin A, some artificial tears and prescription eye medicines for minor infections.
The kids love having their photos taken:
After screening all the children and teachers, we ate a late lunch, then packed up and headed back to Uncle Ben's. The evening ritual of cards, dinner, shower, bed was carried out.
The next day, Thursday, we followed Michael back out into Fiama Chiefdom, on the same road as Wednesday, but this time we actually turned off this road onto a different "road." Now, I put "road" in quotes because I am using the word VERY loosely. This time, by "road," I simply mean "swath of land of varying width on which there is no vegetation, but sometimes there IS vegetation, and always marked by rocks, steep hills, and general unevenness." Note:
These are "roads" that are basically suitable for no vehicles, but the occasional 4x4 can get by. This time, we truly were in the jungle. Along and along we went, about 7 kilometers, until we reached the secluded settlement of Yekior. I'm talking this was straight out of a "Lost Villages of Sierra Leone" documentary. Very remote. We pulled up to a school and could hear the clapping and laughing of the children dwelling within. Set-up began in an empty classroom, and then we started the exams.
Ellen, the peri-op nurse I work with, in the foreground,
and Xenia in with a patient explaining the auto-refractor.
Me, using the auto-refractor on a different, but equally as fidgety, patient. The auto-refractor tells us what the lens strength should be for prescription eye glasses.
The patient with her new "Harry Potter" style glasses!
After finishing up at the school we had some extra time, so we headed back into Koidu, to the World Vision headquarters where we were able to bless their staff with eye exams. The staff consists of about 50 local Sierra Leoneans who were very appreciative of the exams. We gave out a bunch of reading glasses, sunglasses, and prescription glasses. It nice to give back to the organization that truly made our trip happen.
The following day we got up early and made the long trek back to Freetown. On the way home, I told Sylvia that I never saw a monkey. But I had spoken to soon. About an hour outside of Freetown, we went to pass a pickup truck when all noticed something swinging from the railings around the bed. It was two dead monkeys! "There's your monkeys!" Sylvia said. Only in Africa.
We made it back to the ship where we were warmly greeted by friends and the news that the hot water was back on! I did laundry later that night. Finally! The rest of the weekend involved sleeping, a little baking, and generally getting caught up and refreshed. At worship this evening, the chaplains laid out all the events for this Passion Week, leading up to Easter. I'm looking forward to all the events, particularly the Easter Egg Hunt on Sunday which I am in charge of! And for all you Brethren reading this, yes I will get the chance to do foot-washing and communion on Thursday. Don't worry! And for all you GW friends reading, they ARE having an Easter Brunch on Sunday (sans mimosas).
Whew. That's all for now. Wishing you well wherever you are.