Today is my last day in Freetown. I’m heading back to London tonight. It seems hard to believe that the UK is a mere six hour flight away. Perhaps more so given our unusual method of getting to Freetown last August; my boyfriend and I travelled overland for six weeks in an old Landrover through six countries.
A few weeks before we left the UK last year, we had the idea to get a large sticker on the side of the Landy with a map of our route, the flags of the countries we were passing through and the legend “London to Freetown.”
This is how we have become known around town. “Hey, London to Freetown!” people call out, even when we’re not with the car.
Often, as we are crawling through the dreaded city traffic, I notice arguments break out in groups of people by the side of the road. People are pointing, some are nodding, others are shaking their heads, remonstrating. Someone will shout across the street: “From London to Freetown by road? Are you sure?” “There’s a road all the way?” “But that’s impossible, what about the sea?!” And then, if convinced, “When you are going back, please take me with you”.
I will miss this loud and friendly curiosity. The London Underground will be quite a contrast.
Opting for a quicker return trip, we have sold the Landy to a friend who will drive home to Ireland when he finishes his job here later this year.
I am sad to leave. I have loved it here, the people, the music, the sea, the sunshine, the challenging and meaningful work.
But I don’t want to forget that it has also been incredibly tough. There were many days when I thought that I couldn’t cope. Not usually an anxious person, I went through many weeks where I was waking before dawn every morning, exhausted, sweaty, and relentlessly turning over the problems at the hospital in my mind.
I think that in many ways, I have been looking forward to this year for my whole life, which is both a blessing and a curse.
I have wanted to go to Africa since I was about 6 years old. My Dad’s stories of his childhood in colonial Uganda are no doubt to blame. I opted for medicine as a second degree because I wanted a skill that would make me useful in the developing world. I spent my time at medical school working for Medsin and the Inetrnational Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA), the global health student organisations. After graduating, I felt that I wouldn’t be ready to contribute until I had a substantial medical training under my belt. But after nearly 4 years as a doctor, my 30th birthday brought a conviction that I had to take the plunge and get on with the dream. I managed to get a year out of my GP training and to persuade my boyfriend to come with me.
I knew that I had ludicrously high expectations for my year out, and I did try to temper them. Nevertheless, I cared too much, tried too hard and generally took the whole thing far too seriously for much of the year, leading to something my family might term “nervous exhaustion” by the time they visited at Christmas.
Of course, in the end, it has been a fantastic year. I have made some great friends, I have seen and been involved in a lot of extraordinary things. There has been some real progress at the hospital, things that might well not have happened if I hadn’t spent all those years learning to be a doctor and practicing intercultural communication, diplomacy, and administration in an international student organisation.
Maybe the chief thing that this year has taught me is that I do have limits and roughly what and where those limits might be. I think that is a useful life lesson on its own.
My boyfriend and I have had a great adventure and got to know and trust each other much better than we would have done passing another year of our comfortable lives in London. We have also got engaged.
I’m not done with Sierra Leone or the Welbodi Partnership, that’s for sure. My successors are a very capable team and I look forward to doing all I can from London to support them in this small but beautiful endeavour to make the Ola During Children’s Hospital a source of all good things in child health care for the people of Sierra Leone.
Emily Spry is a doctor from London who has taken a year out of her general practice specialty training programme to live and work in Sierra Leone, West Africa. She is working for the Welbodi Partnership, a charity which supports the main government children’s hospital in a country where more than one quarter of children die before their fifth birthday.