Emily Spry: Being pestered is part of being a foreigner in Freetown

Pikin HospitalTwo young boys once helped me when my bicycle tyre was ripped right open by a bit of metal in the road.  I spent an hour or so sitting with one while his cousin, who also had a bicycle, took my wheel to the repair man.  When he came back, I tipped them both as thanks – they had been really helpful.  Then the older one, Abdul, said, “Emily, give me your number, so that I can call you at any time.”  I felt obliged and, I reasoned, as he was a school kid, he was never going to have access to enough phone credit to call me “at any time;” it was just a turn of phrase.

How wrong I was.  He immediately gave my number to his mother and father and, by the evening, the entire family was calling me to tell me how much Abdul missed me and how they must come and visit me.  They really did call “at any time;” when I was at work, late at night, throughout the weekend, and often very early in the morning. The family visited us (the father eventually asked us to give him a job, which we were not able to do) but it was clear that we didn’t have much in common and Abdul himself was, unsurprisingly, not actually interested in being friends with a couple of 30 year old Britishers.
For weeks after this unsuccessful visit, his father “flashed” me regularly.  This is the ubiquitous practice of calling and hanging up quickly, in the hope the recipient will return your call, thereby saving your own precious phone credit.  When I had saved the whole family’s numbers as “do not pick up,” they called from other numbers to try to catch me out.  The words “at any time” began to ring in my head.
But other pests can be rather fascinating. Perhaps due to the absence of any mental health services in Freetown, there are a number of familiar faces around town whose behaviour extends beyond the bounds of eccentricity or cultural misunderstanding.
These men (they are usually men) are often decked out with a huge arrange of found objects, which they attach around their necks or in their hair.  They pace the main streets in town, staring or ranting.  Most look well-fed, if not clean, so someone must be providing for them, but it is awful to think that they are condemned to a life without any hope of treatment for their severe mental health problems.  I’m sure that many others don’t do as well.
There is one thin quiet guy, without any shoes, who has so many years of street dust ground into his clothes that it is impossible to see what their original colour was.  He has a profound squint and has something funny about touching things.  He often walks up quietly when we are stationary in traffic, looking away, and wipes the heel of his hand across the bonnet.  Then he turns and walks away, touching a metal pole by the side of the road in the same deliberate way, indicating its significance to him.
Another is an animated young man with thick rimmed glasses, bright clothes and a huge fake plastic mobile phone, which he talks to loudly when he wants to look busy.  Whenever he sees us, he hands me photocopies of significant pictures, such as the US flag, ripped from magazine adverts.  On these, he writes long letters about JFK and Queen Elizabeth, listing UN agencies and urging immediate action (“The American Embassy must be whitewashed”).
After one incident where he grabbed my arm when we were driving away and shouted “I love you, I love you”, I have stopped accepting his letters, just to be on the safe side.  He puts them under the windscreen wiper instead now.
I am coming to the end of my time in Sierra Leone, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.  Freetown very much feels like home now.
London seems like a fantasy land, a vaguely comical far-away place where everything is grey and clean and cool and smooth and clean water gushes from the tap at any time.  A place where supermarkets, with their shiny floors and endless rows of varied products, are normal.  Somewhere where it is not normal for a person to live at the side of an unpaved road under a piece of zinc or to only have one item of clothing or to be floridly psychotic in the middle of town.

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.