The response to our revelation that we’re about to move to this ultra-impoverished part of West Africa is usually accompanied by either a look of abject horror, or a sort of green-eyed cooing.
That says more about the people we’re talking to than about the country itself, of which most people know little other than Ebola and, perhaps, child soldiers.
Fellow journalists, who tend to view reporting from far-flung or (preferably) war-torn lands as in some way desirable, have mostly reacted positively – as, understandably, have my better half’s colleagues in development.
Our more sensible friends, who naturally want a decent job, to live in nice homes, eat well and relax at the pub/football/cinema or whatever, are at best nonplussed.
Universally, however, there has been surprise. On hearing we had “news”, most people assumed we were expecting. Even I was a little surprised when I found myself receptive to the idea, that evening when it was floated by the missus (she’s The One With The Common Sense).
I’ve never had any particular pull towards Africa, and a move abroad for Clara hadn’t really been on the cards for a while. We’d talked about, perhaps, leaving London. But I wasn’t totally sold on the idea of moving back to Liverpool, or elsewhere for that matter.
So why the heck are we moving to Sierra Leone?
Well, back when I first met The One With The Common Sense, her burning ambition was to work for an NGO on projects in the developing world. She’s since built a successful career in the charity sector but never quite been in position to take the very job that fired her ambition.
Even had opportunity arisen, there was no guarantee I’d have been keen on the idea. Given she seems to quite like hanging around with me, that could have put the kibosh on the whole thing. In any case, we both felt that ship had sailed when, a little over a year ago, our daughter arrived.
However, serendipity is – aside from being an irritatingly twee noun – a wonderful thing. The opportunity presented itself just at the point I’d resolved to put more energy into an ambition of my own: to write novels for children.
In theory at least, the two-year posting would allow me to spend time channeling my energy into writing, without having to fit it around my usual shiftwork. We’d also be back home before we had to tiptoe through the minefield of school applications. So, great timing all round.
Just, then, the matter of taking a toddler to a developing country which has only just eradicated Ebola from the human population, where malaria is endemic and health facilities are virtually non-existent. Most people are too polite to bring up this sort of stuff but that’s what bothers them.
It’s what worries us, too.
Let’s not duck the issue. Ebola is believed to have killed nearly 4,000 people in Sierra Leone since March 2014. Malaria killed similarly shocking numbers there during the last three years on record. They’re scary statistics.
But they need to be taken in context. Unlike the poor locals, we’ll have access to the mosquito nets, repellents, air conditioning and anti-malarial drugs that most locals don’t. And were Ebola to re-emerge as a threat, we’ll be able to fly home.
We spoke to several people who’ve lived in Sierra Leone with children. They acknowledged the risks but explained how they manage things, including having 24-hour access to paediatricians. Health insurance will be provided for us.
That’s not to be blase, or dismiss the threat, but it gave us confidence we could at least minimise the risks.
So the decision was made, although there remain countless other considerations.
We’ve visited some pretty impoverished communities in the past, staying in the most basic of dwellings within them. Still, I’m not sure anything will quite prepare us for the culture shock of landing in West Africa. We’ve been warned about the terrible roads, frequent power cuts and dodgy water supply (we’ll have back-ups).
But everyone we spoke to, without exception, talked about how they loved Sierra Leone. They might not have mentioned specifics but you could hear it in their voices. We’re both great believers in the “feel” of a place; I can’t tell you what’s special about walking across a bridge in central London at night but I did it last week and I felt the magic, same as I always do.
Those who’ve been to Sierra Leone tell you they felt safe there, that its people are friendly and relaxed. It’s hard to believe when you remember this country spent a decade locked in a bitter civil war, marred by some of the worst war crimes imaginable, that ended not 15 years ago.
I confess to knowing little about that war. I spent a good while reading about it recently and finished up not really any the wiser about why or how it all happened. (Other than it seems the seeds for the chaos were, unsurprisingly, sown by European colonialism.)
I’ll be interested to see if modern Sierra Leone shares any similarities with Cambodia, where our brief visit a few years back was illuminated by genuine warmth from a people who had recovered from some unspeakable outrages.
Sure, there’s a fair chance my pocket will be picked at some point. The same could be said every time I walk to work up Regent Street. And I’ll probably get mugged, metaphorically speaking, when I first head to the market. But that happens every time I darken the doors of a London pub.
Some, understandably, have raised the prospect of terrorism, be it from al-Qaeda, Boko Haram or an expanding ISIL. All I can say is that the Foreign Office reckons the threat is low. MI5 says the threat to the UK is severe.
You’d have to assume areas with high concentrations of Westerners would be most at risk in the event that some extremist nutjobs decided to disturb the peace. But is the risk higher than when I walk through the doors of the BBC’s high-profile HQ?
Undoubtedly, we still have reservations about the move.
Chief among them have been questions like: Are we being selfish? Is this just reckless? and What does our daughter get out of it?
The answer to the first is unequivocally “yes”. We’re both removing ourselves – and the little one – from friends and family for an extended period simply because we want to. But then we’ve both been brought up to follow our ambitions, so I don’t feel too guilty about that.
Reckless? Some might think so; I don’t. Risk is everywhere in life and we’ll try to minimise the ones we can control in the same way we do at home. If anything, we’re likely to be more careful there than here.
The last question is a more difficult one. There’s not really a lot in it for our daughter. But then her life will still revolve around mummy and daddy, and her friends in nursery, and I’m not convinced it’d be much different at home. We’ll be home to visit grandparents as often – and for as long – as possible.
What I hope she will get out of it is happy, fulfilled parents and an early lesson that life is to be lived, not feared. I used to fear life a bit when I was younger. I wouldn’t even camp at a music festival in case my bag got nicked and I couldn’t sleep.
When I eventually got around to camping at a festival, my bag – containing my Bob Latchford T-shirt (my favourite ever top) – did get nicked and I endured one of the worst sleepless nights I can remember. I still loved it, and it made me realise what I’d missed out on when I was younger.
Living in Sierra Leone might not be everyone’s cup of tea, and it might be others’ worst nightmare. But we’re pretty excited about the prospect of going somewhere new, doing something different, learning some stuff and – hopefully – coming back the better for it.
If all this sounds a bit like I’m trying to justify this move to myself, well that’s probably because I still am. I don’t think either of us will shake that until we feel settled, happy and secure in Freetown.
Or else we’ve returned home after six weeks having decided it was all a terrible idea. Time will tell.