Back to ‘normal’?

I’m struggling to get Sierra Leone out of my system, quite literally.

The results of my re-entry medical check have finally come through, and it turns out I’ve been harbouring some more parasites.

This time it’s Giardia lamblia. They’re not so grizzly as the earthworm-sized roundworm that made its home in my guts recently (and which thankfully didn’t emerge from my nose, as a doctor told me can happen).


Giardia: cheerful or menacing? [Photo: schmidty4112/Flickr]

They most commonly manifest themselves through eggy burps, which have – to The One With The Common Sense’s relief – been notable by their absence.

However, I’ve displayed plenty of the other symptoms of giardiasis listed by the NHS, including abdominal cramps, nausea, fatigue, bloating and – to The One With The Common Sense’s chagrin – “foul-smelling flatulence”.

So the diagnosis explains a lot and I’ll cling to it as an excuse for as long as possible.

However, it’s the “weight loss caused by malnutrition” that I find most alarming. When I stepped on the scales the other day and saw I was under 12st for the first time in adult memory, I assumed they were faulty.

Despite doing little or no exercise for a couple of months and developing some typically unhealthy festive eating habits, I’ve lost nearly a stone. It seems these microscopic menaces have been preventing the wealth of nutrients found in booze, cake and Quality Street from entering my system.

Before you feel sorry for me, however, note that Giardia is widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa, and anywhere else that people don’t have access to clean drinking water.

It’s a moot point whether giardiasis contributes to the fact one in every 20 or so children in Sierra Leone is acutely malnourished, and 30% of under fives are chronically so.

But the assertion that malnutrition is “directly or indirectly associated with more than half” the deaths of under-fives the world over (Save the Children), goes some way to explaining why one in every five or six kids don’t make it beyond their fifth birthday.


A boy, two, recovering after being given rehydration treatment for diarrhoea in 2011 [Pic: DFID/Flickr]

Their parents are unlikely to be able to afford the simple five-day course of medication that’s winging its way to me through the post as I type.

I’m not suggesting Giardia is to blame for such high death rates, far from it, but it certainly can’t help. So I’ll count myself lucky that, all being well, the pills will have me completely back to normal in a week so.

Speaking of which, it’s amazing how quickly “normality” has been restored to life. We’ve only been back a couple of weeks but, as I type from my childhood bedroom, it feels like our time in Sierra Leone passed by in a dream.

Mrs Mc did kindly arrange for a broken toilet to greet our arrival so we felt quite at home for a day or two, flushing with buckets of water. However, a competent plumber turned up, with all the necessary tools and parts, and all was quickly put right.


Home comforts

Such efficiency is a rarity in Freetown. But it’s discovering anew the little things that are proving a revelation. After the rigmarole that was accessing cash in Sierra Leone, the ease of contactless payment seems nothing short of miraculous.

Cold, fresh milk on cereal (not to mention in tea) tastes like the finest of delicacies, while the novelty of getting to ride on trains, visit service stations and point at aeroplanes is yet to wear off (and that’s just me, never mind The Flump).

Using a pushchair on level pavements with safe crossings, freezing food without fear of power cuts, tapping in to free WiFi, and hopping on regular, safe public transport. These are all things we do without thinking in Britain, which cause even relatively wealthy expats a headache in Sierra Leone.

Its just another reminder of how much easier life is in the developed world, and how much more readily people can get on in education, work and general life.

In Freetown, we afforded ourselves the luxury of having someone handwash our clothes but there was no avoiding the chore of scrubbing the smalls. That cost me an hour or two each week but imagine having to do the lot.

Here, if I leave my boxers lying around for long enough, they might even end up getting ironed by Mrs Mc. (Yes, really.)

That last sentence probably tells you all you need to know about how idleness can send a person, their habits and self-respect, into a downward spiral.

It’s definitely time for me to go back to a day job. Not having a “proper” job made sense in Sierra Leone; writing full-time was both expanding my horizons and career possibilities.

Besides, I was so busy buying generator diesel, topping up the meter, buying fresh groceries, hunting for a decent internet connection and looking after Flumpo that I rarely had a spare moment.


The days when I could sip guilt-free coconut cocktails on the beach

Spending the wife’s money over there seemed fine, too. It was part of the deal. Now I can’t buy a cup of coffee without feeling guilty. In fairness, The One With The Common Sense has been at pains to tell me not to rush back to work, undersell myself or lose sight of my writing goals.

But when I light-fingered 20 quid from my mum’s handbag* to pay for my match ticket the other day, I saw myself at the top of a slippery slope. (Although spanking Man City made it the best money she’s spent in ages.)


I need to start earning again.

I’m lucky. Job growth in Liverpool is strong and a quick internet search brings up scores of posts I could reasonably apply for, even if they’re not necessarily my ideal.

Contrast that with Freetown, where there’s a dearth of opportunities. So many people asked us for work; neighbours, a guy I knew from the local bar, the son of the guy I bought bananas from. They assumed white folk would have work aplenty. Once we’d hired our watchmen, we had none to offer.

Those in their 20s – an age group that has it bad enough in the UK – are particularly badly affected, having had their education disrupted by both civil war and anti-Ebola restrictions.

“We just don’t want to be idle,” one of our watchmen told us before we left. I can understand where he’s coming from.

With this in mind, the types of jobs open to me in the UK – some with quite generous rewards – seem faintly ridiculous.

If you can convince people of your ability to “evaluate deliverables/activities/programs to maximize the PR mix” and “build on agreed global storylines which resonate in Europe” there’s a few grand in it for you.

If you can actually decipher it, then even better.

But before long I’ll doubtless be taking some similar jargon related to journalism or social media seriously enough to use it with a straight face.

That’s why I hope that – while our life in Sierra Leone feels a world away – I never quite get it completely out of my system.

Flickr photo links: Giardia and diarrhoea victim

* Don’t worry, I paid back that £20 (with The One With The Common Sense’s money, obviously).


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