We left snowy Vienna, Austria, in the early hours of the last day of November 2017. When we landed at Freetown’s Lungi International Airport the tiredness of an already eventful journey was compounded by the 30 degree heat and extreme humidity. After all the expectations, anticipation, excitement and planning – including the copious vaccinations -, we had finally arrived
The climate in Sierra Leone, one of the world’s poorest countries, is tropical and hot all year round. The sudden change from freezing temperatures to the tropical heat was a shock. It was like stepping into a parallel universe of new sights, sounds and colours.
Africa for the experienced traveler… Well…
We awoke the next day full of excitement about meeting the children for the first time, and because we had never experienced Africa before, we had no idea what to expect.
Fortunately, we had an excellent driver in Ibrahim. The drive to Waterloo, a district of Freetown, in his rugged Toyota 4×4 took around 45 minutes on mostly decent road. We passed school children walking along the edge of the road in their brightly coloured uniforms. We followed precarious moped taxis and extravagantly decorated buses, packed like sardine tins, sprouting multiple aerials and with paint jobs declaring allegiance to Jesus and British football clubs, or displaying pearls of wisdom such as “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet”. And we drove by billboards reassuring mothers-to-be that “Your child, too, can be born HIV-free”.
We finally turned up towards the orphanage, where the road was so rutted it could no longer be described as a road. The Toyota rocked and shook us to the core, Ibrahim laughed at us in the back and told us we were getting an “African massage, free of charge!”
Valerie noticed a couple of kids by the roadside and recognised two of the 15 kids at “our” orphanage. They recognised us straight away, running to our vehicle and welcoming us with the biggest grins. Just then we saw another teenager running towards us, dripping with sweat and beaming from ear to ear; it was the self-proclaimed “Big Chief” himself, Augustine – the oldest of the orphanage kids at 19 years. He climbed aboard to show us the way to the house, and we then arrived to see Mohamed and Aminata holding a welcome banner; “Anuty” Valerie was quick to notice the spelling mistake.
Poverty, Happiness and Optimism
Valerie had been sponsoring a girl called N’Mah since she was a little girl, and it was an emotional first meeting for both of them on the eve of N’Mah’s 17th birthday.
The kids, under the guiding hand of the orphanage manager Pastor Obi, had prepared a welcome ceremony, complete with PA system and singing, dancing, speeches and prayer.
That first day we were given a tour of the house, the kids’ sixth home in as many years. The home consists of a small communal living room, separate boys’ and girls’ quarters with shared bedrooms, a kitchen, two bathrooms and a concreted space to the rear of the property. A small fuel-powered generator provides electricity, and water for washing and laundry has to be fetched from a local source. At the moment, the beds are nothing more than wooden frames on the tiled floor, some of the children also having to sleep only on mattresses. The urgent need for proper bunk beds was added straight to our to-do list. Each of the kids is taught responsibility within the home; be it cooking, cleaning, laundry or fetching water. It is not an easy life, but each of them approaches it with optimism.