Will White and his mum Helena travelled to Sierra Leone from the UK in October half-term. Midwife Helena was visiting with her charity, The African Maternity Link, while Will joined her for his very first trip to Africa. Helena and soccer-mad Will kindly took time out of their busy schedule, which included hospital visits and meeting the President of Sierra Leone, to drop in on the MercyHome children. Here, in their own words, is an account of their eventful African adventure.
My mother first went to see the children when I was 5 years old. She had shaved her head to raise money for them and was then invited to travel to Sierra Leone to meet them for herself. Ever since then I have wanted to go, too.
Sierra Leone is on the West Coast of Africa – north of Nigeria, South of The Gambia – famous for blood diamonds, a brutal civil war and more recently a devastating outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus. But, to be honest, those were not the things that came to my mind when I imagined going to Sierra Leone, I thought of the all the smiling faces in my mum’s photographs, the mountains and the long sandy beaches for me to play football on. Then this year my chance came! I couldn’t believe it! School gave me two days’ leave to add to my October half-term and the tickets were booked – I was going to play football in Africa!!
Sierra Leone is famous for blood diamonds, a brutal civil war and the deadly Ebola virus. But, to be honest, those were not the things that came to my mind when I imagined going to Sierra Leone
As we prepared to go I kept trying to imagine what it would actually be like when I got there. Would it be really hot – as hot as the summer we just had here? – would the people be friendly? Would they be sad? Would they care about anything because they have so little? Would they have any sense of hope? Where could I play football? Would anyone want to play with me because I was white? Might I be on the receiving end of racism? What would I eat??
The first leg of our journey began in Birmingham at 4am – a flight to Brussels at 6am with the flight to Freetown leaving just before lunchtime. I am not keen on flying but soon got used to it and settled in to watch the movies, nap and watch the flight map showing us the miles we had travelled and the miles to go.
As I stepped out of the aircraft I was slapped in the face by the heat and humidity, the dusty smells and foreign scenery – my senses overloaded but alive in an instant
Finally we arrived in Freetown. It was dusk and as I stepped out of the aircraft I was slapped in the face by the heat and humidity, the dusty smells and foreign scenery – my senses overloaded but alive in an instant. Walking down the steps and across the tarmac to the airport building I thought to myself, “TIA” – this is Africa.
After a night in the airport lodge we began the final leg of the journey by small minibus to Bo, around 4 hours away. My first glimpse of Africa in the warm light of day – watching as the miles passed by, brick houses, mud houses, tin houses, children, babies, animals all by the side of the road. If you stop anywhere the car is surrounded by people trying to sell their wares – fruit, nuts, vegetables, anything that will make a few Leones (1,000 = 10 pence).
The town of Bo was smaller than I had imagined, more crowded, more people on the streets in amongst the traffic – so many on their phones – old phones! As we walked around the town I had the feeling that they were amazed to see white faces, staring as we went past, staring at my socks and sandals, or maybe it was because I had odd socks on? Then it rained – heavily, so we dashed into the furniture store where they let us shelter and insisted we sat on their chairs to wait – finding a large comfortable office chair for me! I felt welcome, they were happy, smiling, friendly people – no-one was sad, no-one seemed hopeless, they didn’t mind it was raining – “It will pass, wait here until it’s gone,” they said.
In the coming days I spent much of the time meeting health workers and seeing different hospitals and small health units, run by happy, friendly staff, even though most of them didn’t get paid very much, or at all. The units were very basic with not much equipment, the staff were so grateful for the small amount of supplies that my mum had taken for them. I thought, if you’re ill here there is little help. I worried about getting malaria as so many people get it here, I did get bitten but was taking the tablets to stop the parasite from being able to breed inside me.
I felt welcome, they were happy, smiling, friendly people – no-one was sad, no-one seemed hopeless, they didn’t mind it was raining
Then I met Isaac – my first football friend! We went to a training ground where a team let me join in with their Sunday night training session and game. I managed two laps of the standard five laps for warm up but was proud of myself ! The boys were friendly and very strong, physically fit and athletic. We played a game for 45 minutes, my team lost but I enjoyed it!
I was honoured to meet the President of Sierra Leone. The charity that my mum had travelled for knew Maada Bio before he became President and had visited Leamington Spa only 2 years ago, so it was like old friends meeting up.
My mum introduced me to him and he was astounded by my height. He was actually quite short, friendly, approachable and down to earth. He seemed open minded – listening to what my mum was saying about her charity work with the midwives, I hoped he would listen to what she was saying and do something about the lack of skilled midwives available.
Coming soon: Part 2 of “A Boy in Africa”; Will and Helena meet the MercyHome children