The Flight to Freetown

I had intended to write an explanation of what Ebola is as my first post from Sierra Leone, but it is proving harder than I’d anticipated. There are plenty of explanations out there, and another dry run down of exotic viral haemorrhagic fevers is not going to add much. Instead, I thought I’d write a description of where I am right now.

Brussels Airlines is one of the very few airlines still operating to countries affected by Ebola, so to get to Freetown we had to fly to Brussels were we spent an evening exploring the Christmas market (special mention and thanks to my parents for coming from London to see me, and bringing coats for me and my colleague to wear for the one cold day we’ll have), drinking mulled wine, and briefly resurrecting my French language skills. Then, after a much needed sleep / jetlag battle, it was back to the airport this morning for the final leg of the journey.

As I write this, I am in the air on the way to Freetown. However, this is no ordinary aircraft, or should I say the passengers are not your average plane load….

To my left is my colleague, Lisa. Lisa is a nurse in Melbourne who, in her spare time, is a member of AUSMAT, the Australian international medical emergency response team, and who has volunteered in Haiti and the Philippines. To my right is sitting the Danish Emergency Response Team. In front of me is a man from the Norwegian Red Cross, and behind me a pair from DFID are chatting away about disaster responses around the world.

The plane is full of all the badges that you see on the news. We have UNMEER, USAID, WHO, MSF, World Food Program. In the check-in queue I think I spotted a Save The Children logo.

The mood on this plane is very much one of ‘already earned the Girl Guide / Boy Scout disaster relief badge,’ and it has a distinctly calming effect. At Melbourne Airport there was a palpable sense of anticipation; every official who saw our final destination stopped to chat and wish us a safe trip. This was very touching and made us feel proud to be doing what we are, but also increased the nervous energy. However, on this plane we’re all going to the same situation, and whilst everyone is taking care to remember their malaria pills and use plenty of hand sanitiser, the nerves have (for now) eased. Looking around there seems to be much more interest in the final Harry Potter film (definitely the most popular of the choices on the in-flight entertainment) than in any last minute preparations. Lisa is so calm, she started to sing along to Jersey Boys.

Initially I wondered if perhaps we were all just keeping our nervousness to ourselves, or if the atmosphere would alter as we neared Freetown (it was a long flight that stopped in Dakar and Conakry on the way). But that was not the case. As the journey progressed everyone started to talk. “Where are you going?” “What do you do?” “Have we met?” (It seems the humanitarian relief world is quite small.) We shared a common cause that it is an honour to feel part of. And anyway, if things do start to feel a bit stressy, Lisa is ready with the cheerful songs.

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