Chris Tarrant in Sierra Leone for Born to Shine
I’m in Sierra Leone with Save the Children to see some of the life-saving work they do here. After a quick breakfast we jump in the car and drive to Kroo Bay – one of Freetown’s worst slums.
As we drive I’m quite apprehensive. I’ve travelled all over the world, sometimes in conflict zones, but I’ve never quite done anything like this and the thought of what I’m about to see is pretty daunting.
Kroo Bay is a dump – literally. It’s on the banks of the Crocodile River where the better-off Freetown residents throw their rubbish and it all gets washed up here. Most of the 17,000-plus people live in shacks made from corrugated iron, built on mountains of rubbish. There’s no electricity, no running water and only one clinic, which Save the Children has done a fantastic job refurbishing. Regular floods wreak havoc, bringing disease and death – it’s the beginning of the rainy season now, and the floods are due any day.
Arriving on the busy road outside Kroo Bay, the first thing I notice is the sheer level of rubbish – it’s everywhere – it’s hot and sticky and the smell of sweat and decay fill the air. I feel a bit on edge. There’s a filthy river running through the middle of the slum.
Walking the tightly packed paths, I see tin shacks either side of me, their walls made from rusty old car doors and anything people can get hold of. I realise with bewilderment that people here live in shacks the size of the shed I put my lawnmower in.
As I get closer to the river, I’m genuinely shocked by what I see – the river is also used as a toilet for the residents here – a little boy is squatting, and next to him, his friend is washing his clothes and other children play – all using the same water, full of rubbish. The centre of the community is an open sewer, crawling with disease. Children still in their smart uniforms rush home from school and use the river as a toilet – there simply isn’t another option. The smell is overpowering. I’ve never seen anything like it. I wonder if the kids I see know how bad they have it.
Amie, the fantastic Save the Children worker with me, tells me there are only two toilets for the entire population here. I feel pretty angry about this – two toilets for a population of at least 17,000? No child should have to live like this.
I slowly begin to grasp why children are dying in such huge numbers here from the simplest things – to survive in Kroo Bay I think you have to be pretty special. Before I arrived, Save the Children had told me children were dying of diarrhoea and I honestly didn’t understand how this was possible. In the UK, it’s unpleasant, but for children here, it’s a killer on a par with typhoid or yellow fever. The problem clearly stems from the conditions that these poor kids have to live in. But it’s that the simplest treatments that could save their lives just aren’t readily available.
Amie explains what Save the Children has been doing to help. As well as refurbishing the health clinic, which I’m due to visit tomorrow, they’ve trained hundreds of volunteers to recognise and treat the symptoms of diarrhoea. The trained volunteers fly bright blue flags outside their houses so parents know where to go when their children are suffering.
For the first time all day, I feel a sense of hope when Amie tells me just how successful these volunteers are. In 2008 there were 40 fatal cases of diarrhoea. But one volunteer we speak to says she doesn’t know anyone who’s died of diarrhoea since the volunteers have been trained and given the kit they need. “People aren’t dying of diarrhoea here any more,” she told us.
When I see the kit I’m amazed – it doesn’t contain high-tech treatments and expensive medicines, just rehydration salts and clean equipment like a bucket and gloves. This, plus the training the volunteers get, is saving lives.
As soon as I wake, I desperately hope I don’t have to revisit Kroo Bay today. When I discover, in the car, we are indeed heading back there, my heart sinks. And I then feel guilty. I’m making a fleeting visit to this slum – for thousands of people it’s their life. I wonder how many children in Kroo Bay got sick, or worse, died overnight while I was moments away in my safe hotel.
We head back to the Crocodile River and the smell of rot and rubbish becomes too much. I’m very nearly sick. I’m told we’re off to film by the sea and feel a surge of relief – open sea surely means no rubbish or overpowering stench. Oh how wrong I was, it got even worse! The mountain of rubbish washed up from the sea piles high on not only the banks, but all the surrounding ground. It becomes hard to walk as I just sink into the piles of plastic, old flip flops, discarded cans, syringes, razor blades and broken glass. Children sift through all of this with their bare hands looking for anything they can sell or reuse.
I think this is the worst place I’ve ever seen. I’ve got six, wonderful, resilient, unspoilt kids – but I don’t think they could cope seeing this level of poverty, let alone stay here. I know I couldn’t sleep on a concrete floor night after night. But most of the kids here don’t sleep on a bed till they’re grown up. Add the constant fear of flooding and disease and you begin to realise both how terrible the situation is and how resilient these kids must be.
Today we’re going to the health clinic, meeting health workers and patients, and I’m beginning to feel uplifted and hopeful. Yesterday I was questioning why people even live here – today I’m beginning to understand it’s a complex problem and there are some amazing people here making a real, life-saving difference.
It took Save the Children four years of hard work here to gain trust within the community. Things are now really changing. As we approach the clinic – the only solid looking building in the whole of Kroo Bay, – I can see that it’s in real demand. Mothers and children – floppy and sick with fever – fill the long wooden benches as they wait to be seen by the nurses and doctors. Several heavily pregnant women are groaning in the labour ward – a few rooms with the basic but essential equipment necessary to deliver babies safely.
Mother after mother brings her child to see the doctor and every child has the same symptoms – chest infections, fever and vomiting – all linked to disease caused by stagnant water and damp conditions. I learn that when the rainy season comes, many children also get pneumonia. It’s hard to grasp when the weather is so hot and sticky but the floods wash through homes for months on end, bringing rubbish and disease from the river. Children with already weak immune systems are unable to keep dry, safe or warm and are in real danger.
I cautiously ask Amie how many of the children at the clinic today she thinks will survive. She didn’t even pause in her reply – her confidence that every single one would survive was such a fantastic thing to hear. Three years ago most of these kids would have died – now, thanks to the clinic and the hard-working health workers, these children have a chance.
The health workers are run off their feet and there definitely aren’t enough of them but they’re doing amazing work. Not only are they providing essential medicine and vaccinations, they’re also educating people. Time and time again I hear them saying not to listen to the husbands and mothers-in-law who tell them not to come to the clinic. “Listen,” they say, “come to the clinic, save your baby, get them vaccinated”. By word of mouth mums pour in and it feels like a positive campaign of Chinese whispers: “you don’t need to die in childbirth,” they tell each other, “babies don’t need to die”. Another simple solution that’s saving lives.
This trip has been such a mixture of emotions – wading in the Crocodile River with human waste floating past, I was shocked, frustrated and angry. In an ideal world, this place shouldn’t exist and very clearly no child should be born in this environment. Ultimately the clinic is helping children who should never have been in this position in the first place. But the work and the difference it’s making is hugely humbling. I’ve seen extraordinary human spirit and hope.
I think the thing that’s probably shocked me most is that it really is the simple, cheap and easy things that are saving lives. After my first day, I really didn’t think I would say this, but in the end my time in Kroo Bay was an eye-opening and humbling experience.