Born to Shine in Sierra Leone: one parent’s prayer
I spent just eight days in Sierra Leone but the experience was so intense it felt like a month. We were there filming our work to show the Born to Shine audience the difference their supports makes. On my first day I filmed a birth at the clinic in Kroo Bay, which Save the Children supports. The very next morning I met a young couple who had just been told that their two-year-old boy had died from malaria. That set the pattern of emotional highs and lows that lasted for the whole trip.
The image that sticks in my mind is of a young mother, Aminata, and her little boy Daniel. They had just arrived at the emergency ward in the main referral hospital in Freetown. Aminata had put off taking Daniel for treatment because she couldn’t afford the taxi fare to bring him there. Now he had a very high fever and was slumped across Aminata’s shoulder, slipping in and out of consciousness. The medics were busy with other urgent cases and all Aminata could do was wait. I can see her now, standing under the ceiling fan in the middle of the busy ward, trying to keep her little boy cool, her eyes tight shut, her lips moving in a silent prayer.
I think every parent can identify with that moment of silent desperation and the feeling of being utterly powerless to help your child – it certainly made a big impression on me. Thankfully that moment was mercifully short for Aminata – within minutes the medical team had swung in to action and Daniel was receiving excellent care. By the time we left the hospital he’d been given a blood transfusion and had every chance of making a full recovery.
Sickness in the slums
The Cottage Hospital in Freetown is where the most acute cases end up. The children are mainly suffering from malaria, diarrhoea, pneumonia, or combinations of all three. These are all preventable illnesses but killers in Sierra Leone. Many of the children come from one or other of Freetown’s slums where Save the Children’s activities are focused. Perhaps the most infamous of these slums is Kroo Bay and just ten minutes in a place like this is enough to tell you why children are getting so sick.
Kroo Bay is a sprawling community of corrugated iron shacks built on the flood plain of the Crocodile River. When the rains roll in over the mountains surrounding the city, the river floods and all the detritus of Freetown is flushed into people’s homes. We filmed children playing amid the filth, with dirty syringes and used razor blades. The stagnant pools that are everywhere are a breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes, and the river itself, where the children play and bathe is basically an open sewer. One child in every five dies before they reach their fifth birthday in Sierra Leone, in places like Kroo Bay you can’t help but wonder how any child survives.
Slow steps to success
Nevertheless, amazingly, survival rates are starting to improve markedly. There is no doubt that in Kroo Bay at least, this is down to the work of organisations like Save the Children. We’ve refurbished the local clinic, expanded it, and stocked it with life-saving equipment and supplies. In 2008 we introduced a network of ‘blue flag’ volunteers to treat children in the community for diarrhoea with oral rehydration solution. In the few months before that, 40 children had died from diarrhoea, but since that time, volunteer Fatmata told us she doesn’t know anyone who has died from it.
What’s even more significant is that last year the Government of Sierra Leone introduced a policy of free healthcare for children under five, something that Save the Children and others had long been campaigning for. Aminata couldn’t afford the taxi fare to get Daniel to hospital, let alone pay for treatment. Without this change in policy he would almost certainly have died.
See for yourself some of the children we filmed in Kroo Bay, this Sunday on Born to Shine, on ITV1 at 8pm.
Read more about our work in Sierra Leone.