My African experience
I’ve been in Sierra Leone for over four months now. It has been an incredible and unforgettable time so far; full of new experiences, emotions, and personal growth and development. It is very different from my home in Poland. Even though I have visited North African countries before, I was told by a few Sierra Leoneans this was “my first stay in Africa.” Not only is this part of Africa very different, Sierra Leone itself is very unique. It is unique because of its people, who are very open and friendly, its landscape and beautiful beaches, and its history and difficult experiences that have all contributed to the country it is today.
Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world, and there are a number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working in the country, mainly in the health and education sectors. I am currently working with the Clinton Health Access Initiative, Inc. (CHAI). CHAI was founded in 2002 by President William J. Clinton and CHAI’s CEO, Ira C. Magaziner, with the mission to save lives and increase access to antiretroviral treatment (ART) for HIV/AIDS in low- and middle-income countries. Today, it is working with governments and other partners in over 30 countries to not only broaden access to lifesaving treatment for HIV/AIDS, but also reduce the burden of other diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, hepatitis, and cancer, save the lives of women and children, and reform health systems in the poorest parts of the world.
CHAI has been invited by the Minister of Health and Sanitation of Sierra Leone to support the health sector’s recovery in the wake of the devastating Ebola crisis. One of CHAI’s main objectives is to cooperate with the government and partners to provide technical assistance and building capacity for the programs CHAI is supporting in Sierra Leone. There are three teams in CHAI Sierra Leone working on different programs: Human Resources, Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) and Supply Chain, where I work. Our team is working to provide assistance on a number of logistics activities including quantification and procurement, distribution, warehouse management, and the creation of standard operating procedures for many logistics operations for the country’s Free Healthcare Initiative (FHCI). The FHCI began in 2010, and is providing for the healthcare needs of pregnant women, lactating mothers, and children under five.
My job at CHAI is mainly related to logistics management information systems. Through this project, I am working to design a sustainable and robust process for data collection and analysis, that will help to get a better view of the stock level of the FHC and commodity consumption. It might seem to be an easy task, but here even data collection is a challenge. Peripheral Health Units, where data is originally collected, neither have computers nor a networked system; they simply use paper forms to record their stock levels. Very often they do not even have electricity. The other part of my job is to get information out of the data. To do so, I designed a dashboard with the key logistics metrics (e.g. stock outs) that will be reviewed by the Directorate of Drug and Medical Supplies management on a monthly basis, so that data-informed decisions on such steps as commodities reallocation or further distribution can be taken.
Being a member of the CHAI team gave me the opportunity to work with our government counterparts, and also better understand the NGO world, its actors, and their roles on the scene. At CHAI Sierra Leone, we have weekly team meetings where we discuss CHAI’s values, so that we can incorporate them in our daily jobs. It’s also a great opportunity to integrate our work with the other teams in the CHAI organization. Through my position, I have also had the opportunity to visit local warehouses, such as the one in Moyamba, where FHC goods are stored and distributed to the districts. I have provided training to my colleagues, but at the same time have learned a lot from them, including even tap dancing!
Speaking of my team; it is great and multinational. There are people from so many different countries. This brings great value to the whole organization as it provides an interesting mixture of different cultures, skills, and opinions. Thus, the acronym where TEAM (Together Everyone Achieves More) becomes even more true. I must admit I had a lot of language problems as everyone here speaks with a different accent, speed, and uses different names for the same things. Language has been a much bigger barrier than I expected, but eventually it is about the willingness of communication. As long as there is a proper attitude, one can always find a common language. Besides, it has been a great language lesson for me. Now I can understand many more accents than ever before!
My impression is that living in Sierra Leone is much more marked with impermanence and transience. There are many expatriates who come here just for a short term – a few months, a few years in a best case. Thus one makes friends and lives here much more quickly, as there is a sense that this may not last long. People come and go very quickly. A similar sense concerns Sierra Leoneans. The average length of life in Sierra Leone does not exceed 50 years and the mortality rate of children under 5 years old is one of the highest in the world. No wonder that people here talk differently about death. It is not as intimate and delicate topic as in Europe. It is part of the day-to-day life here. This prompts deeper reflection and makes one more grateful for being healthy and recovering from illness.
That was also part of my experience. When I came back home from my short stay in a hospital, my neighbors, who I didn’t know well at that time, were very happy to see me back and thanked God for having me back home. That’s why the help that NGOs are providing is so focused on improving health and education systems. Healthcare serves as the humanitarian help that is extremely needed in the immediate in developing countries like Sierra Leone, and education as the remedy that will help the country to become more independent and empowered over the long-term. Nevertheless the biggest and most powerful impression that stays in my heart when I think about Sierra Leone is the openness and hospitality of its inhabitants. Salone people are very friendly, which helps me to feel at home here. I’m returning home in less than two months, but I know already how much I will miss this place.