Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Illness torpedoes journalist's plan

In run up to election, Canadian learns lives are disposable in health care system

My flight into Sierra Leone landed six days after a helicopter crashed at the country's airport and killed its 22 passengers. It felt like an omen and, certainly, my short stay would be marked by catastrophe.

I had come to live in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone to work for eight months for Journalists For Human Rights, a Canadian non-governmental organization.

There were four of us, all Canadian, who were placed at different media outlets in television, radio and print. I was stationed at Radio Democracy and was to train reporters for the run-up to the Aug. 11 election. The focus was on human rights reporting.

There was no lack of material. It was difficult to walk a few steps in this West African nation without witnessing a type of human rights violation.

As we drove through Freetown on our first day, our truck was swarmed by beggars – people in wheelchairs, blind elderly men and women guided by school-age kids. Our driver told us that if we gave anyone money, the crowd would get even worse.

I am of East African origin, born in Uganda, and I felt a blood connection to the people of Salone, as the country is called here. I knew Sierra Leone has diamonds, minerals, arable land and natural resources, yet is classed by the International Monetary Fund as the second poorest country in the world. Seeing the desperate beggars, I could only look away with guilt wrenching my stomach.

In the days that followed, I realized the issues that bothered me – poverty, lack of housing – didn't seem to be priorities for the upcoming election. In fact, party platforms were not being discussed. A few billboards were the only signs of the approaching vote. It was difficult to know what the politicians were promising.

Freedom of the press was limited. Perceived journalistic improprieties are punished by jail terms rather than fines. The president of 11 years, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, held no news conferences and was only available to the international press.

One "political" event was a raucous motorcade, a convoy of about 20 gleaming cars speeding through the crowded and narrow streets. Loud music blared from the cars, and the chant of "SLPP." Headlines in the paper the next day reported that Kabbah's Sierra Leone Peoples' Party had bought some new cars. There was no mention of the issues.

The election, scheduled for July, was moved to August. Critics said it was because August is the height of the rainy season, when streets flood, making it hard to vote.

This upcoming election has been said to be the most important in the country's history. It's the first conducted without the UN's involvement since the decade-long civil war ended in 2002. The war left some 50,000 dead and more than 2 million displaced.

Before I came to Freetown, I had idealistic notions of participating in the reconstruction of Sierra Leone. Faced with the desperate truth, my frustrations grew. The election was looking, at best, like a faint hope.

And then I was confronted with my own desperate truth. I contracted malaria and typhoid. Helping myself, not others, became my only concern.

I was admitted to the best hospital in Sierra Leone, and the experience almost killed me. My IVs and needles were changed by nurses and aides without gloves. Worse, the medication triggered my allergy to penicillin. The doctor ignored my concerns and the concerns of the nurses when red raised bumps appeared on my face and body. I was briefly discharged, then rushed back to the hospital. There were hives all over my body. My lips and cheeks were swelling. My throat was closing. I was in anaphylactic shock.

A nurse finally gave me two adrenaline shots, saving my life. The doctor had been too busy yelling at me about how I needed further treatment for my malaria. He said I had experienced a simple skin allergy.

Later, I found out that the cocktail of drugs that was given to me was experimental and one of the drugs was a cousin of penicillin. I had been a human guinea pig.

I moved to Sierra Leone to work for a human rights group, only to have my fundamental right to health violated. But, of course, the larger issue is that what happened to me happens to Sierra Leoneons every day and to Africans all across the continent.

Health care is practically non-existent. Doctors who can't get jobs in their own countries move to places too poor to monitor their work. A lot of drugs are tested on unsuspecting patients. The industry is not regulated and lives are disposable.

And what care exists is practically out of reach of most Africans. You have to pay for everything that is used in your treatment, including the mattress as well as the bed you lie on and the syringe and needle that takes your blood.

Considering that most people are challenged just to put food on the table, health care is a luxury.

My illness occurred in just the past few weeks, and I haven't decided whether I will return to Sierra Leone. But what I do know is that I am not going to let this go. I want to work so that what happened to me will stop happening to other people.

I was idealistic when I decided to move to Sierra Leone. Now, I feel more of a purpose and know how to direct my efforts.

I am angry and hurt, but grateful to be alive. It is an indescribable thing to stare death in the face and survive.

A lot of people in that same situation were not as lucky.

TheStar.com - living - Illness torpedoes journalist's plan