Day 10: Frolicing Through Freetown

Separated again!!!! But, unlike yesterday, we at least all had important reasons to part ways. Grace and Michael, the A-Team, had a critically important meeting with both the District Medical Officer (DMO) and the Makeni Hospital Superintendent. While both meetings were crucial for maintaining (actually, just earning) the support of the Ministry of Health for our project, each had a distinct purpose. The former was required to open up doors within the governmental medical establishment. If the DMO signed off on our project it would be the equivalent of possessing the Roman Imperial Standard. The latter was then needed to gain access to the Makeni Regional Hospital, a location of crucial importance to our story.

To nobody’s surprise, the meetings proved to be dumbfoundingly successful! Along with securing the DMO’s blessing and the Superintendent’s permission to film for two whole days at the regional hospital, Grace and Michael also managed to get taped interviews with both officials! We had been needing to get the voice of these institutional figures for some time and finally had it in hand.

Meanwhile, Jessica and I were on our way to Freetown. Our objective, like Grace and Michael’s, was also twofold; we needed to get an interview from the Aberdeen Women’s Center and Bernadette Udo. First, we went to Aberdeen and upon arrival were quickly shepareded into an office with the hospital’s head to discuss our project and how we could mutually benefit from getting an interview. We continued talking to him along with a couple of doctors, nurses, and technicians who cycled in throughout the meeting. Eventually, we secured an interview from a nurse named Margaret Bangura.

Margaret’s interview went incredibly well for us. Since we had already talked about everything we wanted to ask about in the aforementioned meeting we already knew what to ask her. This resulted, unsurprisingly, to us getting a ton of soundbites and clips to questions we previously had no answers for. Additionally, she represented an entirely new perspective, that being one of a capital based, private medical worker. A perspective we had previously been unable to find representation for.

The second and final notable occurrence for our trip was the highly anticipated Bernadette Udo interview at the World Hope International National Headquarters. Grace and I had attempted to talk with Bernadette over video chat during the summer, and while she clearly had so much to offer us, the connection was poor and we could barely hear anything. This time though, with full camera batteries and empty SD cards, we were ready to soak up whatever knowledge she had to impart on us. And ohhhhhhhhhhh boy, did she have knowledge! In our longer interview yet, lasting over an hour, Bernadette talked about every topic imaginable. From classics like “why women suffer from maternal mortality and what causes the issues?” to the more taboo topic of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), she was ready to discuss anything we through at her.

On both fronts this day was an unwavering success! We have once again hit our rhythm and are ready for whatever this project throws at us! Here’s to another impact filled day tomorrow!
(Also, I was too lazy to fit it into the actual post but omg the restaurant Khanjan took us to for lunch was so damn good!!!! We ate MEAT for the first time in ages! If any of yall go I highly recommend the chicken burger!)

Day 9: Separation Anxiety

Do any of you know what it’s like to be in purgatory? Okay, fair, maybe that time at the DMV where the clerk actually scolded you for using your phone when the signs CLEARLY say not to, resulting in you having to sit in abject silence for the next hour, was pretty bad. No question about that. Now imagine that exact same type of situation, only now add a one way mirror where you can see into a back room where the off duty employees are having a party just because. Sounds mildly frustrating right? Well, that basically encapsulates our experiences after the team was forced to break up for the day.

I, the one and only Griffin “bear” Fox, was conscripted to accompany the Ebola team on a surveying outing, while Grace, Jessica, and Michael were off to another clinic. While the Ebola team’s work is remarkably important and will undoubtedly save countless lives, the process to arrive at such an end turned out to be a little boring. My day consisted of walking from house to house with my two handlers (aka people actually on the team) and sitting quietly in the background while they conducted their survey. This lasted for about seven hours. Thankfully, I remembered to bring some books. Unfortunately, one of those was The State and Revolution by Lenin. I finished it, but in the process remembered why I don’t like reading Lenin.

It was by no means a bad day on my part. The fact that I finally got to see what went into the Ebola team’s project was great, just a little dry after the first hour. Fortunately, the others were just at another ol’ clinic visit. I wouldn’t be missing anything. (dramatic foreshadowing fades into the ether)

[Fade to black]

[Open to Grace, Jessica, and Micael at the Masangbo clinic]
Splash! Gush! Splish!
“AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!” Screamed the woman, lying uncomfortably on the delivery table.
The gang made it to Masangbo just in time.

Soon after arriving at the clinic, before they had even set up and commenced interviews, as per standard procedure, they heard the woman in the delivery room. This is what we’ve been preparing for. Rushing over the nurses, they asked whether they were allowed in to see if the mother would be willing to let them film the birth. Upon receiving the go ahead Grace and Jessica approached the mother and asked for the required consent. She agreed. Time for the shots of a lifetime!

[Cut to Griffin walking to yet another house while it pours, dampening his books just enough to make reading a challenge]

[Cut back to the delivery room with Grace and Jessica]

Not long after they started forming, the two intrepid filmmakers heard the cries of a new baby entering this beautiful world. Still filming diligently, the nurses then proceed to cut the umbilical cord and delivered the placenta. I can’t say with certainty what happened next given that the video cut out here and that I was probably swatting flies and children away at the time, but they got the shots that mattered.

After we had all returned from the field and briefly caught each other up we headed up to the office of Solomon, a CHAMPS worker and CHO surgeon. So, basically, a remarkable man with a wealth of knowledge and experience relevant to our project. He didn’t disappoint. The interview went well and we managed to get some nice sound clips despite the rain loudly interrupting halfway through. Additional gratitude must also be extended to Solomon because along with sitting down for an interview with us he has also been our primary point of contact for everyone we could have ever wanted to meet with. We would have literally three interviews if it were not for this man. Thank you, Solomon!

Day 7: Monday Mayhem with Michael

Monday morning marked the beginning of an exciting new week. It was also the day we said goodbye to two of our advisors, Steph and Matt Veto, and welcomed our third advisor, Professor Michael Kramp. After two days of travel delays, Michael surprisingly arrived with loads of energy and a zest for life that we were lacking after a week of long days. His energy was revitalizing, however, and we had a very productive day.

We travelled to a rural village called Lungi. With our translator Yakuba’s help, we got approval from the village chief to film. We interviewed a Traditional Birth Attendant, Community Health Officer, Traditional Healer, and two mothers in the village. They were all very welcoming and we learned a lot from their interviews.

After interviewing, we walked through the village, surrounded by about 30 children all screaming “apato!” which means “white man.” Professor Kramp played soccer with the kids to distract them while we got some footage of daily life. It was a very overwhelming filming experience, with chickens running every which way and kids shouting in the background of all of our film. It was an extremely authentic experience, however, and we were thankful for the village’s kindness.

After the busy energy of the village, we were very tired. We drove back to World Hope and dumped our footage before heading to the restaurant for dinner. We had a team meeting in the evening and planned the rest of our week. Looking ahead, we will have a busy couple of days! We are all excited to see what the next few days entail.

Day 6: A Splendid Sabbath

“And on the seventh day [the GSIF Safe Motherhood Documentary students] ended Their work which They had done, and They rested on the seventh day from all Their work which They had done.” Or so the scripture (prophesy?) said, yet reality had something else in store. Rising with less zeal than normal, desperately in need of a rest, we persevered and had a day of logistical fun.
We managed to transcribe a solid portion of our existing interviews, a slow, laborious process considering the slow wifi speed, heavy accents, and multiple translation files we had to parse through for each interview. Later on in the day, functioning as a much needed break from the monotony of transcription, we managed to review our mounds of footage with Stephine Veto, the university videographer. Quickly sifting through oor footage, she provided invaluable insight into how we could improve for the future.
These insights, critical to our progress going forward, could not have come at a better time considering the day we have planned for tomorrow (stay tuned!!) and need to be ready to perform at optimal levels. The brilliant timing was further supported by the fact that Stephine and her husband, Matt Veto (shoutout both of yall, much love and travel safe (: ) are scheduled to head back to the states tomorrow at noon. Thankfully, their collective experience and knowledge helped us hit the ground running in the country and today’s advice was just icing on the cake. We wouldn’t be where we are without you Mr. and Mrs. Veto!!! Thanks bunches again!
Anyway, with that gushy, emotional outburst over I can wrap things up here with the last bit of notable news. Now this isn’t to say the event about to occur isn’t big – were quacking in our boots with excitement over here actually. But enough build up, the big news here is… Our brilliant project advisor Michael Kramp (English department, Lehigh University, Bethlehem PA, USA) is joining us. He’s been enroute for two days now thanks to some pesky delays, but despite the setbacks we know he’s revved up and ready to go!
And so ends our first week in Sierra Leone. We made some memories, had a few laughs, got way more footage than we expected, and are ready for more! We finally have our schedule fully planned for the rest of the trip and feel like there will be some powerful interviews in our near future (and not to mention some sick b-roll!). As always, stay tuned and have a beautiful night.

Day 5: The Proactive Pastor

Oh, the weekend. A time for all to catch up on sleep, relax, or maybe have a drink or two? Here it’s no different, unless you are on the Safe Motherhood Documentary team. While everyone else was sawing logs until an unbelievable 10:30 in the morning, we, as the intrepid documentarians, were up at 8:00 AM. We had a long day of meeting with mother support groups ahead of us and hadn’t a moment to spare. The mothers were waiting, we just had to go out and find them.

Since we were leaving at this ungodly hour, we had the usually over packed van to ourselves. Feet spread, arms sprawled, and spirits high we went out to our first mother support group, located a few miles away in a local village. Our car soon rolled up on the village entrance. The women, cloaked in vibrant, tropical fabrics, intricately braiding each other’s hair, were waiting for us out front. Jumping out of the van, tentatively heading up, uneasily interrupting their flow, we approached and introduced ourselves, hoping to be allowed a peek behind the curtain into their daily activities.

Thankfully, they embodied the Platonic ideal of Sierra Leonean openness and kindness. After less than thirty minutes of small talk we had gained enough of their trust to be granted free roam around the village, so long as we were accompanied by a group of fifteen tiny children. Making our way through the village we captured footage of women washing clothes, cooking lunch, making cooking oil, and simply caring for children. Through it all we managed to secure a substantial amount of b-roll, something we were previously severely lacking.

Before we left though we managed to pull a member of the women’s support group aside and sit her down for an interview. Considering we only had one interview with a mother so far, this was an important moment, but I’m not afraid to admit the reality; it wasn’t our best. I wouldn’t even say it was our fault though, she was just shy. No matter how many icebreaker questions we provided her, she remained reserved, unwill to share her true feelings. We managed to get a couple nice soundbites out of it but for the most part had heard it all before.

Upon wrapping up in the village we began the “ten minute” walk back to the Makombo. At least that’s how long we were told it would be. After personally completing the arduous trek I can say with little editorialization that it was a tad longer than “ten minutes.” It was, in actuality, closer to an hour, or about five kilometers if you’d prefer the distance measured out. But, despite the odds, we made it back and enjoyed a much needed rest before heading out to the next mother support group.

Flash forward a couple wrong turns and a half an hour later and we arrived at the second mother support group. Heading straight up to a house this time, feeling emboldened by our previous outing, we quickly made contact with a few of the mothers. Our translator then negotiated the terms of the interview, a woman and her child were called over, and we got right to our second interview of the day.
Unlike the first, this woman had a bit she wanted to get off her chest and was actually engaged in the discussion. She talked about the lack of drugs in the clinics, told us a heart wrenching story of a maternal death, and finally touched on the role men play in bringing up a child. Her information, enlightening and moving, was just what we were missing. We had heard vague things about the things she talked about but, until now, had no film to back it up.
From her we moved on to one of the leaders of the group. She, in a fiery yet compassionate manner, described the issues mothers face when dealing with the healthcare system. Painting vivid scenes of the healthcare systems failures, she explained the need for communities to have these support groups. Through emphasizing local, community focused care and education her village has been able to dramatically reduce the number of complicated deliveries and almost eliminate maternal deaths. While she was clear this vanguard party of maternal health has been effective on one front, she did not equivocate on the need to continuously improve, especially when it comes to the health of children. In a heartbreaking turn, she viscerally described how she lost five of her nine children, making it clear that the struggle doesn’t end with the mother.

After our best interview yet we began packing up and prepared to leave. But then I (Griffin) asked if we were supposed to also interview her husband, a local pastor. Realizing the opportunity before us we promptly set back up and got the man all pretty and mic’d up. Taking the lead for this one I began by asking about his role as pastor, husband, and father. And while all illuminating answers, the real beauty began when asking him to comment on the healthcare system and traditional beliefs.

We had been trying to get someone to talk about corruption in the healthcare system ever since we got here, but to no avail. The CHOs and nurses, hoping to protect their rackets, had only denied its existence, despite all the signs directly addressing the challenge. This man, unshackled from the bureaucratic restraints and free from potential personal gain, talked at length about the various forms of corruption within the system. From charging for ostensibly free drugs and treatments to diverting drug shipments to privately owned pharmacies, he exposed it all.

In addition to blowing the whistle on the whole medical establishment he also bridged a lacuna in our knowledge by elaborating on traditional superstitions and healing practices. He explained people’s affinity for using charms and herbs to treat serious ailments, how women associate condoms and contraception with demons and physical harm, and why people trust traditional healers, all of which we desperately needed to get on tape. Upon concluding his interview we all agreed to follow up with him and the community at his church next Sunday.

All in all, it was a productive day. Finally being able to avoid our gasoline reeking office at World Hope and instead get out and see the country was a true blessing. Who knows, maybe the pastor included us in his prayers? Regardless, it was still an incredible day.

Day 4: Documentary Daydreams

So, picture this: you just had your best day in Sierra Leone, met incredible people, and got what you thought to be bunches of great, moving footage. Home from a productive day, you lay your head to sleep, filled with swirls of excitement and content with yourself and the progress your team made today. After so much uncertainty leading up to this trip, double guessing your every decision, things finally seemed to be coming together. How could it get any better than this?

News flash, it basically can’t! You awake the next morning, the world has crashed around you, leaving you floating in an endless void of unrelated clips, photos, and interviews! The horror! The horror!
And then it stops. Looking around the placid, arid room, everything appears to be in order. The mosquito net, anchoring you to the reality of another hard days work ahead, lies overhead, swaying ever so slightly in the AC’s steady flow. The feelings of grandeur and wholeness from the previous day diminished, you have to go out and, somehow, try to top yourself again. But as the day winds to a close, and I sit on the periphery of the nearby birthday celebration, I can say with sincerity that I feel we managed the seemingly impossible. Today was the best yet, and the feelings of excitement and hope for futurity bubble winin me stronger than ever.

We headed straight from the Makambo to the first of our two clinics for the day. This was one we had been to the day before, the one with the incredible midwife. Since we had already established contact with the workers here it was much easier to get into the swing of things this time. We were able to get more b-roll than we thought even possible, got footage of a pregnant woman in the exam room, and, best of all, interviewed our first mother.

Leaving the first clinic, we began the decently long journey to the second. This was one of the more out of the way clinics, taking us along a winding dirt road with mountains looming in the distance. But don’t let its isolation fool you, this is easily one of the largest, best equipt, cleanest clinics we’ve been to so far. Here we managed to get more b-roll footage to supplement our first interview. Nothing absurd, but necessary. And we got it.

All in all, it was an immensely productive day. The interview with the mother was a massive step forward and we already feel much more confident with what we need to do going forward. Now we just have to keep up the pace. Afterall, our only limitation is our own inhibition.

Day 3: Harbingers of Hope

We were woken by the jarring sound of our alarms this morning, marking the start of another busy day in Sierra Leone. After a nourishing breakfast in the hotel, we loaded into the Land Cruiser and began our precarious journey to the first clinic. SHUMP! BUMP! BANG! Each jostle of the van took us further down the pothole ridden road towards adventure. Along the drive, we watched as buildings become sparse, indicating we had entered more rural regions. Children walking along the road waved and yelled as we passed, adding some smiles to our ride.

Upon arriving at the first clinic of the day, we were cramped and sore from the tight squeeze in the back of the van, but were nonetheless excited to talk to the CHO (community health officer) in charge. A man of medicine for over a quarter century, he had dedicated his life to serving the people of his community, and it showed. His level of knowledge and experienced was unparalleled, even rivaling some doctors we’ve seen in the US. As a result of his years of training he was able to provide us with exceptional insights, resulting in one of the best interviews to date! He was truly a beacon of hope for the future of maternal health.

Then, we continued on to the next clinic. At this final stop we got to talk to another CHO, a maternal and child health assistant, and, best of all, a midwife. There were mothers in beautiful, vibrant dresses, cradling their children, rubbing their heads, and calming them down before heading in for treatment. The clinic staff, especially the midwife, provided us with moving, personal stories of struggle, loss, and victories against the seemingly unrelenting forces at work against the mothers. Hearing these experiences again provided us with that glimmer of hope we need to show.
If only everyone were like those we met today. From generation to generation, from the older CHO at the first clinic, to the recently graduated midwife at the second, these encounters showed how this dedication to stopping maternal mortality transcends generations.

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Day 2: Rainy Day Rundown

After a restful sleep under the safety of our mosquito net, we woke up to the thunderous rumble of the rain on the roof. We made our way to breakfast and with filled bellies, we hopped into the land cruiser and made our way towards the clinics. Our first stop was at Kagbaineh, where we conducted our first interview on camera with a Community Health Officer. With nervous hands and jumbled minds, we set up the film equipment and began asking our questions. The CHO was very helpful and provided elaborate answers. Despite our time limit and the never-ending questions from the other two teams who were with us, we successfully performed our first interview for our documentary.

Our next adventure took place at Kamabai, a very well-developed clinic with an incredible staff. Although it was a cloudy day with sprinkles of rain slowly but surely drenching us, we found refuge under a roof and proceeded to film our next interview. Our next interviewee was also a CHO who was able to give us detailed information about the programs and technology they have available for screening their patients. Their walls were decorated with all kinds of health-related posters and charts that tracked the number of visits of pregnant women. After a great interview with beautiful lighting, we were given a tour around the clinic before jumping back into the crowded land cruiser and heading to our third destination at Binkolo.

As we stepped into Binkolo where the chickens were scrambling to avoid us foreigners, the staff led us inside where we sat on long benches. We quickly set up our film equipment for the last time and once again, conducted another successful interview with the CHO working there. The walls in the post were covered with trackers from each year where pregnant women’s visits were recorded. Afterward, we headed back to the World Hope compound and organized our footage into different folders. Last but not least, we began transcribing the interviews while Griffin attended a meeting with the District Health Officer as our team representative.

Day 1: Battered and Baffled

After what one could call a “challenging” flight and an even more challenging van ride, we made it to Makeni with high spirits and only slightly battered bodies. Since we all went to sleep pretty much as soon as we reached the hotel, our first real work started today.

We began the day by getting acquainted with World Hope International and the people who support their mission. Their facility will serve as our headquarters while we are in country so it was nice to have some time to get used to it. During this time when we were just walking around, we thought it would be a good idea to get some B-roll shots done. It was a good idea too! The WHI grounds were a great place to get used to shooting outside while also meeting some more of the workers and familiarizing ourselves with it all.

Returning from the quick shooting session, we made it back to HQ just in time to meet up with Solomon, a CHW surgeon we had talked to on Zoom a couple weeks ago. It was great to just briefly catch up with him, but more importantly we managed to set up a meeting when we can interview him tomorrow. He’s an extremely knowledgeable guy and will also serve as a great connection for us to meet other people in the community. Around the same time we saw Solomon we also ran into Bernadette Udo, who we had also talked to on Zoom. Bernadette is the Project Manager of Trafficking-In-Persons at World Hope International, and is also a trained nurse and midwife. Unfortunately, she was busy today so we couldn’t speak long, but she made it clear she wants to meet with us when she has more time.
With our preliminary meetings out of the way, the three of us and Matt Veto decided to go take a walk through the city and market while also getting more B-roll. Never in my life have I seen a more vibrant city. Every corner was teeming with life and activity. From the screeching shopkeepers to the zipping motorbikes, everyone was going about their day and we were able to just sit back and take it all in. The vibrant life and atmosphere, the aura exuded by the city, was unparalleled in its endearing, chaotic character.

Upon returning to the WHI compound we took a second to take a deep breath and rest. The city was great, but a little tiring. During this small rest we made sure to dump all our footage and pictures onto the laptop and harddrives, organizing them by type and date along the way. This way we’ll be prepared for actually putting the film together.
This pretty much wraps up the progress from the last couple days. We have our next couple days set but will of course update as developments occur. As of now the plan is to interview Solomon tomorrow, Bernadette later this week, and go to our first clinic on Wednesday. Things are off to a great start, glad to finally be in Salone.