Psychological First Aid in Sierra Leone - From our international correspondent

Rebecca Horn, a freelance international humanitarian worker from Liverpool, shares her experience of working in areas of conflict and disaster around the world. This month she writes from Sierra Leone:

 Mangoes are plentiful and cheap in Sierra Leone

Mangoes are plentiful and cheap in Sierra Leone

I’m just coming to the end of my time in Sierra Leone, and after a few weeks sweating in the very humid pre-rainy-season heat, I’m almost looking forward to getting back to chilly Liverpool. Although I’ll miss buying four mangoes for 50p (or 12 mangoes for 10p if you buy from a village full of trees), amongst other things.

I’ve been working in Sierra Leone fairly regularly since 2007, when I spent a year working in the Witness & Victim Section of the Special Court for Sierra Leone - the international war crimes tribunal which tried those believed to be responsible for atrocities carried out during the horrendous civil war which took place in this country 1991-2002. Since then I’ve been back working on projects related to domestic violence (with the International Rescue Committee), female genital cutting (with UNICEF), training teachers during the Ebola outbreak in preparation for the emotional support children would need once the schools re-opened, and regularly working voluntarily with a fantastic, inspiring education project here called EducAid (www.educaid.org.uk). There is no financial cost to students who attend – their fees are ‘excellent behaviour, excellent attendance, excellent effort’.

The project that has brought me to Sierra Leone six times over the last couple of years is an evaluation of Psychological First Aid, which I’ve been conducting on behalf of the Institute of Global Health and Development at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh in partnership with University of Makeni in Sierra Leone. Psychological First Aid is a simple, practical way of responding to a person in distress. It was used a lot during the Ebola crisis, and is used in most emergency situations across the world.

 The data collectors travel huge distances by bike

The data collectors travel huge distances by bike

Over the last year I’ve spent months trekking around six districts with 12 fantastic young data collectors, tracing and interviewing health care workers in remote areas, half of whom were trained in PFA and half of whom weren’t. Many of the clinics could only be reached by motorbike – I used to wave the data collectors off in the morning as they set out to track the people I’d allocated to them, and I kept my fingers crossed they would all come back safely at the end of the day.  Thankfully they always did.  Although during our rainy season data collection, they came back rather muddy and wet - but still smiling (amazingly).

Now the research project is over, and my colleague from the University of Makeni and I have the nice job of going back to the same six districts to share our findings with representatives of the clinics involved. It’s been interesting to travel around the country, since Sierra Leone held elections on 7th March this year and things have not yet settled down. Makeni is the home of the APC, the party which has just lost power, and the talk here is all of rigged elections, stuffing of ballot boxes and the bad behaviour of the new ruling party, SLPP. It’s hard for an outsider to make sense of what is going on, but there is a strong belief that the UK government worked with the SLPP to rig the election because the Chinese were becoming more dominant under APC and the British were losing influence. Several times people have said to me ‘your government were part of this’. It seems unlikely to me, but who knows what my government might be capable of being part of? I don’t feel inclined to defend them, anyway.

Friday 27th April was Independence Day, but it was rather a subdued occasion this year. The new government had said they would not be giving money to fund celebrations in the various Districts, as the previous government had. This may be because they were trying to end wasteful use of resources in a country that is regularly unable to pay its teachers and health care staff, or because they wanted to keep the money for their own pockets, or because they were scared that any gathering might turn into an uprising. I heard all of these explanations.

Anyway, Independence Day didn’t affect me much, because I’d agreed to spend my free weekend teaching a Social Research Methods module for EducAid teachers on the degree course that they are offered for free as part of their employment. It’s accredited by University of Makeni, but is taught on one of the EducAid school sites, and volunteers who are inspired by the work that EducAid is doing in Sierra Leone teach the modules. EducAid is one of the few positive initiatives I’ve seen in Sierra Leone, and the teacher-students are just a pleasure to spend time with, but it’s an absolute marathon of teaching. The classes take place from 5-9pm on a Friday, 9am-9pm Saturday (12 hours!) and 9am-2pm Sunday. Exhausting to teach, but I can’t imagine how it is for the students who do this regularly, on top of a full-time teaching job.  Their commitment puts me to shame.

 Rebecca (centre) teaching on a Social Research Methods course for EducAid teachers

Rebecca (centre) teaching on a Social Research Methods course for EducAid teachers

Today (1st May) is Labour Day, another holiday, but the health care workers turned up anyway for our meeting in Port Loko to share the research findings.  They listened to my colleague, Becky, as she explained it all to them – then we listened to them as they told us what they thought of our findings, especially those we were struggling to understand. It’s great to hear their experiences, and almost all are very positive about the new skills they have learned. The data collection exercises on this project were extremely stressful for me, for various reasons, and I came to dread coming back for the next one, so it’s nice for me to end the project which a pleasant, easy visit.

I find Sierra Leone a very difficult country to work in, and after every project here I say I’m never coming back, but then somehow I get convinced to change my mind.  I was determined that this would absolutely be the last job I do here, but as things turn out I’m quite enjoying this visit, so never say never.