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Archive for May 2015

Reading ‘Station Eleven’ in Freetown

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The book: Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel

The place: Freetown

I finished this book while waiting for my flight out of Freetown, yesterday afternoon, and as anyone who has read the book will be aware, my reading location of a half-empty airport covered in Ebola posters was eerily appropriate. I absolutely loved this book, blazed through it in a day, and found it very uplifting, which is perhaps odd for a book about a global pandemic. But sometimes it is a consolation to remember how little the world cares about any of us, and how it will go on whether or not we do.

Incidentally, Freetown has the best airport approach of any city I’ve ever been to.


The view from the water taxi stop, Freetown side


Arriving in Lungi


Written by Jess

May 31, 2015 at 5:28 pm

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Reading ‘Spillover’ in Bo

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The book: Spillover, by David Quammen

The place: Bo, Sierra Leone

There is an alternative universe in which I didn’t quit all sciences at the age of 15, but instead went on to get a degree in medicine or epidemiology or immunology and am now happily working for the Centre for Disease Control or similar. I don’t think I’d necessarily be happier in that particular universe, but I do have the occasional pang of envy for people whose work is tough and challenging and dangerous, but also deals with the sort of absolutes that exist in science and medicine.

This book is excellent. Like Shake Hands with the Devil (I have been reading an unusual-for-me amount of non-fiction lately) I went into it with more of a sense of obligation than a real desire to read it, but Quammen has the gift of making science accessible, and has the added bonus of being often hilarious; laugh-out-loud humour isn’t something one expects from a book about disease, but Spillover, surprisingly, delivers. It’s an examination of zoonoses – that is, diseases that cross over from animals to humans, of which Ebola is one, but also AIDS, and Lyme Disease, and any number of obscure but terrifying outbreaks that have occurred in the last century or two (Nipah? Hendra? Marburg virus? Yeah, me neither).

I don’t think I’ve ever been as conscious of my temperature as I have been over the past week in Sierra Leone – and to a lesser extent in Nigeria over the past nine months. They’ve largely stopped now in Nigeria, but in Sierra Leone you are still heat-checked on entering almost any public building, and between Freetown and Bo (about a three and a half hour drive) there are multiple Ebola checkpoints along the road, where friendly soldiers stick thermometers through the car windows and check that you are (probably) not about to a) die, or b) more worryingly, take Ebola back to somewhere it’s been wiped out. As of earlier this month, Sierra Leone was down to two cases of Ebola and had gone eight days without a new case; however there was a recent setback with a couple of people escaping from isolation facilities and becoming an infection risk. Still, it’s definitely on the decline, and should hopefully join Liberia as Ebola-free over the next few months (which is more than can be said for Guinea).


On the road to Bo

Written by Jess

May 28, 2015 at 8:17 pm

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Reading ‘Chasing the Scream’ in Freetown

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The book: Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, Johann Hari

The place: Freetown

I had the idea that I disliked Johann Hari for some decade-old reason I cannot even come close to recalling, but this book has completely reversed my opinion. Being a big old pinko leftie, I have always had a vague and fuzzy idea that the War on Drugs was misguided and counterproductive, and now I have actual facts and science to back up my ill-thought-out ideas! Hurrah. This book is ace: broad and well-written and well-researched, and Hari is very clear about his own biases, and the various points at which he is concerned that the evidence may not support what he wants to believe.

(For the record, my own view – which is not necessarily Hari’s – is to support full and complete legalisation of all drugs, as decriminalisation seems just to push the risk back to the countries that produce and traffic drugs, primarily for western consumers. A few years back I was in Guinea-Bissau (on holiday: it happens), which is a beautiful and fascinating country and also, unfortunately, Africa’s first narco-state (arguably). I spent a week on Bubaque, one of the islands in the Bijagos Archipelago, where I befriended a Gambian chap with the improbable name of Mighty. Mighty and I spent much of the week drinking palm wine and roaring up and down the island on a rented motorbike; he also told me about the ships that were often sighted just off the islands, presumably unloading cocaine from Latin America. When I took the ferry back to Bissau, a ride of about five hours, we were in the middle of the ocean, a couple of hours from land each way, when a speedboat pulled up beside the ferry, keeping pace with it: as all the 50-60 passengers peered over the side, watching, someone from the ferry tossed a bundle to the speedboat, and someone from the speedboat tossed a bundle back. I wonder what that could have been?) (I don’t really.)

On the road between Bubaque Town and Praia Bruce

One of my favourite photos, and possibly the one I’d choose to be splashed over the media if I die tragically. Bubaque, February 2012


As I write I am sat on the balcony of my Freetown hotel with the rain coming down, lightning flickering over the sea as the hotel lights flicker in echo. Freetown! I have been wanting to visit Sierra Leone since at least 2010, when I had many colleagues who were based here, and indeed the trip to Guinea-Bissau in 2012 was initially intended to be an overland trip from Morocco to Sierra Leone, to do some work that never eventuated. Given what’s gone on here over the past year it seems odd and possibly callous to be as enthusiastic about Freetown as I currently feel, but it strikes me as a great town – though of course I don’t have a pre-Ebola experience to contrast it with. I may get the chance to travel out of Freetown over the next week, and it’ll be interesting to see how different things feel elsewhere.

Written by Jess

May 24, 2015 at 9:00 pm

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Reading ‘The Last Hundred Days’ in Lagos

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The book: The Last Hundred Days, Patrick McGuinness

The place: Lagos


From one country in the aftermath of elections to another, although Nigeria seems a lot happier with the way that things have turned than most of the people I know in the UK. I travelled back to Glasgow to vote on the 7th, trying to expurgate residual guilt for not voting in 2010 (I was in Yei, Southern Sudan as was, and had been of no fixed address in the UK for a year previously, so there were a number of obstacles between me and the electoral roll, but still), and then spent most of that evening and the small hours of the 8th watching in slack-jawed horror as seat after seat fell to the Conservatives. I voted SNP, so in some ways I have no real cause for complaint – but a had hoped against hope for a broad left-wing alliance in Westminster, and not only for that not to come to pass, but for it not even to be a possibility was a rude shock.

I know a lot of my friends back in the UK are getting more politically involved in the traditional, party sense, and that’s great, but if anything, this election has confirmed my disillusionment with the political process in the UK. That doesn’t mean that I’m admitting defeat, far from it – just that I am less upset about the election result itself than about what the election result says about the electorate and its priorities. This feels less like a political crisis than a crisis of compassion. I do not want a Labour party in power that has compromised its core values in order to appeal to a callous and self-interested electorate; I want a compassionate and egalitarian electorate that demands these same values of its government, whatever party happens to be in power. I was brought up in a Labour household, but ever since my first election in 1997, my support for Labour has been gradually eroded: tuition fees, the Iraq war, right up until the way that they handled the Scottish independence referendum last year, and that bloody mug in the approach to the election. I understand that Labour is responding to the concerns of the electorate when it comes to immigration and benefits; what I don’t understand is how I’m supposed to compromise some of my key values to vote for a party to which I have ideological loyalty, but which reflects so few of the values I find meaningful. If I might briefly embrace my inner geek and quote Lois McMaster Bujold, who wasn’t writing about the UK 2015 General Election, but might as well have been, “the only thing you can’t trade for your heart’s desire is your heart”.

Also, this is the best article on migration that I have read in a long, long time.


Meanwhile, Nigeria! We were advised to be out of the country for the election, as all international observers were predicting at least some violence, and yet in the event the elections went off almost without a hitch, and Nigeria has a new president. I’m not sure where all the PDP supporters are hiding, as everyone I’ve spoken to seems very pleased with the results. We’re currently in an interregnum that lasts for another ten days before the new government takes power and then: we will see.

Written by Jess

May 18, 2015 at 3:52 pm

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Reading ‘A Discovery of Witches’ in East Africa

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The book: A Discovery of Witches, Deborah Harkness

The place: on the road, East Africa


From Inzu Lodge to Gisenyi to Kigali bus station to Kigali airport to Nairobi airport and here I now am, in a quiet café in the fancy new terminal of JKIA, having just drunk a vanilla milkshake and girding my loins to face the Java House rush for dinner. It’s been a gorgeous couple of days in a safari tent overlooking Lake Kivu: as I’ve said before, never overlook the restorative power of the briefest of holidays.

(Note from the future: Please imagine a series of photos of beautiful mist-strewn mountains and pastel sunsets over Lake Kivu and the dramatic silhouette of a volcano over Gisenyi town, because I took all said photos and then left my phone containing them on the floor of JKIA.)

Written by Jess

May 5, 2015 at 4:19 pm

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Reading ‘Shake Hands with the Devil’ in Kigali

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The book: Shake Hands with the Devil, Roméo Dallaire

The place: Kigali

I only got the idea to come to Rwanda about a week ago. I knew I was leaving Mogadishu on 1 May; I’d booked a flight back to the UK for 5 May as at the time of booking I thought I’d be making a work trip to South Sudan after Somalia; then that didn’t end up happening, I didn’t want to change my flight, I did want to take advantage of the fact that this is a long weekend to which I am entitled, and so I plumped on Rwanda as easily visitable from Nairobi, somewhere I’d never been before, and small enough (and easy enough, from a travelling point of view) that I could see a reasonable amount in a very short amount of time. And so I booked some flights and some airbnb accommodation, and here I am.

On my last night in Mogadishu, when I was looking for a book that would pique my interest, having finished the awesome Cuckoo Song, I remembered that I’d bought Shake Hands with the Devil a few month ago, and thought that I probably should read it, to coincide with my Rwanda trip. I started it properly yesterday morning, while waiting for my flight to leave Mogadishu, and have burned through nearly three quarters of it in the intervening 36 hours. I was expecting the book to be fairly dry, with a military focus, but that’s not at all the case: Dallaire comes across as passionate, heartbroken, so honest that it’s often painful reading. Almost the worst parts of the narrative are the parts where Dallaire is hopeful or optimistic: these little flares sent up from the darkness which the reader knows, with the benefit of hindsight, came to nothing, and less than nothing.

There’s always something a little odd and unbalancing about reading about a place while visiting it for the first time, but that sense of imbalance is much, much more intense in this case, because of what Kigali is like now versus what Kigali was like then. I can’t claim to know anything at all about Rwanda, having been here for only 24 hours, but first impressions mean something: the pristine streets, the obedient traffic, the feeling of utter safety (in terms of petty crime) when walking around the city, the fact that the motorcycle taxis wear an identifying tabard and are mandated to carry an extra helmet for their passengers. I’d developed a bit of a chip on my shoulder about Rwanda in the past, after one too many ex-Rwanda residents turned up in South Sudan, looked around in disdain and started to wax lyrical about how glorious Rwanda is in comparison – but I can see what they were talking about. This is a beautiful, friendly, well-run little country.

The state of Rwanda in 2015 is even more impressive when you recall the state of Rwanda in 1994, just 21 years ago. When I look up from my book, I have to keep reminding myself that this is the same Kigali: the Kigali whose roads were clogged with corpses, where death squads went from house to house, where children were hacked to pieces with machetes. This afternoon I walked past the Hotel Mille Collines and had to really force myself to understand that this neat, 1970s-style hotel with a sumptuous view over Kigali’s hills and valleys was the same place that sheltered hundreds of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994, because if they went out on the streets they would be slaughtered. Afterwards I took a moto to the Genocide Memorial: as I arrived, around 3.30pm, a great silent procession was walking downhill, young Rwandans in white t-shirts carrying banners, flanked by marshalls in reflective vests. When I asked the guides at the Memorial what was going on, they told me that they were students, and once I was inside the Memorial, moving from room to room, looking at horrifying photographs and watching recorded testimony from survivors, in they all came to look at the exhibits. I have been to a number of museums and memorials before, but never one that felt as much as this one that it was intended for the residents of the country – tourists were welcome, but they were very much beside the point – and that was almost more moving than the exhibits themselves, the number of young Rwandans who were there, reading every word of the placards, scrutinising the images, some of them in tears. The most affecting part of the memorial for me was right at the end, when you are led through a series of rooms: one filled with photographs of the dead, donated by their families; one with human bones in glass cases; one displaying some of the clothes that had been found in mass graves: a strip of yellow cloth patterned with blue birds; a Superman sheet. In the room full of photographs, many of the Rwandans seemed to go straight to a particular wall, squatting down or reaching up to look at the photographs, and I wondered if they were looking for someone in particular.

When you start thinking about the history of this country, it’s impossible to stop. I find myself guessing the ages of the people I see in the street, trying to work out how old they would have been in 1994, and what they might have been doing – crossing the border into DRC or Tanzania; fighting in the bush with the RPF; going house to house with the Interahamwe? For most of the people I know who do the sort of work I do, we have a clear memory of what pushed us in this direction, often a news story we encountered during childhood or adolescence that made us aware of how badly the world needs fixing, and how (arrogantly) we might be able to help fix it. (Disillusionment and awareness of one’s own impotence comes later.) For me, this was the Rwandan Genocide, and its aftermath: in particular, I remember a story on the news, about a year after the Genocide, about the appalling conditions of genocidaires in prison. It made me conscious of how easy it can be to accept a one-sided view of a particular event – and how beguilingly easy it can be to put oneself in the shoes of a victim rather than a perpetrator.

It’s easy, too, to turn history into narrative. Dallaire’s narrative is about how terribly, criminally wrong the international community was about the approach to the Genocide and the Genocide itself – it’s a very compelling narrative, and my gut tells me that it’s a correct one, but I’m trying, also, while reading, to imagine what it would have been like to be some of the other actors in the story, how and why they may have made some of the choices they did: to tread lightly, not to go after arms caches, to pull back. Rwanda’s narrative, from the perspective of 2015, is a much more positive one: it’s the story of a country that took responsibility, that rebuilt itself, that faced up to the worst of humanity and is still facing up to it. Having spent so much of the past several years in countries that seem to be trying their best to destroy themselves – Sudan, South Sudan, Egypt, Somalia – it does often feel that the whole world is in a state of dissolution: things fall apart, the centre cannot hold. And yet: Rwanda; the Former Yugoslavia; Lebanon – all places that were bywords for horror and misery while I was growing up, and now they’re peaceful enough that I have holidayed in all of them. It is possible for things to get better.

(No photos due to phone loss. Wah.)

Written by Jess

May 2, 2015 at 4:25 pm

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