"My next task is to blow the ants from my advent calendar"

23 December 2016

Chris Sweeney is based in Glasgow where he works as a health visitor. This Christmas, he will be working in Sierra Leone as a nurse on his second mission with MSF. His mission involves working with the under 5s in the clinic as part of a mother and child health programme run by the Ministry of Health. 

Monday morning. 

I get up and shower. I think about how I enjoy a cold shower here despite it only being less than 20 degrees at 6am. I reason it's because this is the only time of the day where I feel cool.

I go to my room, get dressed, and take an MSF t-shirt from the pile in the hall. I put it on and find that it's a medium; it'll do.

My next task is to blow the ants from my advent calendar. Each day I find a new spot for it in an attempt to keep it away from the insects. I've hung it where the clock should be and on top of various shelves.

Chris' advent calendar

This morning I take it down from on top of the staff health box on top of the fridge freezer. I brought it from my holiday in the UK (yep, holidayed in Glasgow. In November), and it got bashed up during transit. It is held together by tape which has acted as a trap for many ants. The chocolate remains safe behind the foil, although this morning’s Santa has a half-melted face.

I’ve been letting our guests and guards open it. Most are from Sierra Leone and each morning I've had to explain what a snowman is, what a snowflake is, what a Christmas pudding is, what an advent calendar is. I make sure to tell them it's something for children; not every 30 year old has one.

I check emails over tea and fruit. I'm then ready to jump into the land cruiser and go to the clinic. It's misty today and it feels cooler than most mornings. We veer to the right to allow a bus to overtake us in the opposite lane; its horn blaring as it goes past with hazard lights on.

I thank Mohammad our driver as I climb out the car. We arrange for him to go and have breakfast. I will phone him if he’s needed urgently.

Photograph of the clinic

The first person I see is David our screener. He screens for infectious disease by taking temperatures and completing a questionnaire. The thermometer looks like a police radar gun; he points it a few inches from my head and shows me the reading. It's normal and I'm free to pass.

I'm happy with my daily temperature routine. It might warn me of illness; a few of my colleges have had malaria here. One of our logisticians spent a weekend hallucinating recently and imagined that I was in his room talking to him whilst dressed as a mummy.

I pass the weight and height screening area and I'm met by a familiar face. A malnourished child who was admitted to hospital over a month ago is back this morning. Mum is pleased to see me. When I visited the main hospital on a Saturday, his mum would run up to me and hold the boy in front of my face keen to show his improvement. He is tied to her back; he reaches out a hand to wave and then changes his mind and bursts into tears as I approach.

I greet the mother and ask about the condition of the child. 

A Christmas message in the clinic at Sierra Leone
The clinic is quiet and the staff are cleaning. Sand, dirt, and chicken feathers are being swept across the floor, the ward is being mopped, and a nurse is searching for empty boxes like eggs during an Easter egg hunt. I see her pulling boxes from the top of cupboards and under desks.

I open my pharmacy door. I haven't opened it since Friday. Each Monday I'm showered with wood shavings and dead termites and then spend half the day picking them out my hair.

I go to the ward. A vial of glucose has been left open and a trail of black ants has climbed in the windows, across the floor, and up the trolley. I pick up the vial and put it in our glass waste bucket. I wipe the top of the trolley clear of ants; the rest will disperse on their own, looking for their next meal. 

I walk around the clinic introducing myself to everyone here. We chat about our weekend. I tell people my highlight was the goat pepper soup I had on Saturday in a neighbouring city.

I drop my bag off in the store and can hear the shuffling of feet across the floor. The first child of the day is entering the consultation room.

I leave, locking the door behind me and go to see him.