It’s been a couple of years to the day since this amazing experience & I just wanted to share my journey again…. grab a green tea and have a read.
I’m sitting by a beach, the sound of the waves crashing around me. As I look out, the sun is rising, a few fishing boats are heading out to sea, the kind we see in films. I wanted to write this before I came back to the UK, as you often lose those little nuggets of thought, the moment you land. I’ve only been away 6 days, yet the sights, sounds & smells of Sierra Leone have impacted me, more than I could have imagined.
As I drove to drove to Gatwick I didn’t really know if I would make the flight. Travelling has been part of my life, I’m lucky. Yet the last year, my complex medical mix has challenged who I am, made me apprehensive and nervous to do things, things I would normally not considered for a moment.
But this blog isn’t about me. That’s to set the scene. This blog is about Sierra Leone, take a moment and have a read, because if I can captivate just a tiny moment of what I gained from this week, it will be worth the moment you have spent reading it.
I was part of ‘Team Gambia’, flying with Gambia Bird Airlines. A simple, happy airline, that does the job easily & efficiently. It also sets the scene for the trip, no on board duty free or extra snacks. 7 hours later, with a few delays we landed in Freetown later on the Wednesday afternoon.
Stepping out into the hot African air, you could smell the difference as well as see it…. Having had two of my attacks on the flight, I was feeling pretty tired and apprehensive, yet a buzz of excitement tingled in the background. We jumped into a ‘taxi’ and headed to Makeni. Now, you have to remember, this is Sierra Leone, it’s a country in development. I love this, but patience is key. 2 hours later we found some diesel, after sitting surrounded by locals in complete chaos, music and mangoes all around. And when I mean chaos, think about a festival, add horns, music, chatter, insects buzzing and more… and you might be half way there to the scene! Then, we actually began our journey, yet no sooner had we begun a massive electric storm started.
Again, think of the storms in the UK and triple the intensity, volume, noise and craziness! How we drove anywhere in it, I have no idea. Were we remotely safe, I doubt it, but that’s the joy of adventuring.
Arriving at Makeni, I was dropped off at my Motel, Menahills around 1am, rained flowed out of my room and a variety of local bugs greeted me. Yet, I was pleasantly surprised to find a bed and a loo to sit on (all be it buckets of water to flush it), way above my expectations. I almost felt disappointed I didn’t need to dig a hole in the ground, like I had in Belize several years ago!
After a good nights sleep and only a couple of mozzies having a snack on some white person, we headed out to the first Street Child project, a short bus ride away.
Street Child has been formed to help the children on the streets of Sierra Leone, many displaced from the recent turbulent times, poverty, teenage pregnancy & mining. As I write this, Street Child is expanding into several other countries. What they are doing is truly making a real and local difference. They have integrated brilliant, simple structures into the country, working with the locals. The money you donate really does make a huge difference.
As we stepped off the bus, so many little children were waiting to greet us, singing and dancing, with the biggest smiles and great excitement. What I love about countries like this, is children are children. They laugh and smile, we played and danced together, there was no inhibitions. Whilst we are helping them undoubtedly, without doubt they can help us. They can remind us that the art of play, conversation, time and just being is so important. The project we visited helps the younger children with counselling, finding their parents, support and business loans to set up their own business.
Once we had learned more about the children, we went into the local village and met some of the business owners, so proud of what they had developed. A real community in development, sustainable and proactive, really exciting to see & feel.
As we walked through the markets the smell is intense, fish and chicken mixed with Africa… it really hits you. I’m pretty sure we ‘hit’ them too. We are right in the middle of Sierra Leone, white people are not that common, blonde blue eyed girls cause distinct cautiousness!
From this project, the following day we headed around 3 hours into the depths of the country down dirt tracks, bouncing along. We passed tiny little huts, people working the fields, goats, dogs, children, chickens, and dense jungle. It’s hard to really give you a picture and sense of where we were, if you ever watch Sport Relief, think it’s like these projects but even more remote. The crazy thing was, that after driving for that long we ended up in a large mining village, to visit one of the Secondary School Projects from Street Child.
Waiting was the head teacher, clad in black, shades on, with a plastic rod in is hand, sitting on a motorbike. The contrasts of Sierra Leone never ceased to amaze me. He led us into the school, where we met hundreds of children, dressed in beautiful uniforms, chaotic but exceptionally well behaved. Carrying their desks and chairs to sit and talk to us under the trees.
Understanding the importance of education, the role of the mother and father, being responsible for yourself, and wanting to the best was a key message they understood. Again, something I feel we can learn from them. There is a weird mix of childlike passion, expression and joy, combined with so many of them being parents at such a young age.
The development of the projects that Street Child gives is undoubtedly invaluable, it gives them a structure & a basis for learning, a basis for choice in life. Yet, they are such a fragile country economically that these remote villages really do benefit from our support. The best thing is, the support is real, it’s building a community, work and system for the future, for them.
From the school, we went to the most beautiful waterfall, again, I am sure in the UK we would only be able to ‘look’ at it from afar. Yet, with a quick health and safety assessment (!), we jumped into the side and swam down the rapids. Exhilerating, refreshing and necessary for a wash after three days!
I have not been in any open water since Weils disease, I had to have a chat with myself to join in, but I could not have asked for a better place to get ‘back’ in the water. Sometimes things are not ‘safe’ but sometimes I think we miss out on life, because we are thinking about the what if, rather than the now. Life’s a choice, make your choices wisely and positively. Swimming in that water, was the best moment to take a moment and reflect on my year. I still can’t comprehend it, but it was amazing to be back in the water. Thank you Team Gambia for being with me.
I made the bus journey back, without another attack which was a blessing. As I’m pretty sure the driver on the way out thought the devil had taken me over when I had one on he way out.
Safely back in my hut, a night of African tummy appeared. Fortunately I only had this for 12 hours, and things settled (until I returned home!).
Saturday was registration day for the marathon, half and 10km. Now, it’s around 30 degree’s or more, it’s humid in Makeni, 95% was the rumour rippling through the runners, and race day was expected to be a hot one.
Excile Medics, led by Brett were an amazing, efficient team, and advised me not to run with my conditions, and the race director Greg was in agreement. I know it probably sounds crazy, and I know it was potentially a little unwise, but I just know my body and know what sets the attacks off. It’s busy environments, noise, multi conversations, music, travel. I had done 4, 18+ mile runs with no adverse reactions, plenty of strength training and packed loads of medical kit. However, as I registered and received number 323 I thought to myself, Kim is this really wise. I just didn’t know.
I always said, 25th May is a year to the day since I got Weils Disease, I want to run the marathon, draw a line under it, accept how radically my life has changed and how I have been challenged and flow on. So I went home, bought crisps, chocolate and dry biscuits, not my usual pre race diet but the alternative was the local food, which pre race I knew was a risk as it didn’t seem to stay with me!
I did my mental preparation, wrote down all my options if things went wrong and went to sleep, well sort of! Up at 3.30am, breakfast and the bus to the start line. The maddest thing was all the Sierra Leone’s warming up for half an hour for their marathon, in the dark, even though it was about 27 degrees. That’s what I love about different cultures and people, everyone is different.
I stayed away from the noise and group, and really didn’t have a clarity in what was right, I didn’t want to go against the team decision, but I trusted myself. I knew however, if I headed out, I would do everything in my powers to not use the medics, as I felt this was unfair as I was going against their advice.
So I started… I still don’t know how really. There we are, around 300 white runners, jogging through the hustle and bustle of remote West Africa one morning, with the locals staring in disbelief, cheering, thanking us & the children running with excitement alongside us. It’s moments like this I feel truly grateful to be alive, to be given opportunities and have the courage to take them. When are you ever going to get this chance again? I would prefer to live a short, full life and inspire someone to have courage to do something they really want, rather than a longer, safe life. Hopefully I will have a long, full, crazy life. But what I have learned this year is there are no guarantees in life, you can have a plan, and goals, but sometimes, it just doesn’t happen how you plan. The key is having the courage to be flexible and make something from where you end up. I won’t say this is easy, but really it’s a choice and one I wanted to make…
As we jog walked along, I knew I had to decide at the turn point for half marathon, if I would continue. Something about 6am in the morning lulls you into a false sense of security, we did the first 7 miles relatively comfortably (Sierra time!) and the turn point appeared. I didn’t feel ready to turn, I was at the back of the group and could just see three guys I had met with Team Gambia ahead.
I thought, if they are happy for me to be with them, I will go on, if not I will go with the girls on the half marathon route… the boys, Mark, Michael and Jamie were happy so full marathon route began! We walk jogged on, singing, dancing with locals, having a great time, but I was aware of a big ball of heat rising above us, stronger than any other day, and slightly apprehensive.
12 miles in, we all realized that a marathon in Sierra Leone, whilst I knew was going to be a challenge, was really going to be challenging.
I am not designed for heat, even on a really good, healthy day and I realized that nothing in the UK can really prepare you to run in this environment. Mark and I reckoned we drank about 12 litres of water and electrolytes, ate a lot of mango, jelly beans and bounce balls, and talked a lot about what we would like to eat, madness setting in!
At 14 miles I realized that if I wanted to even try and complete the marathon, it would have to be a walk as my brain was only happy with that. I asked the boys if they were happy with this, knowing if the answer was no, it was the finish. They agreed and we carried on. Nothing could prepare me for the next 12 miles.
Such a surreal experience, there was a moment, where I stopped and took it all in. Walking through a tiny path, jungle, half ‘naked’ Africans following us with intrigue, the sun radiating down on our white skin, crickets in the trees, mangoes everywhere I wondered what on earth I was doing, how on earth I was going to complete it, and how utterly mad it was to be in the complete depths of the jungle, yet how completely amazing this was.
I don’t think there are words to explain the moments, yet I hope these words capture just the essence, a feel for you.
As we walked on, we were last, beyond last. It’s an interesting place to be, yet you can’t hurry in the African sun, well I can’t. You have to respect a marathon wherever you are doing it, expect the unexpected, and listen to your body. In Africa, you have to do the same and more.
What surprised me and I still cannot comprehend is quite how slowly we were going, yet we really never stopped. I had worked out in my plan, that the slowest I could possibly be was 6.5hrs. So at 7hrs with quite a while to still go, I have no idea how we finished.
There was a part, walking along a railway track, with the sun beating down around 1pm, when I thought, there is no way I can do this, I am literally done.
Yet somehow, something inside me had the belief if was possible. I think it was the gratitude to the support team, the organisers, medics and Mark walking with me, that I had to do it.
To thank them, and thank you all for the donations made. We were definitely well hydrated, but empty on energy, definitely needing more food. There were moments I felt I could actually fall asleep whilst I was walking, yet every time I had a moment in my mind, I kept it there. Ididn’t express it as I knew I would be whisked into the medic vechile.
Because, the childrens faces lit up as you passed them, the eldery people smiled and said thank you, the empty space gave me the courage to keep going. The support bikes would appear, photographers & organisers occasionally to check up on us too, this all kept us going.
Around 4 miles to go we met up with Michael and Jamie, who were suffering in the heat, this kind of gave me a focus, I wanted to help them finish, so we could all do it together. So an interesting quartet wandered through the final stages, herded by a very concerned medical team into the finish.
I don’t know what I expected to feel at the finish, but I actually felt nothing, not relief, or emotion. The four of us lay on the floor, quietly. Greg the organizer, patiently waiting, placed a medal around our necks, 8hrs 30mins approximately. No one else apart from the Medics were around, for me with my brain this was perfect, no noise.
I always said I would give the toy rat I have had for a year, that represents the Weils Disease to a street child if I finished the marathon. ‘Roland’ had come with me all the way around.
There was a group of 5 boys, one was a little younger with big eyes, looking up at this weird blonde white girl. I gave him Roland. I know he loved it, his face lit up, and he is of an age that it’s a cool thing to have. He was totally bemused too and followed me until we left. Roland has a happy home in Sierra Leone now.
How do you summarise and end a blog like this, I don’t really know.
It was only 6 days. But it was 6 ‘days’ of life to the full, colour, feelings, emotions, tastes, smells, conversation, cultures…. And story book and film of everything you can possibly imagine all wrapped into one.
What the organisers did to summarise the week was to head to ‘The Place’, a new resort by the beach, totally idyllic and a complete contrast to the week we experienced, sheltered from the ‘real’ Sierra Leone.
I’m not sure what I felt at first about this, it seemed ‘wrong’. But then I realized that life and the world is a crazy place, what works for one person, won’t necessarily work for another. That ‘The Place’ is a place people can come and experience a bit of Sierra Leone yet still feel ‘safe’. This helps their country and people too.
Sierra Leone is a safe place, with beautiful people, amazing scenery and full of smiles. It’s also like India on red bull, totally hectic, smells like rotten chicken & fish (to me, not in a bad way, just a Sierra way), they have their own time, things are developing yet I gained as much as we gave, more infact.
I was reminded that friendship and communication is key to happiness, that switching off all your internet (there was no option) and being in the moment is essential to find what makes you, you. And that time, just time, to explore and adventure, whatever that means to you, is good for you.
I work with a lot of people on body image, confidence and mental strength, fitness and performance. This is great, this is essential with the pressures of the western world. Yet I would really love you to take a moment and get in the moment. It’s not about making the difference, it’s about living your life in a way that makes the difference for you and those around you.
The women here are beautiful, and womanly, boobs and bums, walking tall, carrying all sorts of things on their heads, eggs for instance, how do they do that?! The men are strong and agile, whilst spending a lot of time sitting, recharging. The children are free, happy and open. When you donate to any charity, you are giving to help someone. Yet I fully believe, by giving you receive too, you receive learnings and lessons in life if you are open. So be open, and be bold, be brave and remember you are beautiful.
As I finish this blog and reflect on what I hoped to gain from the week, I gained so much, I don’t know where to begin, yet equally I have no idea what I have gained yet. Does that make sense?
I somehow believed that I could come to Sierra Leone, do a little work, run a marathon and draw a line under Weils & encephalitis. That somehow, I had imagined it all, and I would be able to run it out. That by giving back to Street Child I would find myself again, find my confidence and belief.
Whilst in some sense this happened, externally. Internally it didn’t.
I was scared, felt vulnerable, challenged and questioned myself constantly, feelings I never have experienced before this year. I felt guilty about ‘stressing’ those closest to me for going , yet knew I had to go for me, so had a weird mix of emotions to start with. I have always thought I must have made it up my conditions (of course I know I have not), yet it’s the weirdest thing to explain, a brain condition and neurological effect that one minute has you unable to connect thoughts and flailing around on the floor, to the next being totally fine.
So what did happen from my week? This.
I raised money and awareness for an amazing, young charity, Street Child doing some life changing work for a vulnerable, courageous country. Hopefully I inspired someone reading this, that if you want to change something, it doesn’t have to be a big challenge (this really isn’t necessary or for everyone), it is possible and will add immense value to your life.
My company, Energised Performance’s values are to give back, 10% each year and raise money through completing challenges. Energised is 10 this year, my aim is to hit £40k,a nd I hope this goes some way to making this happen.
I met, like anything you do in life, wonderful, inspiring, courageous people, from all ages and backgrounds. I was part of Team Gambia Bird Airline who funding us to go, huge thanks to them. I have made many fearless, fun friends, especially Michelle, Michael, Jamie, Ellie, Charlotte, and I am grateful to Gambia Bird, especially Tom for choosing me to be part of the Team. The Organising Team, the charity and everyone who supported me, Greg, Tom, Brett & his Medic Team, John the photographer, Mark my walking side kick.
Finally, I learned about me. You learn about yourself every day. A year ago I assumed this year I would be married, maybe with a child, and Energised would have a bigger premises in Bristol.
One day, last year, everything changed in a moment, these are not my options right now, or my life right now, and that really is okay.
I’m still me, I’m still stubborn, brave, slightly crazy, kind, compassionate, honest, with a passion to learn, grow, become better & help others do the same. To make a difference.
Yet I realized last night, when I had one of my biggest attacks on the floor in ‘The Place’, that this is the place I am at right now. A totally different place to where I planned and actually, it is more than okay.
I know I had not accepted the changes, I had just become very good at managing them so I could kind of ignore them, and also not let anyone see them. You can’t do that in Sierra Leone on a plane, on a bus or on a project, so I also realized I’m not making them up. I always knew I wasn’t but didn’t want to admit something had happened I can do nothing about.
Sierra Leone taught me that I am okay. I am still me, life is just different. I always said that but had not accepted it. I’m not going to say it’s easy, because it’s not. It’s challenging & scary, and I know it’s going to take time. Maybe it will go, maybe it won’t, apparently it can take a few years for the nervous system to re wire properly.
What I know now is it doesn’t matter, because I can do most things if I am wise and sensible. (I just have to get a mediband so people don’t think I’m being attacked by the devil!).
I’m truly grateful for life. I’m grateful to each little smiling African face, to each Street Child and each Sierra Leone Marathon person who has been there in the moments, they won’t have even realized it, but they have been.
I left Sierra by swimming out into the ocean, further than I have done in a year…. I turned and faced the mountains and realized in that moment, I will be okay. And I am surrounded by people who are happy to go on adventures with a crazy girl who has ‘moments’ that need people to look after her.
I’m grateful for the moments, the moments of laugher and happiness, health and learning. If you get a moment when you think you are not good enough, realize that you are. The people in West Africa don’t know otherwise, they are focusing on making their life, and making their country better.
Focus on making your life better, with what you can control, and let go of everything you can’t. Laugh, Love, Live. Be Bold & Brave. Believe in You.
And if you have a crazy dream or goal, anything truly is possible. With Patience, Tenacity & Courage.
I don’t know what I’ll do next, I don’t know where my life will go, but what I do know is that stepping into the unknown, doing the one thing that scares you most, is probably the most important thing you should do, when you are ready.
I’ve now just read this having landed back in Bristol…. A 5 hour bus ride delayed by goats and general Sierra chaos, a flight with no sleep and a body that is really suffering from the week, African belly, throat, head, who knows what but I will take all of this in a heart beat, for I will be okay. Just know that it’s not the best ‘state’ so worth a pounds donation for Street Child if you enjoyed reading this….
6 days in Sierra Leone, I hope the moment you took to read it, gave you a moment’s thought, thank you for reading it, I really am grateful.
I hope it gave you an insight into my crazy, wonderful , tough, fabulous few days. Thank you SO much for support me, supporting Street Child and generally being amazing, if I know you, or I don’t, thank you, completely. #Kimpossible x
To watch my TEDx Talk click here https://youtu.be/E2p86KJU8hw
Keep a look out for my 2016 double Charity Challenge about to start!
For more photos & interviews please look at the Sierra Leone Marathon & Gambia Bird Facebook pages. For press features, training for challenges, interviews and motivational talks please contact 07720845849.