Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Ebola, Concern and the Scare

On Saturday I met with a man who had recently returned from working in Sierra Leone and Liberia to counter the Ebola outbreak. The meeting was calm and we didn’t wear face masks. He was Dominic MacSorley, Head of Concern Worldwide, and he was reporting to the Board on the work that Concern was doing on the ground in the Ebola-hit region.

Dominic explained that it was safe to be in this area as long as you observed the strict protocols: face masks, no touching, frequent washing and regular monitoring of your own temperature. He told us of the vital work that Concern was doing - scaling up education and community health work in a country where there is only one doctor for every 30,000 people and supervising the safe burial of Ebola victims. This latter task being of great importance as the World Health Organisation estimates that two thirds of new Ebola cases can be traced to unsafe burial practices. In West Africa, as in many cultures, it is normal to touch the deceased as you pay your respects. Concern is now responsible for health education and the safe burial of Ebola victims in Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone.

Dominic also told us of the reactions he had received since he had returned from Freetown. As per usual after an overseas trip, he was undertaking media appearances in Ireland to publicise the work of Concern. During one radio phone in Kerry he was told he was a danger to the public and should leave the county immediately. The Make-up Department of RTE had also refused to prepare him for a television interview, being afraid to touch him with pad and brush.

These reactions returned me some twenty five years to the height of the AIDS crisis, when similar stigmatisation of victims occurred. Ebola like HIV is a virus transmitted only by body fluids, so safe practices are required to protect against this transmission. Ebola like HIV is an animal virus that has transmuted to humans. Ebola is apparently common in fruit bats and is believed to have travelled to humans via monkeys (the monkeys ate the infected bats and humans ate the infected monkeys).

But Dominic wasn’t an Ebola victim, he had merely travelled to the area to help plan and co-ordinate the response to the outbreak. And he had been checked thoroughly before he was allowed to leave Freetown. Although still within the 21 day incubation period, he had been taking his own temperature each day and had no symptoms. I left the Board meeting proud of the work that Concern has been doing in West Africa and concerned about how easily moral panics become aroused.  

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Scum-bag in Sri Lanka

I went on my first long-haul cycle tour in 2005. My destination was Sri Lanka and I joined a CTC group that toured this beautiful tropical island, the size of Ireland, for three weeks. Exploring a developing country by bicycle is a great experience, because travelling alongside local people as they go about their daily lives allows you to become really immersed in the culture.

Sri Lanka has lush tropical forests and fruit plantations on the coastal plains. The land then rises through rubber plantations, then tea plantations, to mountains of over 8,000 ft at the centre of the island where root vegetables are grown in terraces. We had plenty of long hilly days cycling in warm sunshine (25-30 degrees C) but these were interrupted by regular stops. I loved to drink green king coconuts, these were often piled up for sale at the side of the road by a child who would chop the top off one with a machete to reveal the nectar within. Or I would pause for my favourite dessert, buffalo yoghurt topped with coconut treacle (caramelised coconut milk mixed with cane sugar) - absolutely delicious.

On one particularly long ascent the group became split up. Cycling on my own, I was joined by a young boy on a large battered black bike. He was perhaps seven years old and could just about reach the sit-up-and-beg handlebars with his arms above his head. He was wearing school uniform, a white shirt and blue shorts, and was barefoot. Although I was on a modern touring bike with thirty gears, I was finding it hard going up the hill. He looked like he was on his mother's old bike, which was fixed gear and rickety, yet he didn't seem to be too troubled by the slope.

We cycled side by side for a short while. I smiled at the young lad.

He grinned at me. 'Scum-bag' he said.

Startled, I stared across at him. He was smiling at me. 'Scum-bag' he said earnestly.

After all the warmth I had thus far experienced on my trip, I was shocked to be insulted in this way. I put on a spurt to try and distance myself from him. Turning my head, I saw the young lad some fifteen yards behind. He was swaying hard on his bike, straining to catch up. I pedalled on.

'Scum-bag.' There he was at my side again, smiling. I shook my head. 'Scum-bag' he grinned, his bike swaying and rattling as he leant on the pedals.

I pedalled harder, panting as the slope increased. The rattling of his bike slowly receded. I turned around to see him some twenty five yards back. 'Scum-bag' he shouted, slowing to a stop with an air of resignation.

That's got rid of the little bastard, I thought and continued riding for an hour until I met the group at the next rest stop. I sat down and related my strange tale to the tour leader, Peter. He laughed.

'It wasn't funny', I said.

Peter shook his head, grinning. 'He was probably asking you for a school pen,' he said, 'pens and paper are expensive here'.

I felt sheepish and sad. I wished there could have been time for me to go back and say sorry.

With thanks to Eunice Yates and her story of Lenny Kravitz in Japan, which reminded me of this.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Bumblebees and Jam-making

It's been a bumper year for fruit. A mild March meant that bumblebee queen's came out of hibernation early, made nests and began their colonies. The queen is the only bumblebee that survives the Winter, she has a sac of stored sperm from males that died last Autumn and when the warmth of Spring arrives she begins a new brood, determining the sex of each of her offspring. The new workers, mostly females, emerge to collect nectar from the blossoming plants, pollinating them too. Our good early Spring was followed by a long, warm Summer and hedgerows and trees became filled with ripe fruit. The bees had done their work well.

Early in September, T and I picked ten pounds of blackberries in around an hour and left many more still ripening. Back home we combined our spoils with the same quantity of apples from my garden (another good crop despite the heavy pruning I gave the tree in January) and made jam. The recipe called for the same weight of sugar as fruit, but we couldn't countenance putting so much in. We decided to try half the weight of the fruit and poured in five kilos of sugar with added pectin. Even then it seemed a lot.

We had some problems boiling this thirty pounds of mixture. I had a huge pot, but it became too full and the jam mixture splashed out across the cooker, up the wall and onto my hands. I didn't realise you could get nasty burns from hot jam. So we split the mixture and boiled each hard for over ten minutes, my hands in oven gloves this time. The jam seemed to set okay when we tried it on a saucer, so we bottled it. The next day we opened a jar and found the jam was only semi-set, but with a great rich fruit (rather than sugary) flavour. I've been eating our blackberry and apple jam every day since on my toast.

Another of the good things about foraging and jam-making is that it enables your entrance into the local exchange economy. You give a pot of jam or a bag of apples to a neighbour, and at some future point you will receive in kind. Yesterday a neighbour brought me a big bag of damsons. Today I'm going to combine these with the blackberries that T and I picked a week or so ago on our latest foraging trip (and froze) and have another go at jam-making. I'll still only put in half the sugar, but this time I'll add the juice of a couple of lemons to help the jam set. I wonder what damson and blackberry jam tastes like?