We always like to share with you the experiences of our volunteers in the different expeditions in which they participate, and Guinea Bissau could not be less. But this time, Alberto, one of our field volunteers of the expedition, has opened the pages of his “diary” to share it with all of you. An incredible and very accurate account where you can get an idea of how expeditions are experienced. The chronicle itself is not to be missed, a chronicle that Alberto wanted to title “Halfway between a nightmare and a dream”, a title that I should have respected, but that, in order not to scare off new recruits, we have preferred to generalise it, but it has been impossible for us to avoid it. And without further ado: Chronicle from Guinea Bissau, halfway between a nightmare and a dream.
Team 11 people
Ophthalmic surgeons: Jorge Sánchez (Ávila) and Rafael Cobián (A Coruña).
Ophthalmologists: Borja Errazkin (San Sebastián) and Isabel Sendino (Madrid).
Instrumentalists: Rosalía Mari Palau (Ibiza) and Esteban Cancela (Santiago).
Anaesthetist: Olatz Aramburu (Bilbao).
Coordinator: Teté Ferreiro (A Coruña).
Field assistants: Teresa Odriozola (Pamplona), Juan Novo (Santander) and Alberto Astorga (León).
Day 1 TRAVELING
We leave June 17th at 6:00 am from El Prat airport, where we meet at 4:00 am. Esteban comes straight from Sonar, some arrive from their cities at night and sleep at the airport and others in a hotel nearby. Others in Barcelona. Stopover in Lisbon with a two hour stopover where we have a wonderful breakfast and departure to Guinea at 9:47 am. It’s a 4 hour flight, plus another 4 hours by road to Bafatà.
We land in Bissau, pick up the 17 North-Face bags and the 6 hard suitcases at the number 1 belt and load them into the cars that take us to Bafatà.
Eau de Relec already working, in case of mosquitoes.
The chief driver is Buba-kar. Mamaro takes Moncho, Esteban, Sayo and me in his car, and on the way we check how lucky we are to have been born where we were born. At 50km/h on a bumpy dirt road, perfect for biodramine. Useful life of the cars here: 3 months. The day is cloudy, it has rained recently and luckily there is a breeze in the windows of the Toyota.
After checking the shock absorbers for more than 4 hours, arrival at the “Apart-Hotel” Triton, African luxury with swimming pool, where we take a swim before showering for dinner at the trendy place on the corner: the Countess. Omelette, potatoes and sterilised tomatoes. We smoke a good fag and go to the rooms, where the air conditioning has already created an adverse climate for our stinging enemies. The cleanliness of the Triton is not their strong point, although everyone has their own room and bathroom, air conditioning, TV and even a fridge. We say goodbye and go to sleep after a long day of travelling.
Day 2 I BURN THE HOTEL
6:30 am: We woke up without electricity and some without water, so it wasn’t the nicest good morning Blablakar had ever received:
“If there is no light I call the Presidency of the Government and we make a mess”. “I’m white but I’m not stupid. “Do you know who Speedy González is? “I ask first and then I grant”.
We arrive at the warehouse to get the bags and, obviously, the keys are not there, so we wait and when they bring them, the keys to the room with our bags are not there (for security reasons, someone swallowed it). The decision is to break the door down and agur lock.
We go to the hospital to set up the operating theatres. We find a hospital that looks like a war hospital and abandoned, with everything dirty and the furniture in horrible condition. We clean up, put away everything we don’t need and start taking out the material to tidy up and set up. We make magic and turn the place into an almost human one, using things that look like what we need.
Borja and Isa start to see the first patients and, what seemed to be workers propping up, was Olatz who had been banging on the door of the bathroom where she had been locked in for more than 10 minutes. Juan walks through the hospital capturing difficult but very real moments.
We eat chicken with rice in a space provided by the hospital and at 14:30-15:00 we start getting dressed to enter the operating theatre and start cataract surgeries with a target of 30. I am like an octopus in a garage, trying to concentrate as much as possible to help as best I can and memorise the processes that are explained to me. Terete and I help the patients to get in and out, as well as to lie down and get up from the stretcher at the sound of “KABU MISSI / MAO KETA”. We take care of the charts and prepare the lenses and injectors for the operation, check the serum levels and the phaco waste fluid, or provide material to the sterile area that those in the sterile area ask us for, such as gloves, syringes, fields. Some patients have not been able to see out of that eye for a long time, and others have a single eye and are therefore blind, so it is a unique opportunity to regain the light in their lives.
I am completely amazed at the way they all work, like a perfectly coordinated assembly line and, at the same time, like a churroshop in which they operate non-stop for almost 5 hours at an average of 20 minutes per patient, with a determination, concentration and precision that I have never seen before.
The objective is achieved and after 30 patients have been operated on, we clean up, clean up and go to the same place for dinner as on the first day. Then shower and go to sleep at 23h with 14 hours of work behind us.
DAY 3 MONDAYS IN THE SUN
7:00 breakfast at the hotel and around 8:00 we arrive at the hospital to prepare everything. The “waiting room” is full, there are people who arrived the day before and stay overnight in the hospital because of the distances. We put up some LED lights to give an original touch to the operating theatre. At 9 o’clock the surgeries begin and after a couple of hours Rosalia takes off her gown, shouting “oh yes, I’ve taken off my gown!
The morning progresses at a great pace and before 15:00 we stop to eat the official hospital menu: chicken with rice and boiled potatoes, this time without fans in 75 degrees in the shade. We urinated an average of twice a day due to dehydration from sweating.
Before 16:00 we were already in the operating theatre preparing the material for the afternoon in order to start as soon as possible.
In the afternoon Juan passes us a patient in a wheelchair to the operating theatre who has to be lifted in his arms to get onto the stretcher with the positive message: “She weighs 35 kg wet, no need to check her in, she is cabin baggage”.
Moncho and Jorge operate at a level of precision and speed that cannot be easily described. Their ability to maintain their concentration for so many hours is far beyond expectations.
The day ends at 21h after 13 hours of work, with 60 cataracts completed and possibly 60 people recovering the sight of an eye they thought they had lost.
During the last operation we start to smell smoke and we see that there is a fire in the hospital, because in a sterilisation room the locals have put some clothes in a pot and have forgotten the pizza in the oven.
Day 4: EVERYTHING TURNED BACK TO NORMAL
Get up, breakfast bread with pure life, go to work at the hospital. Assemble, place, pass patients, start surgery, paco 1-paco 2, 24 lens, patch and go for the next one. Total feeling of routine. In the morning many 10-minute surgeries and good results. In the afternoon it got complicated with the military and the Bande family. Obviously we ate chicken and rice, which tastes better and better every day. Juan is already known throughout the hospital. In the afternoon he saw a hernia operation in which, due to one of the 35 daily power cuts, they followed the surgery with the torches of the mobile phone.
Borja and Isa Scendino uncovered the previous day’s patients first thing in the morning and did the key work to determine which ones would be operated on. Olatz is from Bilbao and doesn’t need anyone, she manages on her own with 3 beds and a ventilator, and continues to keep everyone steady.
But today I have had the focus on two indispensable pieces for everything to go well, who go unnoticed and without much recognition, but who are the fucking kings of the mambo. They are 3 steps ahead of everything, they work with admirable precision and agility. They have a global control of everything that happens in the operating theatre, from the material that is needed to the material that is missing, direct communication with the surgeons and also with the field assistants, as well as the progress of the surgery. They are San Esteban and Santa Rosalia.
At 21:45 the last operation ends: 60 cataracts operated. Many of them complicated. The biggest complication, because of Murphy, just had to be with a local ophthalmologist, but Yorch is a beast and pulled through. According to Moncho, it was the hardest expedition he remembers.
Omelette with potatoes and pasta, but this time with mango for dessert, and off to sleep.
Day 5: NO+CATARATASPORFAVOR
The languages here are Portuguese and the Creoles: fula (two stripes next to the eye), mandinga, balanta and pepel. Wido tobaco (white friend) is in fula. The country’s star product is the cashew nut, and wood and fish are also important. The surnames Balde, Embaló, Djalo or Touré are 60%.
Today we arrived at the hospital at 8:15 and the electricity was cut off, so at 8:30 we still couldn’t even get in, so we started to uncover those who had been operated on the day before, seeing faces of surprise and excitement on those who can now see out of that eye again, and rewarding all the effort of the work. Then we go through some areas of the hospital, passing through paediatrics and newborns, where we see an “incubator” with a baby girl who had been born the night before, malnourished children and others with malaria. Dislocated soul. Then we pass the library where a Cuban woman gives classes to future local doctors who know how to speak Spanish. The hospital is more or less what I imagined a concentration camp to be like. Deep deep Africa.
We managed to start in the operating theatre around 11:15, but with many problems with the air conditioning, the sterilisers and several dizzy spells in the equipment. We discovered that Fatima, the local reference person in the hospital, had some resources that were not offered to us. There are still problems with the air conditioning and we decide to stop again, taking advantage of the opportunity to have lunch after some 13 interventions. We unplugged the air conditioning cable and tried to plug it into another socket but smoke started to come out. Moncho, who was dizzy and white, got up and Teté thought she was going to help him, but he went straight for his passport with the little strength he had left. We are going to eat. Some say that this is the hardest expedition they have ever been on, because of the complication of the cases, as well as the means to work and the location.
In the afternoon the pace is brutal despite the complicated surgeries. Borja and Isa operated on the last two patients of the day. Isa reminds me so much of how I imagined my godmother when I was young (who died of leukaemia more than 10 years ago), that today she has put something in my eye along with all the emotions of the day.
The 47 surgeries are reached after an apotheosis afternoon where everything has worked like Swiss watches. In one complication Moncho tells Esteban to pray everything he knows, but he doesn’t remember the whole Lord’s Prayer and Moncho prays it alone.
After finishing, as a reward, the appetizer for dinner is a chorizo sausage from León that I have brought with me and thus give joy to the traditional potatoes and tortillas of the countess.
The after-dinner conversation is getting longer every day, and I personally find the group of people on this trip incredible. I already admire them for their altruism, but on top of that I am having fun and I am growing fond of them.
Day 6: LAST PUSH
6:45 alarm. 7 having breakfast.
Rosa and Nuria are part of an association that works in the country, mainly Ganvás, and they serve as a bridge with foundations that come to help. They have been our intermediaries here with the locals and have gone out of their way to help us with everything. There are also Marc and Laura who are collaborating with them this week in the construction of a nursery.
The baby girl who was born prematurely the day before could not last any longer without the necessary means.
In the morning we reached the 200th waterfall.
Musa Djalo: patient of the month. 4 years without sight. Incredible reaction, jumping up and down and bumping into everyone. He comes back for surgery on the other eye which also has a cataract and everything goes well. He is a Muslim and when he finishes, he prays. I give him a Triana hope bracelet. Tomorrow it will be epic to uncover him.
At 12:30 the power goes out again and we have to stop again.
Olatz’s assistant, called Francisco, is one of the 3 anaesthetists at the hospital. He spends the whole morning asleep in the bed in the next room (he can’t keep up with her pace). He woke up and left, having earned his salary.
At 13:45 Vigi Seidi, who is deaf and dumb, single-eyed and has a white cataract, goes into surgery. She is also a widow with two children. This life can change a lot if everything goes well and she recovers her sight. She arrives frightened because she doesn’t even know what they are going to do to her. Despite the anaesthesia, she clutches Teté with all the strength she has because she doesn’t know what they are doing to her. The afternoon flows at a great pace and of course we have to stop for one more power cut, but soon we continue with the strength that comes from thinking that this is the last effort as the material is running out and we won’t be able to operate much more.
The last surgery of the expedition was a relative of Ansu Fati (the Barça player who had donated 25k to the foundation) called Sabado.
We exploded with joy, hugged each other and left a message on the wall that said: “In this room a group of Spaniards operated 259 cataracts. 22/06/23”.
Obviously we had tortilla with potatoes and mango for dinner, but this time there were more cold beers. We had a good after-dinner drink and before going to sleep, Johny Bissau, Ernesto and Roberto got the hotel manager to go and get the last one on his motorbike to drink it at the door as a farewell to the Triton.
65 hours of work in 5 days of our holidays. I am very happy to have been able to adapt and to participate in an altruistic way in helping people who need it so much.
Day 7: FAREWELL BAFATÀ
No + chicken with rice or omelette with potatoes, no + after-dinner snacks at the fast food La Condesa.
We have breakfast at the same time as every day and leave the hotel with our bags packed, saying goodbye to the cuquis, the fakir beds and the power cuts while you spread the pure flavour on the bread. We arrive at the hospital to uncover the patients from the previous day and collect all the material to load into the cars. The results of the last day are all positive. We take the opportunity to visit the village church and go down to the river, and on the way back we visit the shop of Antonio the Portuguese (Casa Marco) and the driving school of another Portuguese woman who has been there for 50 years. All the traffic signs of the country were there, while in the classroom they gave classes of mechanics.
We left Bafatà with our hearts swollen, our legs broken and our minds taking it all in. Jorge’s little frog in the toilet is left alone and 3-4 hours of the road that links the two main cities of the country, which is only asphalted in some sections, awaits us. Bubacar loops the 6 tracks that he has on the car’s connected hook-up, which includes a great song in which he tells us about his work helping the population. Jorge and Moncho arrive in Bissau like two Risketos because of the dust on the road.
We leave our bags at the orphanage where the Gambasse team sleeps and we all go for a pizza before the storm. The most awaited shower in history at the Royal Hotel and then a short break to recover before the beers at the Antika and the dinner of freshly grilled fish at the hotel, with a good Portuguese steak a pachas with Guido Tubaco. Then we had the last one at the Caipirinha with Teresa, Isa’s friend from school whom she met by chance at a breakfast in Bafatà a few days before and who lives in Bissau. A stoned guy messes up the Cristal by throwing his bottle of Nutribén milkshake on the table. A waiter comes out to defend us by offering him a stick and they end up kicking him out. Malarone and off to sleep with the same operating theatre nightmares as the previous days.
Day 8: BACK TO THE INCONVENIENTS
They say that in the third world they have problems and in the first world we have inconveniences. We return to the great inconvenience of not having the brand of milk you like in the supermarket or missing a birthday because it coincides with a festival. Obviously it is never right to say to someone whose arm hurts that there are people who don’t even have a leg. But we have to learn to relativise more. We’re fucking lucky, and that’s what Africa always reminds you of every minute. We won the lottery when we were born and we didn’t know it. Allah is great as Musa Djalo used to say, who has now regained the sight in both eyes and could not be happier. For him alone, it would have been worth all this hard journey.
We woke up around 8 o’clock to have breakfast and go to a market to buy cloth and cashew nuts. We put our bags in the cars, stop at the orphanage to pick up the north face and then off to the airport well in advance in case there are any unforeseen events. There are important people in front of us on the plane and there are military personnel watching us, as well as police on the way in.
HAS BEEN THE HARDEST EXPERIENCE OF MY LIFE. Physically, mentally and emotionally. I am proud to have known how to suffer and to have adapted to the demands, trying to do everything better every day. Because I want more and I would be very happy to return one day to wear the Elena Barraquer Foundation T-shirt.
Alberto Astorga – Junio 2023