Sometimes a journey gets you from A to B; sometimes the journey becomes a story in its own right.
9am, Saturday 7th March, Ben hops on a train in Chippenham, Heathrow-bound. An hour or so later Catherine leaves home in Crystal Palace. By 1pm we’re checked in, through security and clinking glasses with Guilli from VSO, toasting the week ahead.
Six hours to Doha. Time to chat, read, take in a film, relax. The journey goes well for the first five hours – even the fetid flatulence of the man in front can’t dampen our spirits, the edge of that taken off by his wife who keeps pulling back one ear of his headphones to shout ‘STOP FARTING’ loud enough to ensure nobody thinks it’s her.
Then the penny drops. The congestion at Heathrow that had us stuck on the runway for an hour or so is going to make our already tight connection time wafer thin. There’s a ripple effect. A VSO volunteer, Brian, will be on the same connecting flight from Doha. Our driver is meeting all of us at Dar es Salaam and we will be straight on the road for a nine hour journey to Ifakara. Brian’s work starts Monday. As does our filming.
The doors of our plane open with under 30 minutes until our next departure. At the end of the tunnel a gaggle of Qatar Airways ground staff are waiting for us. Our man spots us. ‘It’s a long walk, maybe you can jog?’ We run. Past dawdling tourists, past Harrods, past the 30 foot tall teddy bear talking on a giant telephone. ‘Will our luggage make it?’ asks Guilli. A noncommittal smile. Doors secured behind us, plane pushing back before we are buckled in.
7.30am, Sunday 8th March, Dar es Salaam. No luggage, no volunteer, no onward journey. We find Brian, we don’t find our luggage. That will arrive at 1.30 – there’ll be no nine hour road journey today. With six hours to kill we head for the coast. 24 hours after leaving our homes, still in the same clothes, we are stood on a headland looking at the Indian Ocean, temperature already in the late 20s.
2.30pm, luggage retrieved and finally on the road. 4.30pm the tyre blows. Quickly, deftly, with trucks hurtling by, the driver changes the tyre. A stop in the next town to replace the spare – never travel without a spare. 8pm, arrive at our rest point. Beer.
8am, Monday 9th March, on the road for the final leg. The road to Ifakara clips the top of Mikumi National Park. Elephants, giraffe, zebra, buffalo, monkeys. Is this real? Are we really still travelling? Are we hallucinating?
Late morning, as the beauty of Kilombero District unfolds before us, I interview Brian in the back of the vehicle. His words, experiences and insights start to breathe life into a story hitherto confined to strategy documents and briefing papers. Anecdotes are revealed and ideas emerge. How we might articulate the story of St Francis Hospital and VSO’s place in it begins to reveal itself.
1.05pm, Monday 9th March, 49 hours after we set off, we pull up to the hospital. Let’s get to work then, shall we?