In a country beset by poverty and lack of infrastructure, saving lives is a dangerous job.
For many in the poverty-stricken west African nation of Guinea, life can be a struggle.
A quarter of the country is covered in forest, and the government has neglected roads and basic services. Constant delays, shortages and lack of infrastructure paralyse Guinea’s economy.
It’s home to Africa’s largest supply of iron ore and is rich in gold and diamonds, but common Guineans like pharmacist Pierre never see the benefit.
Today, Pierre and his assistant are preparing to send medicines from the capital Conakry to Kissidougou on the other side of the country.
Guinea is still plagued by serious diseases, including polio, diphtheria, and rabies, even though these diseases have been eradicated from much of the rest of the world.
The pharmacist’s primary concern is delivering the vaccines to where they are needed before the climate spoils them. With no refrigerator truck or ice box, Pierre puts the vaccines into a cardboard box with just enough ice for the journey.
“We pray that the medicines arrive in good condition, safely and quickly. The vaccines are good only for 24 hours,” Pierre says.
Soon after their departure, they are stuck in traffic. Conakry is at a standstill, and after six hours in traffic, they finally reach the bus depot, where Pierre hands over the precious cargo to the owner of a bush taxi, Abass.
After the fragile vaccines are placed under the front seat, Abass embarks on the long journey across the country – with nine passengers and two babies crammed into the 22-year-old car.
The race is on to get the vaccines to their destination before the ice fully melts. Along the way, the drivers encounter traffic jams, downpours, dangerous drivers and the threat of armed bandits. The road to Kissidougou is filled with potholes, so accidents are frequent.
“One week ago, a gang stopped some vehicles on the road and attacked them with weapons,” the driver says.
After 24 hours, the taxi arrives in Kissidougou, where the vaccines are quickly refrigerated.
Most villages and even towns in Guinea are lacking the most basic services.
Kissidougou and its 200,000 inhabitants get only a few hours of electricity a week. The main hospital has an emergency unit that is reserved for pregnant women.
Mariam, a nurse, dashes off to the hospital’s only ambulance. The vehicle was donated by UNICEF 13 years ago. Without the means to maintain it, it’s a miracle it’s still running. And due to the high price of petrol, it can only be used once a day.
“We’ve had a call to go pick up a pregnant woman…It’s an emergency, but she’s 75 kilometres away,” says Mariam. “We have be quick to save this woman. We have to save a life. Sometimes we risk our own lives on bad roads like this. We’re scared.”
Nurses waste a lot of time tracking down patients in the bush. There are no signs indicating the names of roads or villages.
After finally locating the sick patient, she’s transported back to the hospital. The hospital has no running water, and the operating room has only one set of surgical clamps. But there is an anaesthetist, and the woman is soon asleep.
The caesarean goes well, but the baby isn’t breathing. Without the aid of respiratory machines, the nurses do their best to save the baby. Four days of contractions have paralysed the mother’s legs, but the hospital has no suitable medicines.
According to UNICEF, 15,300 babies and 3,800 women die in childbirth each year in Guinea. Getting medicines to where they’re needed is a real problem.
Such conditions seem surprising, given the country’s wealth in gold and diamonds.
But like the roads they travel on, the livelihood of Guineans is being eroded day by day. In their attempt to stay alive, they continue to dice with death, and the odds are not always in their favour.