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Vol 9 No 3

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'1 in 5 kids won't make it to their 5th birthday': John Bishop's heartbreaking diary from Sierra Leone

In his exclusive diary, the comedian explains why meeting a young African girl from a slum in Sierra Leone inspired him
Grim life: With Yankin and baby

Grim life: With Yankin and baby
Sport Relief

He is about to cycle across France, row the English Channel and run three consecutive marathons to travel the 290 miles from Paris to London in five days, for Sport Relief. It is a daunting task, but comedian John Bishop is determined to finish.

In his exclusive diary, he explains why meeting a young African girl from a slum in Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries on the planet, will inspire him to complete the epic challenge...

The white sands and clear waters of Sierra Leone became a dream destination after they featured in the Bounty bar ads Ė but little Kadiatuís home, a stoneís throw from the beach, is miles from a taste of paradise.

The 11-year-old sits next to me on the muddy bank of a stinking, sewage-filled canal. Pigs and dogs are foraging for scraps in the filthy, rat-infested water.

Looking downstream Iím appalled to see two shoeless toddlers paddling through this cesspit picking up and examining bits of rubbish.

A horrifying scene, but one Kadiatu and hundreds of other children wake up to each day.

John Bishop in Freetown Sierra Leone for Sport Relief

Filthy water: John and Kadiatu by the stream
sport Relief

Many people in the UK live in tough conditions but I have seen things here which are beyond my comprehension.

This little girl in her yellow plastic flip-flops tells me many of the 10,000 families living here wash their clothes in the river, which doubles as a giant communal toilet.

They have no choice, as only a handful of brick loos have been built in this slum.

As I watch a child pull something that looks like a balloon from the diseased water and put it in their mouth, it sinks in why one in five children here donít make it to their fifth birthday.

In a sad, quiet voice, Kadiatu breaks my heart when she confides, ĎIím scared of dying because my sister died. She was three years old. It made me feel bad.í

It is impossible to know what to say when a child says such a thing to you. I struggle to grasp how children can still die from preventable diseases like diarrhoea and pneumonia Ė two of the slumís biggest killers. As a parent Iíve never had to worry about my boys not surviving treatable illness like this. But these ≠children donít have access to vaccines which could save their lives.

Kadiatu has only ever known terrible poverty. She was born in this slum in central Freetown, the countryís capital, and lives here with her extended family.

Until recently she was constantly getting ill from using the dirty river water but her family could not afford basic medical treatment. Under such circumstances you realise how lucky we are in the UK.

Iím shown inside the dark hut that Kadiatu calls home. Smaller than a garden shed, there is only room for two people to stand but it is home to eight people.

Inside I see two planks of wood, one creating a shelf above the other. The grandparents and two grandchildren sleep on one shelf and the other four children sleep below.

John Bishop in Freetown Sierra Leone for Sport Relief

Dreams: Kadiatu
Comic Relief

When the hut is flooded, often with raw sewage during the rainy season, all eight sleep on one shelf. Can you imagine one night in such a place, let alone a lifetime?

I ask Kadiatu to tell me one thing she likes about living here. I wait and wait until I realise she canít think of a single thing. The silence breaks my heart.

The burden of feeding this large family falls to grandmother Yankin, a strong and pragmatic woman, who tries to make money selling food on the streets.

Kadiatu helps out by scavenging for plastic bottles from the nearby rubbish dumps, which they wash and sell on.

Kids back home worry about whether they are wearing the right trainers but the only possessions this family have are the pots they use to cook the food that lines the stomachs of strangers. Unbelievably Yankin has lost five grandchildren to preventable illnesses Ė four were under seven months old.

I struggle to get my head around it. But their desperate story is not unusual in this slum. It puts into perspective some of the things we take for granted.

Although there is little security in her life, at least Kadiatu goes to school, ≠something she really enjoys. Despite her desperate situation she has aspirations for the future. She tells me she wants to be a lawyer, or preferably a judge.

John Bishop training at His Yatch Club

Oarsome: John Bishop in training
Comic Relief

Iím amazed by her optimism. What has struck me about this place is the positive outlook the people have despite living in these dire circumstances.

With your money big improvements are happening. The Sport Relief project Y Care International has built a community centre, provided clean drinking water points and some communal toilets.

I can see that your money is really making a difference and saving hundreds of young lives, like Kadiatuís.

Since having access to clean water, Kadiatu tells me she no longer gets sick all the time. This piece of news is a ray of sunshine in a dark situation. But thereís so much more that needs to be done.

A £5 vaccine could protect a child like Kadiatu from five diseases that regularly kill children in Sierra Leoneís dreadful slums Ė thatís less than the price of a couple of pints.

At the airport as I board my flight, I think about my sons and home and consider how lucky we are.

I recall the appalling statistic that a child dies every 20 seconds from a vaccine-preventable illness. That means that in the 6hrs 45 minutes it takes for my flight to reach Heathrow, another 1,215 children will have died needlessly. That is all the motivation I need to help me finish my challenge.

* The BT Sport Relief Challenge: Bishopís Week of Hell, starts on February 27. To sponsor him go to ≠www.sportrelief.com/bishop

 

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©Sierra Herald 2002