By: Mike Scialom
It is a country of more than eight million people, yet there are no respiratory physicians in Sierra Leone.
Now two Sierra Leoneans working in Cambridge are looking to change that. They have lined up a fundraiser for a new Lung Health Centre in the West African nation.
Taking place on October 21 at Anstey Hall, the four-star property in Trumpington, it will feature keynotes from the clinic’s founders and from Eddy Smythe, whose father Johnny Smythe was one of the first African pilots to join the RAF in the Second World War – and was a senior officer on the historic HMT Windrush in 1948.
The healthcare charity was founded by Adama and James Fofana in 2020. James is an academic service officer at Anglia Ruskin University, while Adama was a clinical research coordinator at Papworth Hospital for 15 years until earlier this year.
“The lung is a very delicate part of the body,” says Adama. “At Papworth, I saw people struggle with respiratory issues and it upset me. I didn’t like to see people who need a lung to help them breathe, and if this happens in the UK, which is an advanced country, and there are people with such debilitating illnesses, how must it be in my country? We did a survey and found in Sierra Leone there is no ministry dealing with these services. There are no respiratory physicians in the country at all.”
“It’s a country of eight million people and there is no respiratory physician,” notes James. “This was confirmed by the deputy chief medical officer at the Ministry of Health: he said people with breathing difficulties are tested for TB. If the test is negative but there are still breathing difficulties they get oxygen for an hour or two and they are sent home.”
“This is the first lung health clinic to open in the country,” says Adama.
A site has been found in Bo, Sierra Leone’s second-largest city. The deposit has been paid: the fundraiser is to help the clinic meet its target of opening in April.
“To start with we’re looking at two to three nurses, one community health officer, and a medical doctor,” says James. “We will be over there full time to oversee the running of the clinic and once it’s open we want to ensure it operates the way we want it to operate.”
James and Adama, who met in the UK, have already proved they are battlers. James arrived from Sierra Leone in 2000 and it wasn’t until 2008 that he got indefinite leave to stay.
“I came at a time of war in Sierra Leone, then applied for asylum. It was a very long journey after that, with lots of challenges. I was taken to Heathrow airport once, to be deported, but a court injunction stopped my removal. Then I got indefinite leave.”
Adama had arrived in the UK in 2003 – “I think I was around 17” – as an only child, having already faced her challenges.
“I came on a dependent’s visa,” she recalls. “What happened was, I came to a couple when I was around eight or nine, this happened back home during the war as James said. I have lost both my parents and I came to this couple and got a job as a maid to look after their son and I was so good they decided to adopt me.”
Adama became the maid to the couple’s children and travelled with them for their work in South Africa and then England.
“They decided for all of us to come here,” she says.
Another Sierra Leonian with a powerful back story is Eddy Smythe, who will be talking to the Anstey Hall attendees about his father, Johnny Smythe, who was recruited to the RAF during the Second World War. After becoming a navigator for Bomber Command, Johnny was shot down and interned in a prisoner-of-war camp near in Germany. The camp was liberated by the Russians 18 months later.
“He volunteered to join the RAF when the war broke out, it was 1940,” says Eddy, who lives in Oxfordshire. “Until 1939 there was a colour bar on the RAF and when the war started they lifted the colour bar when it became clear they would need more people to crew the bombers. They reached out to the Commonwealth – initially to the white colonies, including Canada and Australia, and when the war became desperate they recruited from the Black colonies. It was just 60 men from the whole of Africa and Johnny was one of six from Sierra Leone.
“They sent RAF colonial officers to Sierra Leone who administered all cognitive and physical medical tests: lots volunteered and they set sail. After disembarking at Greenock in Scotland they were billeted at St John’s Wood and did their training at Lord’s Cricket Ground.
“Johnny was selected for aircrew training and trained initially to be a pilot: he was even flying solo. But at the time bombing accuracy was very poor – just one bomb from every bomb load was landing within five miles of the target. So they took on navigators, and those with high marks for mathematics were then switched to training as a navigator.
“Out of 95 or 96 men who started training, six were promoted and Johnny became Flight Officer Johnny Smythe: he was eating in the mess, he was being saluted.”
Flight Officer Smythe was stationed at Downham Market when he went on a mission – his fifth – which resulted in his plane being shot down “not far from Mannheim”. “He evaded capture for 24 hours.”
After a “pretty rough” interrogation he was sent to Stalag Luft 1, in Barth, East Germany, where he spent the next 18 months before being freed by the Russians.
“Father said he wasn’t sure whether to rejoice or be scared but they were freed and flown back to London,” says Eddy of his father’s liberation. “He immediately volunteered for a second tour.”
Then the war ended and Johnny was reassigned to other duties.
“He was seconded to the Colonial Office, whose role was to look after the welfare of mainly ex-Caribbean men from the military: Johnny helped them to defend them in court martial situations.”
What happened next is historic. The Colonial Office sent him out as a senior officer on HMT Windrush in 1948, returning with 1,027 passengers – including from Trinidad, Jamaica and Bermuda – who then had the daunting challenge of integrating into post-war Britain.
“While in this [Colonial Office] role he was required to board the Windrush,” says Eddy. “He was the senior officer on that ship. When it got to Jamaica, the Jamaican authorities appealed for help. At that time there was a lot of hardship, and the Colonial Office [in London] said to Johnny ‘You need to interview these men and come up with some answers as to what we should do’ and Johnny recommended that these men come back to Britain.
“The Colonial Office accepted his recommendation and that ship came back to Britain with what is now called the Windrush Generation. When it got back to Tilbury people were crowding on docks and planes flying overhead. He didn’t know it was a big deal.”
John de Bruyne, who is hosting the event at Anstey Hall, said: “I first met Eddy Smythe at a wake held at Anstey Hall and I heard about his late father’s fascinating war-time experience in the RAF.
“We were then approached by a local couple born in Sierra Leone who wanted to host a charity event here. I realised that Eddy’s father had come from Sierra Leone and I put them in touch.
“Being able to host charity events at Anstey Hall is always a great pleasure.”
You can hear more about Johnny Smythe and his spectacular rise to Attorney General of Sierra Leone – and his meetings with John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King – at Anstey Hall, along with James and Adama’s stories, on October 21.
The event, which starts at 6 pm, lasts two hours and is free to attend.