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Transcript

It's basically a cash economy in Sierra Leone... So to run an Ebola treatment centre you need lots of cold hard cash and we couldn't quite get what we needed out of an ATM machine, so we had to put it on helicopters and send it from the capital.

Patrea

Piles of cash and the balance of life

Special guests:

Patrea Ryan, Australian aid worker

Host:

Anthony Balmain, Australian Red Cross

 

Introduction:

Welcome back to How Aid Works. I’m Antony Balmain, your host for today’s program. 

Today, we ‘re going to speak with aid worker Patrea Ryan, who has literally managed piles of cash so big … one person couldn’t carry them. The cash was needed to open and run an Ebola treatment centre in Sierra Leone. If it wasn’t for Patrea’s work helping to run the centre, hundreds or even thousands may have died. And more recently, Patrea has somehow found the time to teach herself how to swim and completed her first ever triathlon, all while managing the finances for the biggest cyclone recovery, the Pacific country of Vanuatu has ever faced.

Patrea, thanks for being here.

Antony

First, why did you decide to teach yourself how to swim and what possessed you to set a goal of completing a triathlon straight after you learnt how to swim?

Patrea

Yeah, it's a little bit embarrassing not having known how to swim at my age but I have some really good friends that I've made in Tonga actually when I was living there, and they decided they were going to start doing some triathlons, and I thought well why not join them - obviously not physically - but we had a little chat group that we'd talk about how our training was going.  Yeah, so I decided I'd learn how to swim.  At the end of my street I can just jump in the ocean, so it was a lovely place to swim; nice and warm.  So it was really great, yeah.

Antony

And was it hard to train though in Vanuatu?

Patrea

The training wasn't so hard, like the water is nice and calm and warm obviously but having a swimming coach there was a little bit difficult, so I was watching lots of YouTube videos trying to learn you know how to breath, how to kick, yeah it was good; a nice little challenge outside of work.

Antony

But it must have been pretty hot, particularly running and a little tricky getting your training done for the triathlon when - I mean clearly there would've been some dangers on the road with the bicycles and that sort of thing; were there also dangers in the water with sharks or any poisonous jellyfish?

Patrea

Yeah, I like not to think about that.  Just keep naive about those sorts of issues.  I didn't come across any sharks, so to me that was fine.

Antony

Are there poisonous jellyfish in Vanuatu though?

Patrea

No, definitely not.

Antony

Well that's lucky.  What about the roads - did you manage to get your bicycle on the road in Vanuatu?

Patrea

I actually only had one training session on the road; it was cyclone season when I'd started training, so I actually bought a trainer across from Australia and I set that up in my living room, and I would just ride my bike in the living room while it was pouring rain outside, yeah.

Antony

So just to make things a little bit easier, it was the cyclone season as well!

Patrea

Yeah, yeah. 

Antony

So you did a bit of running in the rain?

Patrea

Yes, running in the rain but at least it cools it down, so that's not too bad actually.

Antony

And are there a few potholes and a bit of mud around and about?

Patrea

Yeah, yeah, it was definitely more of an off‑road run rather than what I was going to do in the race, but that's nice; if you can run off‑road, you're probably going to be okay on a footpath.

Antony

And no injuries along the way; you didn't sort of roll your ankle in a pothole?

Patrea

No, no I survived that training actually, so that was very lucky.

Antony

And what did your Vanuatu Red Cross colleagues think of it all, what did they think of your training regime?

Patrea

They thought I was pretty mad actually, waking up so early and also trying to do anything in that sort of heat, so they just let me go for it, no-one really offered to join in so that was fine.

Antony

And what was it like doing the triathlon in the end then - you've been doing all this training in Vanuatu, you came over to Australia; tell us about it, you know was it gruelling and hard?

Patrea

Yeah, it was very difficult actually, I found it hard, especially not having really ridden outside so much on hills or anything, it was quite a hilly course.  But it was great to do it with my friends; we had a little road trip out to Warrnambool, yeah so that was lovely having kind of trained, or cyber‑trained together for a couple of months and then finally getting to do the race together and we all finished it, so that was lovely. 

Antony

So it was held in Warrnambool in Western Victoria, the triathlon, is that right?

Patrea

Yeah that's right.

Antony

And for everyone that's of course in a very beautiful part of Australia near the Great Ocean Road?

Patrea

Yeah absolutely, yeah.

Antony

And was it scenic?

Patrea

It was beautiful.  I imagine it's one of the nicest triathlons you can do.  I didn't enjoy the scenery or the hills or the wind so much while I was doing the course, but afterwards yeah it was lovely to look out on.

Antony

Just that little point you made about doing the triathlon with friends and colleagues who you'd cyber‑trained with - first time I've heard that phrase; tell us a bit about that?

Patrea

Yeah, so it was really nice just having other people who, to keep your motivation up, you know sometimes, especially because I was learning how to swim, I'd you know go in the pool, well not the pool, the ocean, swim about 50 metres and that was it; I just wanted to burst into tears.  So it was good being able to talk to people back in Australia and hear their experiences, and maybe their training session that morning didn't go so well.  Yeah, it was really nice to keep the motivation up and also have that connection with back home, because sometimes when you're out of the country for so long it's hard to find ways to connect with people.  So this was really good to keep connected with my friends.

Antony

And now of course you haven't just been in Vanuatu to train for a triathlon, you've been helping the Aid efforts over there of course for the last couple of years, as the country continues to recover from the biggest cyclone it's ever experienced, well certainly on record, cyclone Pam. How are communities faring there?

Patrea

Well we're about two and a half years on since cyclone Pam hit.  Communities are obviously much further down the recovery path now.  In particular the Australian Red Cross projects have helped a lot with water and sanitation, helping people have access to clean water and those projects have gone really well.  There's been a lot of disaster, risk reduction projects as well, so communities are more aware now of what they can do leading up natural disasters such as cyclones and how they can work together better afterwards to make sure that you know people recover faster.

Antony

Well many may not realise that recovering from big disasters can take years; there's not only the physical rebuilding of homes and infrastructure, but the psychological scars can take a long time to heal.  Is that what you experienced in Vanuatu?

Patrea

Yeah, that's right, so we've just been through another cyclone season where there were two cyclones that hit Vanuatu.  They were much smaller cyclones than Pam thank goodness.  But it was very interesting because it obviously brought up memories for a lot of people and what they'd been through with cyclone Pam.  So I think it's nice that people are able to talk about those sort of things now and feel connected as a community and also supported.

Antony

So every time there's a storm that approaches or hits Vanuatu now, are people worried that it could develop into another devastating cyclone?

Patrea

Yeah, of course, of course people are worried but I think people are much better prepared now.  So the last cyclone that came through, cyclone Donna, it was just fantastic to see that everyone was able to put up their cyclone shutters in time; people knew how to track it, how to access people.  There were you know numerous alerts that would come out from the government in Vanuatu and it just seemed really well managed.

Antony

So there's definitely been a shift even in the last couple of years and people are now more prepared and so they should be able to cope better when there's a cyclone or another disaster?

Patrea

Yeah, absolutely and I think the Aid agencies are more prepared as well, like we have stocks out in other parts of the country that are ready to go, so nothing will, not everything has to be shipped from Port Vila, so the people can access things in the northern or southern part of the country as well quite quickly which is very helpful. 

Antony

And of course a lot of that is done by local Red Cross volunteers and branches in their own communities?

Patrea

That's right, yeah. 

Antony

And have you found that they're more active and responding more quickly?

Patrea

Well I didn't see how the national society was operating beforehand but I'm definitely impressed with how quickly they're operating now and yeah that community feel and how the Red Cross integrates with them seems to be really well managed at the moment; it's great.

Antony

Now one of your first big missions was in Sierra Leone during the Ebola response.  I understand you had to handle some pretty big piles of cash; how did that come about?

Patrea

Yeah, so it's basically a cash economy in Sierra Leone; not so many credit cards or EFTPOS machines out there.  So to run an Ebola treatment centre you need lots of cold hard cash and we couldn't quite get what we needed out of an ATM machine, so we had to put it on helicopters and send that from the capital.  And the notes there, the denominations are pretty funny - so the biggest note you can get is worth about US $5.  So it was piles and piles of cash, much taller than me, that I'd be getting every two weeks that we were just distributing out to the teams and the staff in the centre.

Antony

And what for?

Patrea

So mainly we had to pay for, well there was fuel for all of the cars that we needed.  We had to pay for lunches for all of the staff and a lot of money for, that we'd given to staff when they were taking survivors back to their villages.  Just so, staff would go with them and explain that this person is Ebola‑free you know and welcome them back into their village, you don't need to be scared of them.  So there was a lot of that happening at the time as well. 

Antony

And of course it costs money to get back to the villages and to pay for the petrol and all those sorts of things?

Patrea

Absolutely, yeah.

Antony

And I understand that was actually quite a tricky process as well; there was a lot of stigma around the disease - so getting the people back to the communities had to be handled very carefully?

Patrea

Absolutely, there was a great team of social workers actually that would accompany the survivors back into their villages, yeah, it was a great little system they had going.

Antony

From what you experienced, how hard was it on the community that, you know and particularly the survivors, that they had to deal with the stigma around the disease on a day to day basis, people were fearful that they may still have the disease?

Patrea

Absolutely, so there was a lot of education that had to happen with local people in villages.  Our staff also had that stigma attached to them as well where their families wouldn't want them to go back to their houses; that was really sad.  Obviously these people were putting their life on the line to help their country and are just getting rejected by their family and villages.  So it's really all about education and making people aware of how you can track the disease and obviously that will stop it spreading as well. 

Antony

And describe for us where you were, and this is a town called Kono I understand in the east of Sierra Leone, tell us, describe for us where you were?

Patrea

Well if any listeners have actually seen the movie Blood Diamond, that's where it's based.  So it's a very dusty part of the world and there's a massive diamond mine in the background.  Yeah you kind of, well most of the time I went out there I was flying on a helicopter, so you fly basically over the jungle and kind of end up landing in a bit of a desert.  Yeah, so very dusty, very poor part of the world, yeah.

Antony

And what was it like working there, obviously it was, I understand you were there towards the end of the Ebola outbreak - was it tough?

Patrea

It was hard. I mean that country has been through a lot, even before the Ebola crisis they've obviously had a lot of problems there.  So working with staff that have dealt with things over many, many years, I mean they're traumatised for a range of reasons.  So I just, hats off to the local staff because they're the ones who absolutely stopped this disease in its tracks and these people have had to deal with so much over their lives.  Coming in for, I was there for three months - it was really tough actually to be there for that length of time, but you know other people have been dealing with this for a year by the time I got there, so it's just incredible what people will put themselves through to save their you know fellow citizens.

Antony

Now when you're working in a place like Kono in eastern Sierra Leone, how important is it to be flexible and creative in the way you work?

Patrea

Oh yes, you definitely need to be flexible and creative. So a lot of the time, as people can imagine, like we are under resourced in the Aid world - whether that means people or you know physical items.  So there was a time when I was not only the finance person but also the fleet manager, head of logistics, like you just have to kind of jump in you know and do whatever you can to make things work. So learning on the job, absolutely.

Antony

Just a few things on the plate.

Patrea

Yeah, yeah.

Antony

Sounds like it was very busy?

Patrea

It was very busy, yeah.

Antony

And can you give us an example of one day where you had to be a bit flexible; was there something that comes to mind where you had to just drop something and do something else or?

Patrea

I really struggle being the fleet manager actually; I've never done anything like that before and one day we managed to lock some people's luggage in the car and their helicopter was arriving in a matter of minutes.  So we had to break into our own car basically so we were able to get these people's luggage out, so then they were able to get on the helicopter so they could fly back to their part of the world.  So you just never know what's going to happen on any day of the week. 

Antony

But they managed to get their luggage and get on a helicopter?

Patrea

Absolutely, yes that's correct, and we fixed the car.

Antony

Very good.  And now in Vanuatu I can imagine there as well it'd be a part of the daily job just being able to work in different ways and be flexible?

Patrea

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah I think Vanuatu is probably a slightly easier environment to work in than Sierra Leone, but it still has its challenges.  Again, I think it's really important to remember that I'm part of a team, so even though I go there under the heading of finance delegate, I'm also going to be doing anything else that gets thrown my way.  I do sort of programme support of being the focal point for security, like anything that needs to be done, you just kind of put your hand up and like yep, I'll get on with that, just make sure the project you know finishes on time and of course on budget.

Antony

Now did language and culture prove a challenge sometimes working in these sorts of environments?  I mean have there been many funny moments you'd care to share?

Patrea

I imagine I've created a lot of laughs for local people when I've been trying to speak the language over the years.  There was a very funny moment in Sierra Leone when one of the doctors was translating through an interpreter to one of the patients and said to the translator "could you please ask this patient when he urinates, is there a burning sensation", and the interpreter turns immediately to the patient and says "does it burn you when you piss".  And I just thought that's great like. 

Antony

That's sort of like a creole isn't it?

Patrea

Exactly, yeah, yep.

Antony

Right. And some might think it's a dream job of course working in a place like Vanuatu, you know many people go there for a paradise sort of holiday, but I'm sure it's not all plain sailing when you're working there.  Are there things that you miss when you're there working away in the office?

Patrea

Yeah absolutely. I mean obviously you miss family and friends, like the people that you've left behind in Australia. Sometimes you miss decent quality internet, just so you can get your work done.  You know there's challenges that you don't really think about I guess until you get out to a place like Vanuatu.  And I think the other thing to remember is that you're kind of always switched on, like I'm always a Red Cross person when I'm over there, even when I go to the shops you know I'll be recognised and it's just important to you know keep up that professional appearance, yeah.

Antony

Yeah, so at the same time I guess that does mean that you can't relax as much?

Patrea

Yeah exactly, so it's been really nice that I've been able to come back to Australia a couple of times during this mission because it's nearly two years that I've been there, so it's nice to come back to Australia, you know not be recognised by anyone, just hang out with family and friends and relax.

Antony

Does that mean you're a bit of a Red Cross celebrity?

Patrea

Oh no, definitely wouldn't go that far.

Antony

In Vanuatu though, most people, a lot of people would know who you are in Port Vila?

Patrea

A few people would, absolutely, especially the supermarket just across the road!

Antony

Now you've traded your more traditional career as an accountant with Aid work; are you glad you've made the leap?

Patrea

Absolutely. I can't say that I thought that's what I'd end up doing when I was sitting in my Uni lectures all those years ago, but it's fantastic, like it's great that I can use my skills in such a way to benefit other people, yeah people who need it the most.  And I think finance is often not thought about in the Aid world, but really it's nearly more important than what you'd need accountants for back home. I mean the value for money that you can add to projects just to make sure you can you know build that extra water tank, or do something for the community, really makes a difference. 

Antony

Now you've seen the way that money is spent on projects after disasters and you know during disasters, during crises like Ebola, and there are some that make an allegation that Aid agencies don't spend money wisely.  What would you say to them?

Patrea

I think the industry is changing and I think at the moment it's very hard, there's no standard rules on how you need to report on that sort of money and I think the further we move down that track and make some rules and regulations and stick to it, then obviously it's going to be easier for people to understand where their money is being spent. 

Antony

And that's been your role?

Patrea

Yeah, so my role in Vanuatu, absolutely, is to make sure that it's all being spent properly and with our, following our procedures and our regulations and I'm really proud that Australian Red Cross has invested in sending a person over there to do that; it's wonderful.

Antony

So you wouldn't be of the point of view that money has been misspent or has been allocated unwisely?

Patrea

No, definitely not in Vanuatu, no, it's a great little project that the Australian Red Cross has made over there.

Antony

Do you have any regrets moving down this path to, you know, work overseas rather than you know maybe a more highflying corporate job in the finance sector?

Patrea

No not at all. I've found it very, very interesting. Obviously it's hard being away from family and friends for a long period of time, but I think it's worth it in the end, absolutely. 

Antony

Well Patrea Ryan, thanks very much for being here and for sharing your stories and best fortunes in your next adventures.

Patrea

Thank you very much Antony.

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