In some ways a politician chatting to a group of children about school and football is unremarkable, but these were Ebola orphans and I was in Sierra Leone.
We sat in the afternoon sun, they were shy and sleepy from the heat but smiling just as any child should. Yet the circumstances that had brought them to where we were, are so far from what any parent would wish.
At the start of the month I returned to Sierra Leone after more than two decades away. As the country of my mother's birth, I spent a lot of time there as a child and my memories centred around the people, their energy and enthusiasm. The civil war and Ebola have undeniably taken their toll on these things in my absence, it certainly hasn't destroyed them.
Wednesday marked two years since the World Health Organisation first reported an outbreak of the Ebola virus disease in West Africa. Despite, its first official case not being diagnosed until two months into the outbreak, Sierra Leone suffered nearly half of the 28,600 cases of infection across West Africa. Four thousand people there lost their lives and 12,000 children lost their primary caregiver. Having followed the Ebola crisis in the news I felt I had a good understanding of how Sierra Leone had been affected. However, it was meeting the children orphaned by the outbreak that really brought home the reality of the terrible losses it had suffered.
The epidemic hit just as Sierra Leone was settling into a period of stability following the devastating 11-year civil war. Although it remained fragile, the country had started to make good progress in re-establishing democracy. The economic indicators were looking promising - growth rates reached 20.1% in 2013 - and NGOs had started to make real progress in getting women involved in local politics, tackling discrimination against people with HIV, and raising awareness of gender-based violence. Then Ebola hit.
I am proud of this Conservative Government's response to the outbreak; £427million in aid, 1,500 military personnel deployed, 150 NHS doctors and nurses and more than 100 healthcare staff from Public Health England. British individuals putting themselves at risk to help the people of Sierra Leone, just as we had through military assistance during the civil war. And, this Government has made a commitment to continue that support while the country recovers.
Addressing the outbreak of Ebola demanded the combined efforts of the government, aid organisations and community leaders. While the necessary focus on the disease helped the country get a grip on the unprecedented epidemic, the consequence was that progress made since the end of the civil war in other areas of policy suffered.
I met with several NGOs and businesses working in different sectors of the Sierra Leone economy. Our conversations focused on moving forward post-Ebola and how it is important that Sierra Leone and the UK have a road map to what our relationship looks like beyond aid. Of course right now, in the immediate aftermath of Ebola, aid is playing a vital part in helping society get back on its feet. However, we should not let that define our relationship with the country. Doing business is in Sierra Leoneans' DNA, this coastal nation has a history of international trade which must be revived for the country to thrive.
We mustn't think that doing business with Sierra Leone is doing them a favour. China is currently investing time, energy and money into the country and I doubt they are doing so for purely philanthropic reasons. A fertile and mineral rich country, populated with resilient and entrepreneurial people should be an obvious trading partner and trade would benefit us both.
After 20 years away I found a country bruised by hardship but far from broken by it. The enthusiasm for life that I experienced on my visits to Sierra Leone more than two decades ago is as present now as it was then, maybe even more so. But, that can only get a country so far. Sierra Leone needs investment in infrastructure, manufacturing facilities and access to business finance, if it is ever going to break free from the grasp of poverty. The UK could, and should, provide these.
James Cleverly is the Member of Parliament for Braintree and member of the London Assembly for Bexley and Bromley
Suggested For You
SUBSCRIBE AND FOLLOW
Get top stories and blog posts emailed to me each day. Newsletters may offer personalized content or advertisements.Learn more