As we skimmed over the tropical waters off the coast of Sierra Leone in a boat heading to the airport, I watched a green fringe of palm trees slowly vanishing behind us, and felt optimistic about the future. A beautiful country devastated by an 11-year civil war, Sierra Leone was getting back on its feet, healing, and rebuilding. And the inspiring women I had met over the last few days were at the heart of the transformation. I didn't know it then of course, but deadly storm clouds were gathering.
I visited Sierra Leone just over a year ago to film a BBC Lifeline Appeal for the charity Womankind Worldwide. The trip certainly wasn't a holiday. Very long drives on bumpy roads, filming in 35ºC heat, scrambling over precarious wooden bridges, wading through water, trying to keep chickens and babies quiet during filming and at times contending with no electricity or water (oh the glamour of it all). But it was worth it - I spoke to some of the most courageous, inspiring women I have ever met, who had faced terrible suffering and turned their lives around.
Women like Isatu, whose life had been torn apart by the war. Her husband and sons were killed in front of her and she was taken hostage for three years. She was raped, and witnessed horrific violence. Isatu was ready to end her life before she was approached by one of Womankind's partner organisations. They offered her counselling to come to terms with her experiences and skills training in handicrafts so she can earn a living for herself and her young daughter. She now counsels other women and offers her story as hope.
It wasn't easy listening to Isatu's story. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped during the war, and there are many stories like hers. Sadly, they don't all have a happy ending. But I left feeling hopeful rather than disheartened, because of the extraordinary courage and strength the women found when they joined together to change their lives, and their communities.
Flying back to rainy London, Sierra Leone's future looked bright. But just a few weeks later there was an outbreak of the deadly virus, ebola. The disease spread like wildfire, and had soon claimed hundreds of lives. When I heard the news I was shocked. My thoughts flew immediately to Isatu and the other women I had met. Were they safe?
In many societies women are more vulnerable to disease as they traditionally care for the sick and dying. And in times of crisis - especially in fragile countries like Sierra Leone - violence against women and girls often increases in the chaos. Soon all the schools in Sierra Leone were closed to try and stop the virus spreading further. When I thought of how hard the women I met had worked to raise money for their children's precious education I felt crushed.
But I know just how resilient women can be against great adversity with just a little support. Thanks to generous emergency donations from the UK public, Womankind was able to give immediate support to their partners, enabling them to fight the disease. By conducting door-to-door visits as well as poster and radio campaigns, distributing and demonstrating sanitation materials and messages, they have been able to keep countless families safe.
In November, Sierra Leone was reporting 550 new cases of ebola every week. Today the number has slowed to seven new cases a week. Just a few weeks ago, the schools reopened. But there is still a long road ahead for Sierra Leone, and the brave women of West Africa who have already endured so much. I hope that next spring these tragic times will all be in the past, and Sierra Leone's future will once again look bright.
Donations to Womankind made before Friday 5th June 2015 will be matched pound for pound by the UK government. A donation of £15 today could pay for two women to receive counselling, overcome the trauma of violence, and rebuild their lives.