IT IS two years ago this month that an official state of emergency was declared in Sierra Leone. The Ebola virus was sweeping through the country, leaving a trail of fear and destruction in its wake.
News of the rising number of dead from the epidemic became ever more prominent internationally. Over a two-year period, in Sierra Leone, more than 4000 people died, and 12,000 children were orphaned; across West Africa as a whole, 12,000 people lost their lives.
The international film crews brave enough to cover the height of the crisis have now gone home, and the virus is a distant memory for most of us. I went to Sierra Leone to find out what life is like today for those who lost parents, siblings, and children to one of the worst epidemics in modern history.
A DUSTY drive through the red earth of pre-monsoon Sierra Leone takes me to MaConteh, a small village near Kambia, in the south of the country.
Four-year-old Aminata, and her brother Douda, who is five, are playing a game of chase under a mango tree. Their father is trying to get them to sit down. Like children the world over, they decide to co-operate when they are coaxed with a biscuit.
Watching them quietly eating biscuits on their father’s lap, I find it hard to imagine that, 18 months ago, their lives were at risk from the virus that struck their village and killed their mother.
In 2015, a quarter of the population of MaConteh died in the epidemic. Armed soldiers stood guard outside the quarantined village, preventing anyone from entering or leaving. The surrounding communities ceased all contact and trade.
Aminata and Douda were fortunate to survive; many other children in the village did not. Now their father, Abu, who is 28, is adjusting to life as a single parent.
Previously, he was a successful farmer, but, because no one would trade with food producers in quarantined areas, he was left with no choice but to eat what he grew, and to use the grain that would have been next year’s crop to feed the community. He is just one of many to have faced this problem.
Businesses across the nation are only just beginning to show signs of recovery. The economy has taken a huge hit, exchange rates are still high, and there is very little industry to help the country recover quickly.
Official figures state that the epidemic caused the economy to contract by a huge 21.5 per cent in 2015. The concrete ruins of half-built houses, now home only to weeds, are a visual reminder that the epidemic caused everything to be put on hold, and that life here is fragile. In spite of everything, however, there is a striking resilience in Sierra Leone.
Although Abu lost his wife, and most of his livelihood, he still manages to be grateful. He tells us that he is fortunate that he still has his mother; she can help to look after the children while he works. He says he thanks God for the help that the UK NGO Street Child has given him in regrowing his business, and for the emergency food from the World Food Programme which has helped him to get back on his feet.
He is thankful that he still has his children, and is immensely proud that he is now making just enough money to send Douda to school. His quiet positivity in the wake of such suffering is profoundly humbling.
ABU’s cautious optimism for the future is echoed across Sierra Leone, but the ghosts of the virus are never far away.
Across the path from the mango tree lies a house that is gradually crumbling into disrepair. The family who lived there perished during the epidemic, and no one wants to live there now.
Government-sponsored billboards still line the country’s main roads, with a photo of a little girl sitting on the President’s knee and the slogan “Do not push away child Ebola survivors — end the stigma now.”
George Quaker, a pastor and leader of Street Child’s work in Kenema, says: “Whenever you go into the home of a family who were hit by Ebola, the economic and emotional impact are still very real.”
WHILE many people here are focused on rebuilding their lives and trying to forget what has happened, for some the heartache is still too raw to allow them to hope.
Abu’s neighbour Mariama lost five of her six children, as well as her husband. Her three sisters also succumbed to the disease, leaving her to care for nine children on her own. She stares at the ground as she tells us what she has been through; even when she smiles, there is still a sadness in her eyes. She says that nothing will ever replace the love of her children.
Mariama is one of many who have taken in children who were orphaned by the virus, and who now need to find ways to generate enough income to look after their newly extended families.
”The Bible tells us that we must care for the widow and the orphan,” Pastor George says. “That is a huge challenge for us now in Sierra Leone. As a Christian, I believe the Church must respond — and we are — but it is a big task. As a former street child myself, I know that it is possible to turn lives around if someone gets alongside you. That is why I’m so passionate that we must act now.”
Thanks to people such as Pastor George, churches (including some from the UK), and NGOs, thousands of widows have been helped with business grants, and thousands of orphans are now back in school.
The reopening of schools after the nationwide closure during the epidemic is one of the signs that hope is on the horizon. The eerie silence that characterised the streets at the height of the epidemic has now been replaced by the chattering of schoolchildren making their way to class.
Sadly, there are still many children who lack access to education, because, after the epidemic, there is no one to pay their school fees.
ONE of the starkest legacies is the rise in teenage mothers: girls who were exploited during the epidemic, and have been forced to drop out of school because they are pregnant.
Rebecca, now 18, reluctantly accepted the advances of a “boyfriend” in return for food when most of her family died. She said that 5000 Leones (80p) seems a lot of money when you have nothing to eat.
Now, she and her baby boy are alone, her “boyfriend” has gone, and she is trying to scrape together a living by braiding hair. She is very bright, and desperate to go back to school.
Fortunately, she is in contact with one of Street Child’s social workers, and she hopes to go back to school this autumn. There are many more like her who have yet to be helped.
Culturally, girls — especially orphans — are at the bottom of the pile when it comes to being given access to education; but, as the Director General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, says, “Educating girls and women is one of the best ways to fight poverty and build peace.”
Sierra Leone’s Minister for Social Care, Dr Sylvia Olayinka Blyden, reinforces this. “We owe it to our sisters, to our daughters, to allow them to become the girls they were meant to be,” she says.
The Anglican Church in Sierra Leone, and NGOs, are working alongside local community leaders to help children — especially girls — back into education. Driving around Sierra Leone today, you see brand new schools being built: a vital step on the path to recovery.
In Kpondu — the first village in Sierra Leone to be affected by the virus — their first ever school is under construction. One father there said: “I’m so happy for my children and for the community, that they have the opportunity to move on to better things. This is helping us to forget what has passed and to look to the future.”
People here recognise that, had the village had a school earlier, the virus would not have spread so quickly, because people would have been able to read, and to understand the advice on how to avoid contagion.
Children tell me that they are excited about school because they want to become doctors and nurses to help ill people.
Back in MaConteh, Abu, too, recognises how important education is for his son and daughter: it is an investment in building an economy that will be able to provide jobs for Douda and Aminata when they get older.
THERE are signs of hope in Kpondu, MaConteh, and across the country, but the scars here are still raw, and it will take some time for them to heal.
What happened during the epidemic still hangs heavy on the nation’s consciousness. Sierra Leone may no longer dominate our TV screens, but even a short visit to the country reveals that the problems are far from over.
The road to recovery is not going to be easy, but there is a determina-tion in Sierra Leone, in the Church, and in the international community to ensure that recovery does happen. It is our collective responsibility to make sure that no one — and in particular no child — is left behind.
Molly Hodson is Director of Special Projects at Street Child, and a member of King’s Cross Church, London. Street Child’s current appeal aims to help 20,000 vulnerable children to get back to school in West Africa.