By Keziah Gbondo
Being out of Sierra Leone for several years especially during the Ebola emergency period, one would have the perception that life in Sierra Leone is going from bad to worse. Upon my recent return home from Kenya, I was surprised to discover that Sierra Leone, in many ways, is just what it was before I left. The big difference is the impact of the Ebola outbreak, which has devastated every facet of the country’s development.
On a training visit to Kailahun district to kick-start the launch of the children’s radio series ‘Pikin to Pikin Tork’, for the NGO, Child to Child, I was in a sombre mood as I learned about the devastating effect caused by Ebola. The first case of the disease appeared in Kailahun district in May 2014, and in June it became the country’s Ebola hotspot with the highest rate of infection and death.
A state of emergency was subsequently declared, which saw the closing of schools, public gatherings forbidden and all residents and citizens compelled to undergo temperature checks at various checkpoints.
During community visits to Kailahun and Koindu towns, I was shocked to see abandoned houses where entire families had been wiped out by the virus. When I visited the mass grave in Kailahun town, where hundreds who died from the disease have been buried, tears flooded my eyes.
The cemetery is located next to an emergency treatment centre that was established to manage the spread of the disease in the district. Graves are engraved with the names of victims, children as well as adults, among them the courageous health workers who succumbed to Ebola whilst trying to care for those afflicted by the disease. There are still restrictions on visiting the graves.
“It is painful for us to visit the grave of my elder sister and her three children,” Musu Lahai a thirty-year-old woman who survived the virus, told me. “The wounds are still fresh in our minds. Until now I can’t believe what happened to us. ”
Children who lost their parents to the virus have become more vulnerable in communities hard hit by the scourge. There has been a huge rise in teenage pregnancies – young girls with limited economic means taken advantage of by ‘sugar daddies’ happy to exploit them. Ebola orphans and widows are often stigmatized by their communities, where people constantly point fingers at them out of ignorance.
Mostly the virus took the lives of young adults, many of whom who had children. Elderly relatives who are economically weak have become breadwinners for these orphans.
Every Sierra Leonean has a responsibility to embrace those affected by Ebola and make them feel that there is a reason for them to live.” Keziah Gbondo
In Koindu town, I met Tewa Tonkara, a seventy-year-old woman with greying hair, currently taking care of her grandson who lost both parents to the disease.
“I had no option but to take this boy from the village where he used to live with his mother and father,” she told me. “People were using him as a laborer to work on their farms. He had lost hope. I didn’t want him to end up. Look at me, at this old age. I am the only one he can rely on for his safety. What if I die too? Who will look after him as I do?”
Samuel Kamara is social service officer in Kailahun district attached to the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs. He believes that the post-Ebola recovery strategy should include a robust mechanism that focuses on care and support for vulnerable children. “The strategy should also include support for their carers and Ebola survivors coupled with psycho- social counselling in putting an end to stigmatization faced by victims,” he told me.
“For orphaned children, and Ebola survivors to win back their self-esteem, communities must change their perceptions of orphans and survivors,” he says. He believes it is vital to give attention to people in rural areas, who may be left out of health and education campaigns.
“We need to enforce messages that survivors and orphans declared free of the virus should be accepted back into their communities,” he says.
The virus can never be defeated if the plight of Ebola survivors is not addressed by community stakeholders, families and the government as a whole. To this end, I believe that every Sierra Leonean has a responsibility to embrace those affected by Ebola and make them feel that there is a reason for them to live rather than simply stigmatizing them. This can be largely achieved through psycho-social counseling centered on a humanistic approach that provides emotional support as well as problem solving approach for those affected by the outbreak.
Amidst these sad happenings over the past months, the good news is that Kailahun district, the country’s first hotspot in the Ebola outbreak, has become a safe haven. Residents are happily going about their normal socio-economic activities previously restricted by the authorities at the peak of the outbreak in order to curtail the spread of the virus. People now feel safe to interact with others without hesitation.
There has been no room for complacency as residents still acknowledge the fact that Ebola is real and devastating, and still around. Residents in Kailahun state that they are mindful of the safety rules, for example, coming into contact with blood and body fluids with the sick, avoiding contact with dead bodies, bush meat and carefully practising good basic hygiene (regularly washing hands).
One thing that lifted my spirits after being away from a while, is the progress that has been made in the construction of the Kailahun-Pendembu highway. The improved road network is a remarkable stride in the boosting of economic activities in a district that was once a hard-to –reach area in Sierra Leone. The progress so far has been impressive and this has made the district far more accessible by many, bringing great benefits for development.
My only disappointment was with the Kenema and Kailahun township road, which has been long overdue for completion. Road construction has stagnated and there has been little or no progress since I left the country two years ago to further my studies overseas. The roads within townships are in a deplorable state.
However, the approach taken by the ‘Pikin to Pikin Tork Radio’ in using the media to address the plight of marginalized and vulnerable children in the district is a welcome step forwards.
“The children’s radio series will give hope to the children within the district and prepare them for a brighter future,” says Foday Saar Juma, Station Manager for Kailahun’s Radio Moa, which will be broadcasting the programmes. “By broadcasting in our local language, as well as Krio and English, we hope that this educational, fun and entertaining series of programmes, where children freely interact and share their views through the radio, will highlight the importance of involving children in media and development.”
Keziah Gbondo is Community Journalist for Pikin to Pikin Tork, a project run by the NGO Child to Child together with Pearl Works, in Sierra Leone. She has a Master of Arts degree in development communication from Daystar University-Nairobi, Kenya, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Political Sciences from Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone.
For more information visit http://www.childtochild.org.uk
Photos by Michael Duff: http://www.gmbfilms.com/