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In a community ravaged by Ebola, signs of hope and continuing need

Melanie Mayhew's picture
photo: Dominic Chavez / World Bank 2015



We trudge past the towering mosque, past where the girls had skipped rope, past a trash heap piled high with cars. We step over a sewage trough, amble down a dusty hill, see the ocean skirt the horizon.

Gone is the orange netting that zigzagged the Rokupa, Sierra Leone, hillside just three months before, a mark of a community in crisis. A mark of generations of families, of neighbors, ravaged by Ebola.
 
The day we met them, they and dozens of their neighbors had crowded a hollow between their houses to show us their Ebola-free certificates. For people who had lost almost everything, these certificates were their prized possessions, something they hoped would shield them from the stigma they faced as Ebola survivors.
 
Most had recently been discharged by Ebola treatment centers. All had lost dozens of people they loved, including family and longtime neighbors, to Ebola. Mariatu, 45, had lost 10 family members to Ebola, including seven children and her husband. Adama, 12, was one of two of her children to survive.
 
The survivors were friendly, but cautious, and nervous. But in a sea of timidity, Adama smiled brightly. So I asked her if we could talk. We sat on a bench in front of her house, her mother by her side. Adama’s vibrant smile soon slipped away, replaced with tears, as she shared her fears for her mother, and for herself, now that Ebola had taken their breadwinner and loved ones, and now that she couldn’t go to school. She told us that returning to school was important to her—not only because she had goals for the future (story), but because she feared that too much idle time could lead to teen pregnancy.
 
When we walked away, I wondered if we’d see Mariatu and Adama again. We had spoken with dozens of people during those three weeks in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but Mariatu, Adama, a few Liberian Ebola survivors and an extraordinary lab tech were the people whose stories haunted me every day, for months.
 
Three months later, we anxiously approach Mariatu and Adama’s home, wondering if they’ll still be there, and if their lives will be better or worse than when we saw them last. We see Mariatu, Adama and a few other people gathered outside of the home, meeting with an advocate for Ebola survivors.
 
Adama sees us and smiles brightly again. Mariatu also smiles, beckoning us to take a seat when the meeting ends. In our previous meeting, Mariatu described herself as “broken”—sick with post-Ebola syndrome, depressed because of the loss of most of her family, without a job, and unable to pay for food, shelter or schooling for her daughter.
 
Now, she says, “I’m surviving.”
 
Bags of rice are piled high on the porch of their home. Some of the stigma, which paralyzed the family’s relationships, has subsided.
 
“Neighbors are coming to see us,” says Mariatu. “I’m hopeful.”
 
Adama is back in school, but Mariatu doesn’t know how she’ll pay for Adama’s school fees in the coming months. Mariatu and her 23-year-old son are unemployed. Their next rent payment is unpaid.  Adama, just 12 years old, continues to worry what the next day will bring, as the family, like many others in the area, relies on goodwill to get by.
 
Her dreams have changed. A few months before, she wanted to be a lawyer when she grew up. Now she wants to be a nurse, because watching so many people die has inspired her to save lives, she says.
 
In three months, some things have changed for the better for this family, especially as their country and partners continue to rally to support Sierra Leoneans in the Ebola response, and now, recovery. But Ebola’s impact continues to ripple through this community, holding back those who were hurt the most in this crisis.
 
Melanie Mayhew is a communications officer at the World Bank Group. She traveled to West Africa twice this year to document Ebola response and recovery efforts.
 
Follow the World Bank health team on Twitter: @WBG_Health

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