In August 2014, Orphelia’s husband fell ill. She had heard about Ebola on the radio; however few in the community believed Ebola was real – no such disease had ever reached the remote border communities in Nimba County, Liberia.
Orphelia took care of her husband at home but within a few days her husband had deteriorated and both she and their only child began to feel ill. A week later, after visiting the local health clinic in Karnplay they were transferred to an Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) where the whole family was diagnosed with Ebola. Within two days, their whole community, Camp 8, had been placed under quarantine. Orphelia slowly recovered but both her husband and son died.
After being given the all clear and released from the ETU, Orphelia suffered stigmatisation from her community and was unable to return to Camp 8.
When we were taken ill, people saw for the first time it was real. I was scared to go home … they thought I was dangerous and would give it to them and blamed me.
Community faced emergency quarantine
Camp 8 was placed under quarantine for nearly three weeks and during this time experienced considerable stress for which they blamed Orphelia. Having been given little warning of the quarantining, the community had no time to prepare and quickly ran out of supplies.
In addition, local health officials ordered all livestock in Camp 8 to be slaughtered, incorrectly believing they were the source of Ebola. To compound this further, community members later discovered that much of their harvest had been stolen in the three weeks they had been quarantined.
Orphelia was forced to live with her brother in Yomley where, unaware of her illness, she was warmly accepted. However, news of her illness quickly spread and she and her brother became ostracised and the target of residents’ anger.
Returning home without stigma
Despite the scale of the national and international responses, many of the Ebola strategies failed to reach the vulnerable and rural communities in the affected countries’ border regions.
Throughout the course of the crisis, Camp 8, located close to the Liberian border with Côte d’Ivoire, had not received any awareness-raising campaigns on Ebola.
Conciliation Resources’ 18-month EU-funded project ‘Responding to Ebola-driven conflict’ is enabling community-based initiatives, called ‘District Platforms for Dialogue’ (DPDs), and communities in the Mano River border regions to peacefully resolve tensions triggered or exacerbated by Ebola.
In March 2015, the Nimba County DPD, based ten kilometres away in Loguatuo, heard about Orphelia’s story and decided to try and mediate Orphelia’s return to Camp 8.
The DPD began a series of events in Camp 8 to educate the community about Ebola and to emphasise that Orphelia was no longer contagious. The DPD then organised and supported Orphelia to return to her home in Camp 8.
The challenge of reintegration
The Loguatuo DPD soon realised that reintegrating an Ebola survivor required much more than simply raising-awareness and facilitating their return to their home. It was clear that the tensions, divides and mistrust caused by Ebola remain far beyond the outbreak itself.
Though the fear of Orphelia had subsided, many in the community still blamed her and her family for the hardships and stigma that Camp 8 residents had experienced.
They [some residents] looked at me differently, I was not allowed to use the water pump, no one would help me with my crops and people goaded me into arguments by saying I had killed my husband and son.
Friends who tried to help Orphelia by giving her rice and other food became similarly ostracised by their association to her.
To overcome these community divides a much longer process of reconciliation is required. Noticing this, the Loguatuo DPD mediated an ongoing space for dialogue between Orphelia and the community.
Over time the community mistrust and anger eroded and was slowly replaced by friendship, recognition and collaboration. As far as possible, things are back to normal for Orphelia.
Orphelia is more than a survivor, she is, as before the outbreak, a central figure of Camp 8 fully involved in all aspects of community life.
The community is at one again. We thank the DPD for all their help over the past nine months.