FEATURE - ‘Ebola is under control!’ headlines affirmed the other week. The disease has made no new victims in Sierra Leone since the outbreak started in April 2014. But the recovery process will still take a long time: not only have people died, but the economy has been severely disrupted and survivors, especially children, are left without care or protection. Mr Siapha Kamara, CEO of our partner SEND West-Africa, tells us about the struggles of rebuilding and the heroism of his staff.
“The prospect is good now; the Ebola is definitely under control.” Mr Siapha Kamara is rather optimistic. Yet it was less than a year ago that his organization SEND West-Africa (a Cordaid partner active in Sierra Leone, Ghana and Liberia) was in the midst of the Ebola crisis, fighting to save lives.
SEND Sierra Leone works in the district of Kailahun, which is at the border with Guinee and Liberia. It is where the Ebola outbreak started.
Kamara recalls the day when Ebola struck. “I was actually in Sierra Leone, going to do a training for women’s groups in Buendu and Koindu, where SEND implements the Cordaid-funded food security program. Then my people called about the first Ebola deaths being reported in those two villages. In the staff meeting, we agreed that since there was no cure for Ebola, we should close the office. The employees who were not from Kailahun left the area.”
But a few days later, the Kailahun staff changed their mind. “They said to me: ‘Our mission is to work in difficult to reach areas and to help people that are most in need, so we cannot close down the office in the midst of this crisis.’ And they were right. From that time onwards, I devoted all my time to mobilizing resources to keep the office open.”
The staff of SEND were among the first to warn people of the disease. “We work with many women groups, all of them come from the local communities. With them, we spread Ebola prevention messages, trained some of them to be contact tracers, provision of sanitary materials to communities, provision of food and non-food items to quarantine communities, while working with them to use local and national media to educate communities about the disease, and calling for government and development partners attention to take practical steps to contain the disease”. Looking back, Kamara is very proud of them: “They were all heroes.”
One year from the outbreak of Ebola, the already impoverished area of Kailahun is in bad shape. Not just for the people who died, but even more so for their families and communities. “We had our first case of Ebola in May 2014, and by December we had lost more than 524 people. Our livelihoods program lost 25 beneficiaries – most of them women, who were breadwinners for their family. They left behind orphans, widows and widowers.”
Orphaned children often have no means of income, which makes them vulnerable to trafficking and other forms of abuse. Kamara: “Care for orphans is a very big problem. We encourage domestic fostering with family members or women from our network to try and help at least some of them. Our support includes school materials, food aid and in some cases medical support.”
He worries about grandmothers having to take care of their orphaned grandchildren, with little to live on and no control: “We have grandmothers looking after teenagers especially. That’s almost like nobody looking after anybody. These kids need to go back to school. But Kailahun is a very remote area, and even though schools have reopened, they may not get the required complement of teachers.” One immediate solution could be to give the grandmothers livestock that needs little care, such as a goat: “For them to be able to support themselves and the kids.”
Abuse of survivors
For orphans and other survivors, getting accepted back into the community is not easy, Kamara says. “Besides the trauma that they face, there is also the stigmatization. Especially for women who have lost members of their household, for example their husband. They were told they were witches. People think that is why their husband died and they survived. So women face particularly bad treatment; they are ostracized from their family.”
What’s more, violence against women and girls has increased enormously. “A huge amount of women are being raped and we have high teenage pregnancy rates,” Kamara sadly confirms. “The explanation is that during the outbreak of Ebola girls did not go to school, but remained in the quarantined communities with little to occupy themselves. Also, some girls’ parents died and they had no resources to support themselves. All of that combined made them vulnerable to sexual violence.”
The Kailahun Women’s Governance Network and SEND organized a demonstration against rape in September, after a 10-year-old girl was assaulted by four men.
“Though the social impact has been great, the economic aspect of the crisis is even more worrying,” Kamara states. “Communities with Ebola were quarantined. This meant that all economic activity was strongly disrupted. Farmers could not get to their fields, so their harvest was lost and it was difficult for them to obtain new seeds for planting. Additionally, the communities lost a lot of their hard-working people.”
“We have supported the communities to revive those economic activities. Cordaid has been working with SEND to develop rice production hubs, infrastructure like drying floors and PICS storage bags.” He adds: “Many of the foster parents are young families. So if we can encourage them to go into small-scale entrepreneurship, then they’ll be able to sustain support for their family and look after the orphan.” To that end, the families are given 200 USD and linked to a credit union, where they can take up a loan to start their business.
But there’s a major funding problem: “Most of the funding that is going to Sierra Leone is purely for health infrastructure, not so much for economic activities.” His concern is visible: “If you don’t revive the economic activities, people will suffer from bad nutrition and all kinds of problems that will make them more vulnerable.”
Rehabilitation will be a big challenge. “I think that‘s going to be an uphill task. Sierra Leone is a post-conflict country and then there was Ebola. The economy has lost a lot of ground and the governance infrastructure in the country is not very strong. I think it will be about five or six years before it will be able to get back to where it was before”. According to Kamara, donor support will be needed for some time to come.
Though Sierra Leone has been declared Ebola-free and people were dancing on the streets of Freetown, chances are that the disease may still recur, as the Ebola prevention measures remain weak. “At the moment, we are biting our nails, hoping that it will not return.”
He explains: “If you go around Kailahun and other parts of Sierra Leone, you still see the buckets they have for washing hands. People have gotten used to some of those new practices. But some of the most important ones are difficult to maintain, for example burials. People in the villages sometimes allow dead bodies to lie for three or four days. Because there are only two or three burial teams that are based in Kailahun, the district capital.”
Actions to prevent the recurrence of Ebola haven’t been taken seriously, he says. “We wanted to train the communities to bury their dead using Ebola-sensitive prevention methods, but unfortunately, we never got resources for it.” What SEND was able to do, however, is constructing shelters for security personnel at posts in border villages, which monitor people coming and going, mobilizing religious leaders to use their power and social respect to educate their constituencies on Ebola, while mobilizing communities to volunteer to complement the efforts of security personnel in monitoring the movement of people and cross-border activities.
Though sometimes critical of the international community in the rebuilding phase, Mr Kamara wants to thank Cordaid: “We really appreciated the help. Cordaid continued to pay our staff, even those of us who had left the district, so that immediately after the crisis our staff went back and started the recovery process. Cordaid also contributed to the Ebola emergency project. To support the farmers with rice production, to build drying floors, to support the blacksmiths. I wasn’t very sure whether those things were going to be done, until I actually went to the communities and saw the platforms and the blacksmiths, and they showed me the tools they made.”
He smiles. “All I want to add is that the SEND staff were the heroes. They demonstrated that the local people in this crisis, even though they were not acknowledged…” He rephrases his point: “We tend to think that the international community is making the greatest sacrifice. Because when something happens to one of them, it gets a splash. But our local people, they actually showed a lot of courage and they took a lot of risk. I am very humble to be their leader.”