19 February 2015: It’s 13 years since I was last in Sierra Leone. Then, the country was just recovering from the civil war, now they are fighting a different sort of war, this time with an invisible enemy: Ebola.
Over the past week we’ve travelled hundreds of miles visiting community care centres (CCCs) where people with suspected Ebola come to be assessed; a centre for children orphaned or abandoned as a result of Ebola and makeshift classrooms where volunteers are helping children continue their studies while the schools remain closed.
Plan International is at the forefront of much of this work. In the CCCs we are responsible for the logistics including procuring essential equipment, training the health workers how to put on their protective gear properly and providing the various workers with incentives to work there.
For the children we are providing psychosocial counselling as well as practical support like food, blankets and hygiene kits so they can keep clean – an essential weapon in the fight against this deadly disease. In the makeshift classrooms we are providing radios so the children can follow the lessons broadcast by the Ministry of Education.
Many of the children we have spoken to have lost family members to Ebola, some like Precious, 14, speak bravely and fluently about their loss, others like Timothy, 9, are shell shocked and can barely speak at all about the trauma they have suffered.
The first CCC we visit is in Gbaneh, Port Loko, which is about 3 hours drive north of Freetown. Port Loko is still a hot spot for Ebola and there are 5 CCCs here, 2 treatment centres and 1 interim care centre. All of the different centres are surrounded by high walls or fences and only a few people from the outside are allowed in and out.
In order to enter the CCC we must first have a safety briefing and we are instructed not to touch anyone or anything once we enter. Then we wash our hands, first in a chlorine solution, then with soap and water and finally with disinfectant. Next we join a line as one by one we each balance on one leg in turn as we carefully place the sole of first one boot and then the next into a large bowl of chlorine.
The final step is to have our temperatures taken and recorded in a book - mine is 35.8. Once this procedure is complete we are allowed through the gate where we are greeted with much curiosity by the teams working here. Last week they had 67 suspected Ebola cases - in the previous 48 hours they haven’t had any, so things are quiet. Everyone is keeping their fingers crossed that this state of affairs will continue.
Shunned and stigmatised
The first person to introduce themselves is Francis, Plan’s local community co-ordinator. Plan is a household name in Sierra Leone and this has been vital in helping to persuade people to come forward and be tested.
Francis’ job is to go into the local community and talk to people about the centre and how going there will help them. Francis introduces us to Sheba Gbereh III, the Paramount Chief for this area. Like Francis, his support for the CCC has been important in how the centre has been accepted rather than feared by the community.
Next we meet the nurses. They have all been working here since the centre opened late last year. They live, eat and sleep here and haven’t been home at all to see their own families. Most of them are worried about the sort of reception they will receive when they do eventually go home.
The stigma surrounding Ebola survivors or anyone associated them is high. One person I spoke to said: “People hail Ebola survivors as heroes for surviving and then they throw stones at them because they have survived…”
Can you imagine what it must be like for those survivors to have survived a living hell and then be shunned and stigmatised?
In Gbaneh CCC the nurses ‘home’ when they are off duty is a large tent in the corner of the compound. The tent is sparsely furnished with a plastic table, a few plastic chairs and mattresses piled high in a corner ready to be placed on the floor at night.
I spoke to Nurse Kadiatu about her experience and her hopes for the future: “It’s been tough working here but we won’t go home until there is zero Ebola,” she said.
They are a close knit group and they pass the time instead chatting and talking about when they will be able to return home. I spoke to Nurse Kadiatu about her experience and her hopes for the future: “It’s been tough working here but we won’t go home until there is zero Ebola,” she said.
“I miss my daughter desperately but I need to be here to help. I hope that Ebola will soon be over so I can return home and hold my daughter in my arms, she is 7.”
Also working in the CCCs are the cleaners who make sure the facilities are all regularly cleaned and disinfected, and the sprayers who disinfect the workers.
To remind themselves there is another life outside the high fence, they have customised their little hut with chalked signs and messages showing their allegiance to football. Following the UK premier league is a national obsession here in Sierra Leone and judging by the number of messages citing the Red Devils and the Gunners, Manchester United and Arsenal seem to be the cleaners’ favourites.
It’s been a humbling experience talking to all of the workers in the CCC and seeing their dedication to each other, their communities and their country. As we leave and once again wash and disinfect our hands and boots and have our temperatures recorded (mine is now 35.7), I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for everyone once this invisible enemy is defeated.