Reconciliation after Ebola
This weekend, on 7 November, Sierra Leone was finally declared Ebola-free. Stefanie Glinski recently travelled to the country to visit many of the communities still struggling in the disease’s aftermath. While she was there she met 10-year-old Frances, a young girl, orphaned by Ebola, who now has to cope with the daily stigma that faces many of the disease’s survivors.
By Stefanie Glinski; Field Content Manager and Freelance Journalist
Frances* sits on a grey plastic chair and shyly holds onto a dirty white plastic bag with her school supplies inside: two blue pens, several old notebooks and an English children’s reading book. The ten-year-old primary school student doesn’t smile often these days, but when she does, her bright white teeth speak of a time long passed, when she was happily living with her parents and siblings in eastern Sierra Leone.
Today, she feels alone.
When her mum and dad lost the cruel battle with Ebola last year, Frances was also fighting the virus in one of the treatment centres in Bo, the country’s second biggest city.
“I was so, so scared,” she says quietly in her local language Mende, looking down and wiping her eyes. She’s trying hard not to cry; showing weakness can mean ungratefulness in her culture.
“I miss my parents so much,” she whispers, turning her head to the side. She can’t hold back the tears that she’s trying so hard to fight.
Frances’ village was one of the hardest hit by the deadly virus, and while the country is now Ebola free, boys and girls still struggle to cope with the disease’s aftermath.
“After the war we experienced reconciliation. Ebola was a different kind of war. It is invisible and there is no reconciliation,” explains James, Frances’ uncle, who adopted her when she was orphaned last year.
The adoption automatically brought stigma to James’ whole family. Even his neighbours stayed away for a long time, afraid to go near any Ebola survivors.
“Whenever I went to a shop, I wasn’t allowed in, but had to drop the money on the floor outside and someone would bring my groceries. It was humiliating,” he remembers, shaking his head.
The progress to full recovery from Sierra Leone’s crisis will take a long time. People who used to hug each other warmly now keep their distance. The country’s ‘No Touch’ policy is still in place and it’s especially hard, seeing Frances cry and being unable to comfort her. Gradually, families have tentatively started to embrace each other again, albeit with caution.
Throughout the country, road blocks are still in place to check every traveller’s temperature. It’s a strange sight; a local soldier, wearing a uniform and carrying a heavy gun in one hand and a thermometer in the other. In addition to checking temperatures, he reminds people to get out of their cars to wash their hands.
Beside the road, people in a long queue are waiting to wash their hands in a bucket with water from a nearby well. As we pass the checkpoint with the soldier, his face transforms. “World Vision,” he beams, showing us his white teeth. Over the past year, he has seen first-hand our Ebola response in his home district.
Frances has seen it too.
“World Vision gave me a home visitor, who stops by my house most days. Her name is Mary and she braids my hair and encourages me to go to school,” the ten-year-old explains. “We have also received food and were told about the importance of washing our hands, but most of all, I’m glad to have my home visitor.”
Having someone to support her has been especially important on the many days when Frances feels discouraged. Mary helps her cope with her emotions as she begins to adjust to a different kind of life.
All around the country, thousands of other boys and girls just like Frances have to deal with similar stories.
On 7 November, Sierra Leone passed the 42-day mark without any new Ebola cases and was officially declared Ebola free by the World Health Organisation. But actually staying Ebola free is now a high priority, and measuring temperatures daily, keeping physical distance from other people and practising hygiene and precaution will continue to be a part of this country’s life. World Vision’s work to support, both practically and emotionally, the children affected by Ebola continues.