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Living in the Shadows of Ebola

October 7, 2014, by Babar Turay

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I awoke at 4:30am GMT and, like any normal day for me, I started the morning by offering prayers, and later listening to the news that bellowed through on the radio. For the last few weeks the morning broadcast has been dominated by events in Syria and Iraq, the political atmosphere in Britain, and of course, the ebola epidemic in West Africa.

The community ‘radio Koadia’ (meaning ‘radio love’) started its morning transmission with the usual ebola jingle ‘ebola na killer’ -  ebola is a killer – quickly followed by reports of new cases, news on the effects of the three days lock down (or ‘house to house campaign’ in the ergot of the Government of Sierra Leone), and reports of donations received and pledged by national and international organizations.

At about 8:00am a loud siren pierces the morning solitude as an  ambulance approaches along the Kainkordu road about 150meters away from my home. The neighbours come out in numbers; everyone  fears the same thing: is this another ebola case? This was scary for many people and mothers took their children back  to their houses as an immediate response to the pandemonium that ensued.

On a  normal day I would have been preparing to be in office by 8:00am or in the field liaising with communities bordering one of the forests that USAID/USFS has targeted as part of its conservation efforts through the STEWARD programme. A normal day would typically end at 6:00pm.

But today was not a normal day. Today the expatriates working in majority of the development organizations have left due to the threat of ebola. Today most organizations have ‘temporally’  (which is to say, indefinitely) closed shop. Today, national workers are without any guarantee of when they will start productive work again.  Today feels very different.

It’s not just the tedium of waiting or confinement caused by the lockdown that grates; it’s the fear of not knowing whether friends and family are safe; whether and when I will be working again; or indeed how I will support those nearest and dearest to me without any prospect of future income.

TOGETHER IN SPIRIT

My paternal grandfather came from the Susu/Madingo tribes in Guinea, where a strong Islamic culture predominated. Like most of the business class present in Kono today, my grandfather came to trade salt and tobacco for cash and kolanut. In those days introductions and greetings were performed by shaking hands, a symbol of politeness, love and care in my culture. Today those symbols of respect and compassion are forsaken, replaced by the wariness and fear inspired by ebola.

There is a common saying in Kono that friends are identified during funerals and in times of sickness. This means that sickness and funerals are events that bring all family members and close friends together. This is where family disputes are settled and interpersonal misunderstandings are aired and addressed.

The threat of ebola has put a hold on most of these traditional symbols of love and care that had kept families together in times of success and despair. Morning broadcasts and word-of-mouth make the disease visible to us – its mode of attack, the high death rate, the stigma that patients endure, the rushed burials that follow, the deserted streets, markets and work places that previously where the heartbeat of communities.  The psychological effect of seeing a whole society haemorrhaging is difficult to convey. Nowadays it is a criminal act to touch someone without his or her approval. The common watchword ‘DON’T TOUCH’ pushes people apart when previously we would have rallied and come together, facing our fears collectively as families, neighbours, as common brother and sisters, as Sierra Leoneans.

DON'T TOUCH

My closest encounter with ebola happened almost three months ago. It was a Wednesday morning, the 25th of June. I was preparing to go to work and had a call from my elder sister Adama in Bo. These were the early days of the disease in Sierra Leone, a time before regular broadcasts, when there was still a lot of misunderstanding and denial around the epidemic.

Adama had phoned me that one of our relatives, Aminata the daughter of Isata our eldest sister, had gone with her husband to sympathise with a family who were dealing with ebola. At the time of the visit arrangements were being made to take the sickly woman to hospital. She later died in hospital, but not before three more people in the house had contracted the disease, including a pregnant woman.

Unfortunately, Aminata’s husband became the fourth person to contract the disease and fell ill immediately after returning home to the Nyandiama section of the town. My sister was worried and phoned me for consolation and advice.

After digesting the news I called Aminata. When she confirmed the story I told her to call the treatment center (the ebola ward), and instruct them to come and collect Ade, her husband, but she refused vehemently, telling me that she did not believe the stories about ebola and furthermore that those who attended the ward never returned home. She went on to tell me her belief that the medical people, in an effort to contain the threat, were deliberately injecting suspected victims with lethal chemicals. She believed it was murder under the pretence of trying to help people.

I was dumb founded. When I next asked ‘who is currently nursing your sick husband?’ she responded, quietly, ‘me’. I hung up and phoned Adama back. I instructed her to contact the hospital by any means, to inform them of the situation. As it happened someone in the neighbourhood had pre-empted me and called the medical team to report the case.

Ade was collected and taken to the hospital after almost a week of caring at home. It was exactly 6:30am the following day that I saw Aminata’s call flash on the screen of my mobile phone. When I answered she was already in tears. I remember her saying that uncle had repeatedly warned her that if Ade was taken to that ward he would never come home to his family again.

I was hurt and upset but also concerned for Aminata and her three children (she has a girl aged 3 as well as two boys aged 8 and 5) who were exposed to this deadly disease for so long. I interrupted and insisted that she go to the hospital and report her situation. When I hung up I was despondent. I feared she would not listen to me. Later that morning I transferred some money to her using ‘Money Gram’. I wanted to help in some way. Maybe if I could take care of basic things like food and transport to the hospital it would lighten the burden for herself and for her grieving children.

Whist this was happening, Isata called to tell me that she  intended to travel from our village in Gandorhun to sympathize with Aminata. Fortunately my wife, noticing my distress intervened and somehow managed to convince Isata to stay at home for the time being.

To my great joy I had a call one week later from Aminata, saying the blood samples, including those of her children, were all negative. I took the news cautiously at first, fearing that a crowded and over-strained  hospital system, with perhaps two laboratory attendants taking care of hundreds of samples, could easily get the diagnosis wrong. So I suggested to Aminata to stay in-doors for the next week, after which if she felt well enough, she could go to the village. After a week she called me telling me that she made another visit to the hospital and that her initial results were confirmed. She was free of the disease. She said that she was going to remain in Kenema because she feared the social stigma her hospital visits would have generated back home.  Later in August she travelled to Gandorhun where her mother and father are living and to date she has not shown any signs of the disease.

FEAR MAKES INROADS

I find myself reflect on Aminata’s predicament quite a lot. I wonder, was it luck (or perhaps a miracle as some religious believers would say) that she and her children escaped the virus? Could it be true that her husband was not well and only contracted this awful sickness at hospital? How would people perceive Isata for not attending the funeral? And if Isata had travelled was it her duty, on return, to inform her friends that she had been in contact with an affected family? The virus is believed to have 90% fatality rate but today over 300 people have been discharged from the hospital. Is it possible that some people may also be coming into direct contact with the virus but somehow escaping becoming ill? Is it foolish to hope against the odds? Had Ade died at home instead of in the hospital would Aminata have tested positive?

In a poverty-stricken society like Koidu where 90% of the population depends on public services (schools, public market, hospitals, public transport), living by the new ‘ABC’ code (Avoid Body Contact), while medically prudent, is virtually impossible. People come together to make things happen, to get things done, to support each other.

But that is all changing fast. People are fearful; I am fearful. And fear is a powerful catalyst.  I worry about the future and what it holds for my family and my people; for what is dying in Sierra Leone today is a whole way of life. I have witnessed ebola attack the social body every bit as aggressively as it does individuals, and that is truly terrifying.

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