Heydi Foster, Misean Cara CEO writes that Sierra Leone’s Ebola survivors are living on the margins of society due to the stigma of the disease. But Misean Cara’s members are offering support and hope. Read Heydi’s blog below.
The Impact of the Ebola Epidemic Continues in Sierra Leone
Five years ago the Ebola epidemic wreaked havoc in the country of Sierra Leone. During the epidemic the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny and the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary risked their lives by going where no other aid workers would – into the places where the disease was rampant. The Sisters went to the poorest communities and visited and delivered food to people in quarantine who were suspected of having Ebola.
Despite the panic and fear of the epidemic, the Sisters stayed in solidarity, providing lifelines in the form of medical care, food, psycho-social support, and Ebola prevention information. Fearlessly, they worked in the front line against the disease, bringing hope and saving lives.
Five years after the first case was recorded in West Africa I travelled to Sierra Leone, spent time with the Sisters and Ebola survivors to hear how they have been trying to rebuild their lives and the country. This is what I saw and experienced…
The Ebola virus did not just kill individual people, it destroyed whole families, communities and the spirit of the people.
Five years on, Ebola survivors are living on the margins of society because of the stigma associated with having Ebola. Survivors live isolated lives with little human interaction with the wider community. Many have lost their livelihoods because they cannot work due to Post-Ebola Syndrome with symptoms ranging from muscle wasting, joint pain, arthritis, respiratory issues, headaches, blurred vision, insomnia, nerve palsy and tremors.
Cleanliness is now a major preoccupation in Sierra Leone. People are forever washing their hands. On a Saturday once a month, it’s National Clean-up Day, as all commercial and social activity is put on hold while people clean up outside their houses, in streets and in public places, all in an effort to reduce the risk of disease. On one such day I travelled through the streets with the help of the local police and the Holly Rosary Sisters.
Hugging people, though, can be problematic. African people are very tactile, as I am. I like to hug people when I greet them. When I asked if I could hug one of the Ebola survivors I met, she thought I was asking if it was safe to do so, but I was only asking her permission to hug her, as I wanted to. I wanted to acknowledge her dignity and our equality as people.
There is hunger, anger and desperation. People are starving. Many international NGOs left the country when the Ebola pandemic was declared over. When the cameras left, many INGOs left. To a large extent it feels like the world has abandoned Sierra Leone.
The personal stories of Ebola survivors are harrowing. Sierra Leone had the highest number of confirmed Ebola cases during the epidemic with almost 4,000 people dead. They have the double tragedy of losing family members and living with the stigma of Ebola.
Emma is somebody who lost 19 members of her family. She and her sister are the only two left. They are both Ebola survivors. Emma is 21 and her sister is 19. Neither has any income. Emma said no one wants to hire her. Not only does no one want to hire her, no one really speaks to her. She didn’t report too many side effects as opposed to the others. I was struck by her sadness and isolation.
I also met another survivor called Francis who lost 29 people from his extended family – 29 people. He has some health issues but he wants to work. Ebola didn’t just take his family, it took everything from him. Now he has no income, no help from the government and he is surviving from whatever help the Holy Rosary Sisters give to him.
Despite the chronic poverty, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny and the Missionary Sisters of the Holy Rosary are making a difference. For five years, they have stretched their limited resources to feed thousands of people. Weekly they go into villages and slums to administer health care and check on the well-being of Ebola survivors.
Sierra Leone was among the countries hardest hit by the Ebola epidemic economically. Up until the epidemic, Sierra Leone was enjoying a booming economy after the discovery of iron ore in 2011. According to the 2015 census, Sierra Leone has a population over 7 million people with high rates of youth unemployment, which has only worsened the lack of infrastructure in the country.
In Freetown the slums are overcrowded. Something that surprised me in Sierra Leone that I had not seen anywhere else, and it was deeply upsetting, was seeing so many women and young girls bathing almost naked in public. There is no infrastructure particularly in the slums. You would walk down a side street and right where you think it’s a dead end there would be a small hole with water and women would be semi-naked trying to clean themselves. You knew that no woman would put themselves in that vulnerable position by choice. And, you know it’s only a matter of time, if it has not already happened, before they are assaulted.
We cannot forget Sierra Leone. It’s important that we support the Sisters of the Holy Rosary and the Cluny Sisters so they can continue to support the people. They are feeding people but they are also providing health care and something else that no one else is providing, which is hope, kindness and love. These are so badly needed in Sierra Leone right now.
Photo caption: Student Sento teaches Misean Cara CEO Heydi Foster sign language at the Hearing Impaired School in Makeni, Sierra Leone. Misean Cara member organisation the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny set up the school 40 years ago, and has revoluntionised education for children with hearing loss encouraging them to use their voices to speak as well as sign language. Photo: Sam Whelan Curtin.