Having been out of Sierra Leone since July this year, I returned to our Kenema base in early November. Given that the town was the initial epicentre of the current Ebola outbreak and as the constant and harrowing media coverage at home was more than was ever given to the brutal civil war which raged in the West African country from 1991, I was a little apprehensive.
Flying back via Brussels, I was one of about 100 passengers who got off in Lungi airport which is some distance from Freetown, the Sierra Leonean capital.
There was no sense of panic at the airport. We were very politely asked to wash our hands in chlorinated water before entering Arrivals. Apart from the usual landing card, we also had to fill out a medical form stating such things as where we boarded the airplane – some had got on at either Dakar or Conakry. After the regular immigration checks, we formed another line for the ‘health desk’. My medical form was quickly checked and my temperature taken with a pistol-like, small thermometer held close to the head.
As there is a nightly curfew from 7pm, my first night back was in the retreat house of the Clarissian Sisters in Lungi. Interestingly, Lungi town has to date had no reported case of Ebola; people seemed to be moving around the town quite normally, traders were sitting at their stalls, and a few bars even appeared to be open for business.
Next morning, after breakfast, two others and myself set off for Kenema, usually a five and a half-hour trip. The first health check we met was just outside Port Loko town which has been badly hit by Ebola and is quarantined. At the next check the medical attendant came to the vehicle and took our temperatures while we were still inside. The two police / army checkpoints along this stretch of road waved us through. With fewer vehicles on the road and no delays at any of the five additional health checks before Bo town, we moved quickly.
On the road to Bo we had passed by Moyamba Junction – a lively market place along the main road and a place where public transport stops for refreshments or to buy goods. It is always bustling, and market women, armed with trays of food and fruit, usually surround any vehicle that stops. This town has been quarantined for the past month or so. The market was deserted and only a few people were strolling around. Because of the quarantine, vehicles can’t now stop here.
It was getting close to 1.00 p.m. when we reached Bo. We stopped for lunch – a plate of groundnut stew. The town looked unbelievably normal. Ebola cases have been confirmed here but not in sufficient numbers to warrant a lockdown. The okadas (motorcycle taxis) seem to be thriving and people were going about their daily chores. Shops, petrol stations, bars, restaurants and even some barbershops and hairdressing salons were open!
The forty-mile onward journey from Bo had seven check-points. The authorities remain very strict on people moving into and out of Kenema; the most demanding checkpoint was just outside the town where we were asked for our travel passes. We finally arrived at the Pastoral Centre; this was built in the 1970s – its first director was Ray Barry C.S.Sp.
A thirty-strong team from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)* is currently staying at the Pastoral Centre. Team-members come from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sierra Leone, Switzerland and the UK. A field hospital has been set up at Mano Junction, about 15 miles to the east, while the IFRC also works at Kenema’s government-run hospital. With Freetown still very badly affected by Ebola and agencies struggling to cope with the large numbers of new cases, some patients are transferred from the capital to one of the two facilities here. The medical camp is divided into three sections: one section for new arrivals and those suspected of having Ebola; a treatment centre for confirmed cases; a section for recovering patients who have to remain under observation for three weeks. An ‘Ebola kindergarten’ was recently opened for the children of patients.
While no one can give an accurate indication of when the current Ebola crisis might end – A best-case scenario would be two months – the IFRC’s presence is having an obvious impact and no new cases have been diagnosed across Kenema district for the past four days. Talking to the doctors and nurses, they will quickly say that they find the work very difficult and stressful. While the Ebola suits that they must wear are very light, they are extremely hot – especially in tropical climates – and staff can only work in them for some 45 minutes at a time. At the hospital they generally work a 10-hour day, 7 days a week, ending with a daily team meeting before supper. Medical personnel, who have regular contact with Ebola patients, are typically on assignment for about a month at a time. Not all doctors complete their stint; recently one doctor took ill and had a very high temperature. Fortunately, it was quickly diagnosed as ‘only’ heat stroke and the doctor went home on the next flight.
Kenema itself looks very normal. Life has not come to a standstill. I was able to get my internet connection up and running and to get my mobile phone re-registered. Supermarkets are open. I was worried that the kitchen staff might have difficulty finding enough food to provide three meals daily for the IFRC workers but food seems to be available though, of course, prices have gone up.
It does seem to me that there are fewer people on the streets of the town but then all the schools and educational institutions are closed until further notice. One interesting consequence of the spread of Ebola is that football is now banned. As a result, the two playing pitches on the Pastoral Centre compound, which were used until recently by local children every afternoon, are becoming overgrown!
Special Report from Brian Starken C.S.Sp. priest with the Holy Ghost Fathers (Spiritans) who has just returned to Sierra Leone.