The Ebola crisis is unravelling gains in development that have taken nearly a generation to achieve after more than 4,500 estimated deaths have ravaged three of the poorest countries in West Africa. Sr. Teresa McKeown with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny from Streamstown in County Westmeath has dedicated her life to the people of Sierra Leone. She and other sisters have gone through the chaos and violence with communities who now see them as their own – surviving through the civil war, fleeing to a refugee camp in neighbouring Guinea, creating new lives as they return to war-torn Sierra Leone, and now, fighting Ebola.
“The sisters are all working there, and they are scared. That’s the common word that comes through all the time,” says Sr. Teresa, “They’re scared and all I can tell them is take care.”
“I left Sierra Leone to go on holidays. Every two years I go on leave and I left there at the end of May. I was due to go back in September and I had my return ticket booked. I was very disappointed when I heard I couldn’t go back. I was grounded, so to speak, and it will be for some time,” says Sr. Teresa as she almost travels back to Sierra Leone with every word spoken. “The poverty there is just shocking because they’re reduced, if you like, to no food because teachers, workers and drivers have no salaries, and these people are no longer working so they have nothing. So they are just literally starving, and the sisters there along with a couple of lay people are beginning to distribute food.”
More than 50,000 people were left dead, and tens of thousands traumatised, after the 10 year civil war that destroyed the fabric of life of Sierra Leone. Since August, Misean Cara has allocated €98,000 to seven Emergency Response funding requests. Ebola is a serious humanitarian crisis, and during the last week, Misean Cara has re-allocated €250,000 to its Emergency Response Funding scheme so that missionary organisations like the Sisters of St. Joseph of Cluny can access money as quickly as possible. The needs are enormous and range from maternal and child health care, new beds and medical equipment for hospitals, food and water supplies, temporary shelters, and protective clothing and equipment for frontline medical staff.
“I would say Freetown is one of the hardest hit places because it was over-crowded after the war and the people never went back to where they are from. There’s no proper sanitation there, and so it will be very difficult to get control of that,” says Sr. Teresa shaking her head. “See even before they had this Ebola, say there would be an emergency an operation or something out of the ordinary because they are so poor they would come to the sisters. It’s just very difficult to accept the situation, and I am 60 years there.”
Sr. Teresa believes that governments and international organisations have a responsibility to act. “I thought the international response was too slow. I was just so angry that they were too slow taking it too easy at the beginning, especially organisations like the World Health Organisation that should be responding fast. Now they are coming in, but you almost feel that it’s too late, too little too late. I’m just hoping and praying that they get a drug [vaccine] that will be able to control it. Although the drug will control the Ebola, the sickness itself but it won’t cure the poverty,” says Sr. Teresa.
Although Sr. Teresa is grounded in Ireland for the time being, she is still hard at work for the people of Sierra Leone. “There has to be hope God is still in charge and we’ll soldier on as best we can. I got up in a church at the weekend and talked to the masses. The people were so generous and giving, because I said every bit of money will help,” says Sr. Teresa.