Ebola hit Sierra Leone hard, but now – with some practical help and lots of determination – people are getting on with their lives with real hope for the future.
Think Ebola, and ‘hope’ probably isn’t your first response. In Sierra Leone, it killed nearly 4,000 people, and caused huge disruption and danger for everyone.
But hope can be replenished, even in the gravest situations. It just needs help from people determined to find a light in the darkest of times and places.
Fatima is one of those determined people. Her huge grin is a testament to her love of life – and she’s got good reason to be glad.
“Back in my village there were cases of Ebola,” she says, “so my school wouldn’t allow me to go home. I’m thankful, because if I had gone there, maybe right now I would not be alive.”
Fatima goes to Educaid High School for orphans in Port Loko, Sierra Leone, where she’s one of 600 students. When Ebola became a nationwide emergency in summer 2014, the school was able to quarantine itself because Oxfam had provided a water and sanitation system (including solar-powered pump, a water tank, tap stands and toilets).
With the school in lockdown, Fatima got to work.
As a member of her school’s hygiene-promotion group, Fatima helped get regular hygiene classes on to the curriculum. With her group teaching everyone how to keep clean, the students were full of hope for their safety. In a country where more than a third of people don’t have access to safe drinking water, hundreds of kids in Port Loko could clean their teeth and have a good wash before the school day even began.
For two long years, people lived in fear. Then, in March 2016, Ebola in Sierra Leone was officially declared over. There hadn’t been a single case of the disease at Fatima’s school.
“Now we are thankful we are safe from Ebola.”
Photo: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam
Of course, not everyone was as fortunate. The last time she went home, Fatima found out that Ebola had killed some of her friends.
No-one can reverse the tragedies of the past, but with her education, Fatima is hopeful for the future. “During Ebola, we lost lots of doctors,” she says. “So I’m going to study medicine. I want to be a doctor.”
Abie Bangura (pictured above) has worked for Oxfam for five years, and was in Sierra Leone during the crisis. She saw the same determination shown by Fatima’s school wherever she went in the country. And she has seen the work Oxfam does in health centres, using solar pump systems, new water facilities and toilets in the fight to keep Ebola and other waterborne diseases away.
“Children under five are our key targets, because they suffer most when it comes to illness from water and poor sanitation,” she says. “Everything we’re doing is going towards reducing child mortality. They’re very vulnerable, and we make sure that mothers taking care of them have the necessary education and can use it to take very good care of their kids.
“I feel proud because I’ve seen Sierra Leoneans relentlessly working alongside international people to get this situation under control.”
During the Ebola outbreak, movement between villages and towns was heavily restricted, making it hard to take food from farms to markets. When the crisis was at its height, many people stopped going to the markets completely for fear of catching the disease.
The effect on ordinary farmers and market traders was devastating. When the ban was eventually lifted, they had no money left to get back on their feet.
Today, it’s a different story. Thanks to small cash grants from Oxfam, struggling families have been able to replant their crops, restock their businesses and restart their lives.
Aminata Jalloh (pictured right, and above with her mum) couldn’t get to market during the crisis because of roadblocks between her farm and Freetown. She had to stop growing the crops she used to sell and concentrate on producing enough food just to feed her family. Oxfam helped her start again with a small cash grant.
“My kids and I were dancing in the house,” remembers Aminata, thinking back to the day she received the money. “We bought seeds to continue our farming and expand our farm. I used the money to buy things that will make money for me in the future.”
To restore people’s trust in marketplaces as safe places to go and buy food, Oxfam invested in better sanitation and clean water for stallholders to wash their produce. Isha Conteh (pictured) has been a trader at Waterloo Market in Freetown for five years. The nearest source of water used to be two miles away, but now she prepares her vegetables for sale by washing them in clean water drawn by solar pump from a well to the market’s new 10,000-litre storage tank.
Iba Silah was widowed during the Ebola outbreak. She’s sure her husband’s death was caused by the stress of trying to support a family in such a desperate time.
Left to look after her family alone, she couldn’t go and trade in the market any more. It was a really worrying time, but then she heard about a lifeline – a project to help widows.
With a small cash grant from Oxfam, Iba (pictured) was able to start a business selling food from her home. She’s making a real success of it, and is never short of customers. Now she can afford to pay school fees for the children, send money back to her village and even save a little here and there.
“The money was so helpful,” she says. “It was the first night I had a sound sleep – before that I couldn’t sleep because I kept thinking about survival. I was very happy.”
The determination and unbeatable hope that defeated the Ebola epidemic are vital weapons in Sierra Leone’s fight against poverty. The outbreak may be over, but Oxfam and our local partners will continue to help people stay healthy, earn a fair living and build better lives for their families and communities.