This week, the World Health Organization declared that for the first time in a year, Sierra Leone had no confirmed, active cases of the Ebola virus. If none are reported between now and Oct. 5, 42 days after the last case, the country will be considered free of Ebola.
By Karifa Kamara, ChildFund Sierra Leone
At the peak of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, ChildFund started Interim Care Centers throughout Sierra Leone to help children who found themselves at risk, living in households where they had been exposed to the virus. Often, they had lost parents to the disease and did not have reliable care or protection. Ultimately, ChildFund set up seven centers nationwide and served 343 children.
We checked in recently with some of the children and volunteer workers at the centers to see how they were doing.
Of the 343 children served between July 2014 and this past July, 75 percent are orphaned, 15 percent have one parent, and 10 percent were reunited with both parents. In recent months, 330 children have been reunited with parents or other family members.
ChildFund’s assistance, supported by donors to the Ebola emergency response fund, didn’t end there. We provided clothes and bedding to children whose belongings had to be burned to avoid spreading the virus.
We’ve also provided Cash Grant Livelihood Support packages of $300 each to 120 families, who used the funds for school uniforms, books and writing materials, or for household expenses. Staff members at ChildFund Sierra Leone’s national office also continue to visit children who have been reunited with their parents or caregivers, giving them further financial and emotional support as they cope with the trauma of losing loved ones to Ebola. We expect to stay in contact with these families well into the future.
Children were not the only people who suffered in the outbreak.
About 90 percent of the volunteer staffers at interim care centers are Ebola survivors who initially suffered some form of stigmatization from relatives or the general public. Due to ignorance of the disease, people were scared to come near Ebola survivors, despite the fact that they were no longer contagious or even vulnerable to catching the disease a second time. Survivors lost their jobs and homes as a result, and many have shared their sad stories with ChildFund staff members.
Even children who survived Ebola or were merely under observation for symptoms were not welcome in relatives’ homes after leaving the interim care centers. It took many appeals and negotiations for some of these children to be accepted in their communities.
According to an Ebola survivor, Theresa, whose two sons also fell sick and recovered, “When I was discharged from the clinic, I used to feel very ashamed. My neighbors’ attitude made things worse for me. I could not even use the apartment building’s toilet without fearing that someone would attack or abuse me.” Ultimately, the family left their apartment and now live elsewhere.
But people in Sierra Leone are becoming more aware of the truth about Ebola through an anti-stigmatization publicity campaign led by the federal government and assisted by ChildFund. Also, community members in areas with interim care centers have seen with their own eyes how Ebola survivors have helped many children.
“When the ICCs were established, survivors were still being stigmatized,” says Ebola survivor and center volunteer Mohamed Swarray, who helped track down exposed children’s family members so they could be reunited. “Since the centers were dealing with children from quarantined homes, it was difficult for them to get nurses and caregivers. It was decided that it is us — the survivors — who can do the job well. So, that is how my status as a survivor actually gave me a job.”
Community members started to view survivors differently and appreciate their work. Many of the volunteers, who received stipends for their work, say they’re grateful for ChildFund’s support and are proud of working with children affected by Ebola. Today, they stand by, ready to work if they’re needed again.
Reporting by Karifa Kamara, ChildFund Sierra Leone
My name is Ibrahim. I am lucky to have a goat from ChildFund through Daindemben Federation [ChildFund’s local partner organization in his community]. I named my goat Susie. We have lived together for more than a year. She likes to stay and walk around with me at all times. She cries sometimes when she feels like seeing me, especially in the morning before breakfast and when I have gone to school. I love her because she is very fond of me and always comes to me when I call her to play.
My mother takes her to the farm every day to feed. When she comes home, I give her cassava and orange peels. My friends always come around to see and admire her and play with her. Playing with Susie has made me love animals more than before.
Reporting by Emmanuel Ford of ChildFund Liberia, Karifa Kamara of ChildFund Sierra Leone and Arthur Tokpah of ChildFund Guinea
We are taking a look back at the height of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Read about a young man who survived Ebola in Guinea, and stay tuned for more stories.
Last year’s Ebola outbreak in West Africa was a frightening time for everyone in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where more than 11,000 people died from the virus. There are still some isolated cases in all three countries, but the numbers are much lower than last fall — thanks in part to young volunteers who helped spread the word around their communities about stopping the outbreak.
ChildFund’s offices in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone trained teens about Ebola prevention — including regular hand washing and avoidance of burial practices that lead to infection — and they took the message to village markets, homes, schools and other places where the public congregates. Although many of the activities started when the infection rate was higher, young volunteers still are spreading the word in their communities.
“We sometimes went over to villages where the degree of reluctance is high, to let them know that Ebola is real,” says Naby, president of a youth club in Guinea. “We showed people how to use hand-washing kits and told them to report any case of illness to the nearest health post, to avoid unsafe contacts and dangerous burial preparations.”
In another ChildFund-supported club, this one based in a Guinean school, about 30 students in grades 7 through 10 spent a few days last fall receiving training about how the disease is spread. They discussed ways to publicize the prevention techniques, and then set upon their task.
“No room for Ebola here” was the school’s slogan during the outbreak, according to the president of that club. “On the top of our priority list was raising awareness among students to wash their hands in a bleach solution and avoid all contact with sick people and dead bodies. We also targeted environmental hygiene. Though people may wash their hands regularly, if the environment is not clean, there is a high risk of being infected.”
In Liberia, ChildFund trained more than 100 youth volunteers in Lofa, where Liberia saw its first cases. Today, they still conduct door-to-door outreach to prevent another epidemic. They often attend local markets to reach people from many towns and villages, and they distribute posters and T-shirts with prevention messages, plus detergent and disinfectants.
As a result, community members are more aware of how to avoid the virus and are less afraid of reporting possible cases of Ebola, according to ChildFund staff members in Liberia.
In Sierra Leone, during the height of the epidemic last year, ChildFund’s local partner organizations saw the need for a door-to-door campaign to inform community members about Ebola. Teens involved in ChildFund’s activities attended training and then went out to their communities armed with signs and megaphones, an action that created much wider awareness of the disease.
In the northern part of the country, youths even assisted in monitoring the border Sierra Leone shares with Guinea, where some infected people were crossing and spreading the disease from one country to the other.
Because the young volunteers in all three countries are trusted members of their communities, their voices carried the ring of authority, ChildFund President and CEO Anne Goddard noted recently.
“Rumors were a serious problem, including the belief that the government was making up the disease and, early on, that thermometers were spreading the virus,” Goddard said. “Youth educators were effective in helping to dispel such rumors.”
By Jacqui Ooi, Social Communications and Media Manager, ChildFund Australia
Schools in Guinea reopened this month after being closed for much of last year, as the country fought to contain the Ebola outbreak. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, where infection rates are also now stabilizing, schools are set to reopen in February and March respectively.
It’s the first step back to normalcy for millions of children whose lives and educations have been disrupted by the worst Ebola crisis in history. An estimated 5 million children in the three countries have been out of school for up to eight months. This has put children at high risk of dropping out of school permanently or ending up in child labor.
“Schools have been closed for a long time, so there are concerns that children are beginning to forget they were schoolchildren, that the continuation of their studies will be difficult the longer schools take to reopen,” says Billy Abimbilla, ChildFund’s national director for Liberia and Sierra Leone. “It has also been realized that many of the older girls are becoming pregnant because they are at home and they are not occupied. So, in some ways, the sooner schools reopen, the better.”
However, while there is an obvious need to get children back in school, there are also concerns about their reopening too soon, risking exposure to the virus.
“There is a school of thought that thinks it is too early to reopen these schools, because even though infection rates are declining, Ebola has not been completely eradicated and so reopening schools could spike another round of infections,” Billy says. “Also the fact that opening them too early will put some parents in a difficult situation because many livelihoods have been eroded, and many parents do not have enough money to pay school fees. So they need a bit more time to be able to organize to pay the school fees.”
With the decision to reopen schools winning out, the government and NGOs in all countries will be working hard to ensure children are protected at school and also help families get back on their feet.
ChildFund will extend its support of children affected by Ebola to help ensure that school staff and students continue to be careful about prevention measures as schools reopen.
“We will provide them with hygiene kits so teachers and students can continue the practice of washing their hands, and avoid intimate touching with each other through things like spacing of seats in the classroom,” Billy explains. “We’ll also continue with education on how Ebola can be contracted or not, and form children’s Ebola clubs to raise awareness in schools.
“Provision of water and sanitation is also crucial in terms of reducing infection. So we’ll be looking at supporting the government to supply wells fitted with hand pumps for schoolchildren to wash their hands and ensure that whatever information children get at school, they can also be voices to get back to the community level and educate their parents.”
You may have seen a New York Times article this week about a 4-year-old girl called Sweetie Sweetie who is staying at one of ChildFund’s Interim Care Centers in Sierra Leone. She lost her parents to Ebola, like thousands of children in West Africa. Sweetie Sweetie, whose given name we don’t know, has remained healthy and not shown signs of the disease. Here, you can read an update on her condition and learn how to help other children orphaned by Ebola.
Interview by Arthur Tokpah, ChildFund Guinea
Davidson Jonah, ChildFund’s field operations support director, is engaged in the challenging work of supporting our Ebola response, including opening Liberia’s Interim Care Center for children affected by the disease. He took a few minutes to talk with us during a recent field visit to Guinea and gave us an update on what is happening now.
You have now been involved with the Ebola emergency for months now. What helps you keep going?
Ebola is a much different kind of emergency response than I have ever been involved in. The situation is very hectic; you see things happen, and you are motivated to help save lives. I also admire the courage of the national staff. Like I said, it is a different emergency, and therefore, you don’t have lot of people coming in [to participate in the response] out of fear. So, those who are living with it are the people on the ground, the national office staff. As a native of West Africa, I should be there to support them and help to bring in as many resources as possible.
What have you observed in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia in terms of community members’ acceptance of the fact that Ebola is a real disease?
The level of acceptance is not the same in all three countries. I see it going up in Guinea, though not up where it should be. [People must accept] not only that this is a disease and it kills, but also other information about how it spreads, such as contact with sick persons, handling corpses, etc., so that there would be a better environment through the outbreak and afterward. If you look at the issue of stigmatization, it is an issue of lack of acceptance and knowledge about the virus.
Do you think Ebola will be eradicated?
Yes, I am hopeful. For it to be effectively eradicated, we have to have a coordinated approach because of the way in which these countries border each other. So, even if Ebola gets eradicated in Guinea, if somebody from Sierra Leone who is infected comes over, because of the mode of transmission, there might be an issue here. Same with Sierra Leone and Liberia. One country cannot say yes, we have done it, if the other countries are still having the problem.
What messages have you gotten from children and communities?
Well, from the community, the message is that they want to do more, but they don’t have the resources and the means. They are aware of the situation, and they know that they need to get more people to understand — especially the community leaders, so we need more sensitization and awareness raising. For the children, they want to go to school.
What Ebola eradication strategies are the most significant in the three countries?
Sensitization and awareness raising are key. First, every household in all three countries has to be sensitized about this disease, and they have to get the same correct message. That is the only means. They can take care of those who are sick, and they can allow or co-operate on safe burial for those who are dead already, but the message needs to get down to the community.
For example, people from West Africa want to take care of and wash their dead, and that is a key way Ebola spreads. Our way of meeting and talking, greeting, showing friendship and love is through handshakes and hugging. That is another key way that Ebola can be transmitted.
So, until and unless people get the message, it is going to be difficult to eradicate Ebola. That is the key message, awareness about the mode of transmission, to break the chain, should be the strategy that all countries should adopt.
What is working well in the three countries, and what are some upcoming challenges and goals?
The issue of community sensitization and awareness is moving well. That is the great step that has been taken, but it needs to be strengthened and the correct messages circulated in all languages by community leaders. The next step is for that message to be transmitted down to every household. That’s where we should push. Because now that the community leaders are aware, we need to support them in taking the message to their people. They are the people who can do it best; they are the ones who can pass on the message because it is all about trust.
We heard in one or two meetings that people do not trust the health system; they don’t have confidence in this or that, so to build that confidence, you need to have their own people seen doing the actions, and then they learn by example. Yesterday, we went to the Ebola committee meeting, and when we washed our hands, a little girl also came and washed her hands. That is what needs to done.
What message do you have for the ChildFund staff in West Africa?
My message for them is to do what they are asking others to do. So, if we are asking community leaders to sensitize their people about Ebola, we should also take it upon ourselves to sensitize those around us. It seems small, but it will go a long way.
By Meg Carter, ChildFund Sponsorship Communication Specialist
Ebola, a deadly and extremely painful virus, has broken out in western Africa. We asked Meg, who worked in Uganda during a previous outbreak, to share her impressions of Ebola and how it’s spread.
In Guinea’s Forest Region, where the world’s latest Ebola outbreak began, a bat is considered a delicacy — unless it’s your totem animal. If your family name is Guemou, Gbilimou, Gamamou, Balamou or Kolamou, you won’t eat bats, dogs or snakes.
You’ll also be at slightly less risk of contracting Ebola. Researchers believe that one in three West African bats carries Ebola antibodies. Even animals with no sign of illness can infect humans through blood or body fluids.
Every Ebola outbreak begins with a single animal-to-human transmission, then spreads from human to human through direct contact with blood, saliva, perspiration, urine, feces, organs, even semen. After an incubation period of two to 21 days, those infected pass Ebola on — often to family members and health care workers.
In Guinea, doctors initially mistook Ebola for Lassa, another viral hemorrhagic fever that accounts for about one in seven hospital admissions across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Hospitals there often lack laboratories equipped to distinguish one virus from another.
Rats excrete the Lassa virus in their urine. It disperses during the daily sweeping of dirt floors, and then humans inhale it. Lassa, like malaria, requires vector control. Ebola’s transmission, on the other hand, plays into religion and culture; greetings, hospitality, caring for the sick, personal hygiene and funeral preparations all can cause its transmission.
I lived in Uganda in 2007 when a new strain of Ebola surfaced on its border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Guinea’s virus is also a new strain, very closely related to the type from the DRC. Back in 2007, an infected doctor seeking treatment in Uganda’s capital brought Ebola to Kampala. This March, an infected doctor brought Ebola to Guinea’s capital, Conakry.
In 2007, Uganda threatened to close Entebbe International Airport. Now, Senegal has closed its land border with Guinea, The Gambia cancelled flights into Conakry, and other passengers must undergo health screening at arrival and departure. Saudi Arabia has even suspended visas for the haj, meaning that Guineans and Liberians won’t be among the pilgrims to Mecca this October. Muslims save money for decades to make pilgrimages on behalf of their families. Upon return, they bless all who shake their hands.
Ebola twists, knots and adorns itself in filaments. It is one of the most lethal pathogens on earth, and the U.S. has classified it under bioterrorism. There’s no vaccine, cure or treatment. If your immune system can’t fight it off, the virus bores holes in your blood vessels. Ebola kills most of its human hosts. Since it’s rare for Guineans and Liberians to ever touch a microscope or see germs, many still attribute sudden death caused by Ebola to sorcery.
No child should have to watch her mother die alone, touched only by doctors encased in protective armor. No father should suffer the agony of having infected his child. And those who recover don’t deserve stigma. Please help us counter fear with education and hygiene interventions.
Today, Feb. 21, is International Mother Language Day, so we’re looking at some of Africa’s linguistic traditions. Did you know that a child you sponsor in Africa may speak as many as five languages?
By Meg Carter, ChildFund Sponsorship Communication Specialist
In July 1975, I began a training program for Peace Corps volunteers in Dakar, Senegal. The volunteers were immersed in French and Wolof in the classroom and in field settings. We practiced our bargaining language while speeding along in cars rapides — large, open vehicles painted bright blue and crammed with women, children, chickens and goats — on our way to Dakar’s open-air markets.
Speaking a mixture of Wolof and French, we sometimes saw English phrases painted lopsidedly on cars and walls: “It is forbidden to spit,” for instance.
“Spit” is one of about two dozen words common to many cultures that have remained highly stable over time, so they’re useful for understanding language dispersion. In French, to spit is cracher, and spit itself is crachat; Wolof uses tufli and tuflit. Both languages make use of onomatopoeia — the words sound like what they mean — even though English and French are members of the Indo-European cluster, and Wolof belongs to the world’s largest language family, the Niger-Congo.
As an English speaker, it was easier for me to learn French than Wolof. The U.S. Foreign Service Institute agrees. French, Portuguese and Spanish are relatively straightforward for native English speakers to learn, with their many cognates, similar alphabets and common grammatical structures. It’s tougher for us to achieve proficiency in Hindi, Vietnamese or Thai; Arabic is among the most difficult of languages for Americans.
West Africans move effortlessly between four or five languages.
Yet many of the children in ChildFund’s programs speak three or more languages fluently before the age of 15: First they learn their mother tongue, then a regional or national language — Wolof, in Senegal — and, in school, an international language like Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Russian or Spanish.
In Senegal, I lived in a Pular-speaking district. Wolof and Pular are siblings: Tuttugol (to spit) is clearly related to tufli. My high-school students had already mastered Pular, Wolof, Arabic (the language of Islam) and French (Senegal’s official language). I taught them their fifth language: English.
English is often hard for non-native speakers to learn. Our vocabulary borrows from two sources — Romance (tricky, difficult, arduous) and Anglo-Saxon (tough, hard, thorny). Decades later, I taught English to university students in neighboring Guinea. Guineans also speak Pular, along with Malinké, Soussou and Kissi.
Just as Romance languages (French, Portuguese and Spanish) all derive from a Latin root, Malinké, Soussou and the Sierra Leonean Mende dialect belong to the same cluster as Senegalese and Gambian languages such as Mandinke, Bambara, Soninke and Serahuli. Its influence is felt in Liberia and Sierra Leone too. Niger-Congo languages blanket the West African coast, from the Sahara Desert to the River Congo.
West Africans move effortlessly between four or five languages. Not surprisingly, linguistic research suggests language itself originated there. As our African ancestors explored and settled the rest of the globe between 50,000 and 75,000 years ago, these expert language learners took their abstract communications and distinct cultures with them.
Our original mother tongue was an African language. Why not celebrate International Mother Language Day by sponsoring a child in West Africa? Explore one of the 1,500 living languages spoken by nearly a quarter of the world’s population.
Interview by Sierra Winston, ChildFund Communications Intern
In our 75-post series in honor of ChildFund’s 75th anniversary, we’ll hear from several of our national directors who oversee operations in the countries we serve in Africa, the Americas and Asia. Here, Billy Abimbilla shares some stories from his work in Sierra Leone.
How long have you worked at ChildFund?
I have been with ChildFund for the past five years. I joined ChildFund on Dec. 1, 2008, as the program director for Liberia; then I moved on to Sierra Leone as the national director in May 2011. I also acted as the regional director for West Africa for a few months recently.
What is your favorite thing about working here?
My favorite thing about ChildFund is the space that the organization offers for innovation and creativity in our support of children and their families. This has been facilitated by an enabling and inspiring leadership that recognizes and rewards efforts of the organization’s staff. Also fascinating to me are the results that our work has achieved for children and their families in making life more meaningful for them in very trying and fragile environments.
What successes have you had in your national office?
Together as a team, the Sierra Leone national office has made strides for children in the last two years, greatly increasing our program offerings and services. Our profile within the country has also increased, especially within the government and within the donor community. At all levels of government, we are known for our commitment to quality outcomes for children and having a child-centered focus. We have also helped our local partners diversify their sources of funding, rather than solely rely on ChildFund. This also has improved outcomes for children and their families.
What motivates you in life?
What motivates me in life is to see the results of the contributions you make in improving the lives of others who are less fortunate in life by no fault of their own. It is always satisfying to return to a place where you have helped people and to receive a hug — especially from children — and be most welcome. It is also my belief that no one on this earth is worthless; they may be born into circumstances that they did not help to create and when supported in the right way, they can correct their own situation and make things better for themselves.
Where did you work before ChildFund?
I have worked for ActionAid in Ghana, Tanzania and Ethiopia; DFID in Ghana; Concern Worldwide in Liberia; Oxfam in Uganda and now for ChildFund in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Senegal.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I like to watch National Geographic, National Geographic Wild and Discovery channels on TV. I also explore a lot on the Internet.
What is a quote, saying or belief that you live by?
Tony Robbins: “Identify your problems, but give your power and energy to solutions.”
Reporting by ChildFund Sierra Leone
For 50 days, ChildFund is joining with numerous organizations to demonstrate support for government policies and programs that will allow women and girls to be healthy, empowered and safe — no matter where they live. Ending early and forced marriage is this week’s theme.
In 2005, at the age of 10, Kadiatu was enrolled in ChildFund’s programs serving the Daindemben Federation in her Sierra Leonean community. With support from her sponsor to pay for school fees and learning materials, Kadiatu eagerly embraced the educational opportunities available to her.
But when she reached junior secondary school, Kadiatu’s father decided to remove her from school and give her in marriage to a middle-aged man in the village. ChildFund and its local partner intervened on Kadiatu’s behalf, standing firm to ensure that her father’s decision was overturned. The marriage was cancelled, and Kadiatu continued her schooling. But her father withdrew all support. Her mother has died long ago and her stepmother showed no love to her.
Without ChildFund sponsorship and the support of Daindemben Federation, Kadiatu would have had nowhere to turn.
Today, Kadiatu, 18, is in senior secondary school preparing for the West African Senior School Certificate Examination. She credits ChildFund and Daindemben Federation for restoring her hope and believes she would have been the mother of two or three children by now had it not been for the intervention of the federation. “Daindemben has made me realize my importance and value in society,” she says.
Now she is determined to go all the way to university to study accounting. “I want Daindemben Federation and my sponsor to be proud of me. They have done so much to get me to where I am today. I don’t want to let them down,” she says. “Even my father is proud of me now,” she acknowledges. “He has regretted the action he had wanted to take then.
“I would like Daindemben Federation and my ChildFund sponsor to continue being my pillar, so that I will achieve my dream of becoming an accountant.”
Read more about ChildFund’s work to prevent early marriage.