At a glance: Sierra Leone

After Ebola – a boy's return to life, and his community, in Sierra Leone

By Yolanda Romero

BO, Sierra Leone, 30 December 2014 – Musu Koroma will never forget the day she was told that her 14-year-old son Sanfa had died of Ebola.

Sanfa had been studying at a Koranic school in the village of Gbonjiema, which is a two-hour walk from his small village of Pelewahun. He was taken to the neighbouring district, Bo.

“I heard from the government officials that the two boys infected in the village Gbonjiema had died,” says Ms. Koroma.

It would have come as no surprise to Pelewahun. Ebola was deadly. A traditional funeral ceremony was organized. Mourners cooked and shared a meal, with some food set aside to feed Sanfa’s spirit on its journey to the next life.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF/NYHQ2014-3391/Nesbitt
Sanfa, 14, had taken ill with Ebola, and his family were notified he had died. The boy had, in fact, survived the infection. Here, he holds hands with his mother, Musu.

Back to life, back to the community

As the family tried to cope with their grief, information began to surface that the boy might be alive. Reports of his passing were the result of poor lines of communication – a problem that would continue, as the family had their hopes lifted and dashed various times in the days following Sanfa’s ‘death’.

As it turns out, Sanfa had survived.

When he was released from care, the entire village turned out to welcome him home, a spectre who had defeated the deadly illness. UNICEF provided support to help reunite the family and reintegrate Sanfa into his community, assuring a social service officer from the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs would be present, delivering a Reunification and Family Tracing kit and helping to arrange distribution of food rations by the World Food Programme (WFP).

Sanfa returned home with a store of rice, beans and palm oil and some other essentials to start life again from scratch. UNICEF also delivered therapeutic food to help Sanfa rebuild his strength.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF/NYHQ2014-3405/Nesbitt
Now that he has rebuilt strength, Sanfa helps raise awareness about the disease in nearby villages. Here, seated centre, he speaks with village elders in Gbonjiema.

A new role for Sanfa

Survivors of Ebola can face stigma and discrimination when they are well enough to return to their homes. Sanfa's community, however, welcomed his return. Not only had the boy survived Ebola – but his re-entry into the village helped reinforce messaging about Ebola that UNICEF and partners had been delivering to help avoid stigma. “We had heard through the radio that survivors could not infect other people,” says Sanfa’s uncle Joseph, a teacher.

Now that Sanfa is well on the way to rebuilding his strength, he is putting his ‘second life’ to use in the fight against Ebola. UNICEF is carrying out social mobilization activities in Gbonjiema to spread awareness about Ebola and how to avoid it. At a recent event, team members from UNICEF partner Action against Hunger (ACF) greet the chief. The villagers enjoy traditional songs and dances. Women clap along while Agnes Ngele, the government’s social mobilization coordinator in Moyamba district, dances in the centre of the circle.

The UNICEF coordinator in Moyamba introduces Sanfa, who has come to help raise awareness in the village. He speaks in Mende, a local language. The audience listens captively. Sanfa’s voice is secure and clear. He is proof that Ebola isn’t necessarily a death sentence. “People in the Ebola treatment centre gave me food and drinks, and they encouraged me,” he says. “I knew that I was going to get better.

“When you feel the first symptoms, go to the hospital.”

When Sanfa has finished talking, there is silence. But it doesn’t last very long. The two social mobilizers from ACF carry on with the sensitization session on how to avoid more Ebola infections.

Sanfa looks a bit tired after the effort – he’s still recovering – but he sees the role he can play in the fight against Ebola. It’s been a confusing and difficult time for his family. But, with Sanfa on the mend, and on the road helping spread the word about preventing and treating Ebola, these villages in Moyamba district can steel themselves against this killer virus and take steps toward staying well.


 

 

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