At a glance: Sierra Leone

Growing up too fast in Ebola-hit Sierra Leone

By Indrias Getachew Kassaye

After losing his parents and siblings to the Ebola virus, a boy longs to get back to school – even if his school uniform has grown too short.

PATE BANA MARANK, Sierra Leone, 25 November 2015 – John Kamara is growing fast, as he should be at 13 years old. But as the delayed second school term resumes across Sierra Leone, the one school uniform John owns no longer fits.

© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2015/Kassaye
13-year-old John Kamara (left) survived Ebola but lost his parents and several siblings to the virus. He now lives with his aunt, Adamse (rear-center) and two younger siblings, in Pate Bana Marank, a village in Sierra Leone's Bombali District where more than 119 persons died of the virus.

John lives in Pate Bana Marank, one of the villages in Sierra Leone most heavily affected by the Ebola outbreak. At least 119 people in the village died – not counting those who, at the height of the epidemic, went off to the bush and have not been accounted for.

Within 12 months, John lost both parents and five of his siblings to the deadly virus. Now he lives with his younger brother and sister under the care of an aunt, Adamse Koroma. She has tried her best to patch the holes in his trousers, but there is nothing she can do about the rising hemline.

As John joins a group of children crossing the village to school, his trousers ride up his calves.  This problem, however, hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for school.

“I am alive today because the doctors helped me, and they were good to me,” John says. “I want to be a doctor when I am big, because I love the doctors and I want to treat people well. I need to study if I am going to do that, so I don’t want to miss school. I have a uniform, but it is from last year and it is torn everywhere. My aunty was sewing it for me yesterday, so I can go to school, but it is too small.
I will wear this old uniform until my aunt can buy me a new one.”


“Ebola came to my village last year and killed many people,” says John. “Out of these Ebola victims were my father, my mother, my brothers and my sisters. Even my uncle and two aunties died.

“I got the virus from my brother, and it hurt a lot. I was feeling pain in my joints. My head hurt. My body was feeling so hot. I was vomiting and going to the toilet frequently. I was thinking that I would die. But God helped me to get back up,” John says. “I was the only one in my family that caught the virus and survived.”

John is hopeful he will get a new uniform soon, but it is not yet clear when his aunt Adamse will be able to afford it.

“I am responsible for 24 people now,” Adamse says. “I have seven children of my own. I am taking care of four of my sister’s children. Then my brother had five children – he passed away, and I am taking care of them.  Another sister left four children. And I have my father here, as well.”

© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2015/Kassaye
John's temperature is checked by head teacher Michael Koroma before entering RC Primary School in Pate Bana Marank, where John is in the sixth grade. All students whas their hands with soap and have their temperature checked before entering the school as part of UNICEF supported Ebola prevention measures.

Adamse has taken on 3 million Leone (about US$600) worth of goods on loan to sell in the stall she has set up on the veranda of their home. She will use the profits to take care of the family, but business is slow, she explains. She also grows cassava and groundnuts on her small farm.

“After harvesting the cassava, if I get good sales, I will be able to buy a new uniform for John,” she says.

Economic setback

Sierra Leone is among the poorest countries in the world, with 53 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. The Ebola crisis has reversed many economic gains achieved after the devastating civil war that ended in 2002.

While public schools do not charge school fees, associated costs like uniforms and supplies such as exercise books, pens and pencils are the responsibility of families. Schools are not supposed to turn away students who come to school without a uniform, but many children prefer not to attend rather than stand out as a child whose family can’t afford a uniform. 

In 2010, an estimated 22 per cent of primary school-age children, roughly 233,000 girls and boys, were out of school in Sierra Leone, largely as a result of socio-economic challenges. Although assessments are still incomplete, Ebola is believed to have taken a heavy economic toll on communities.

As part of its response to the Ebola crisis, UNICEF Sierra Leone facilitated the training of more than 34,000 teachers in Ebola prevention, safety guidelines and psychosocial support. UNICEF is also supplying 24,300 hand washing stations, enough for three in every school, as well as cleaning equipment to prepare school buildings.

In addition, 1.8 million school kits containing pens, pencils, exercise books, geometry sets, rulers, sharpeners erasers  have been distributed to all learners. Some 34,000 solar radios are also being distributed to less privileged children in rural communities. Since October 2014, UNICEF has supported the government in running daily emergency radio education programmes to enable children to continue learning at home during the Ebola crisis.

© UNICEF Sierra Leone/2015/Kassaye
First, second, third and fourth graders at the RC Primary School share one classroom. The blackboards serve as dividers between grades one and two and grades three and four.

“I need help to continue with school, so I am happy that I got the books and pencils,” John says.

Crowded classrooms

Overcoming challenges faced by students and their families to send their children to school is one challenge, but another is addressing the inadequate infrastructure once they get there.

Michael M. Koroma is the head teacher of Pate Bana Marank Primary School, where he has been teaching for the past two years.

“We have two classrooms for 250 children – and they house six classes,” Mr. Koroma says. “Those classrooms are congested, and some of the children have to sit on the floor because we don’t have enough seats for them. We also lack adequate teaching staff.  We have seven teachers here, including the head teacher. Imagine, we have nearly 100 pupils in class one. How can one teacher take care of nearly 100 pupils?”

As the country emerges from a crisis that closed schools for eight months, training and dispatching sufficient teachers to ensure all children have access to quality primary education is among the priorities of the UNICEF-supported Education Programme in Sierra Leone.

“Ebola was very much disastrous here,” Mr. Koroma says. “There were students who caught the virus from each other here in the school. They sit close together and they are interacting, so they got the virus through that. This was in the past when this thing started. Now, we don’t have any cases of Ebola.”



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