This is what it’s like for an Ebola survivor to go back to school

UNICEF is working with psychologists, teachers and students in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to help children reintegrate.

By Sam Waterton
Democratic Republic of Congo. A child sits in a classroom.
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22 October 2019

BENI, Democratic Republic of the Congo – “It was the happiest day of my life,” says 12-year-old Nixon, recalling the day he left an Ebola treatment centre in Beni, a city in the north-east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Nixon spent 30 days in the treatment centre after contracting Ebola from his mother – two of the more than 3,200 people believed to have contracted the disease since the current outbreak began ravaging parts of the country in August 2018.

The early intervention that Nixon received saved his life. Tragically, his mother did not make it – by the time the family managed to get her to a treatment centre in the nearby town of Mangina, it was too late.

Surviving a hot spot

Kahambu, 14 years old, also returned to classes last month. She attends Institut Mese, in neighbouring Butembo.

Like many of those returning to school in the country, she has had to deal with the emotional trauma of losing loved ones. Kahambu has lost nine members of her family to the disease, including her mother and two older siblings.

“She died in the night,” Kahambu says of her mother. “We didn’t get a chance to talk.”

Soon after her mother died, Kahambu started to show symptoms of Ebola and was rushed to a treatment centre. She survived thanks to early detection, and the lifesaving care of doctors and nurses.

DRC. A girl stands in front of her classroom.
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Kahambu stands outside her classroom at Institut Mese, a secondary school in Butembo, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

UNICEF-supported psychologists have provided counselling to children who attend the school and who have been orphaned by Ebola. Teachers who live in areas affected by the virus have also received training to identify and help children suffering from stigma or discrimination, or those grieving the loss of loved ones – whether from Ebola, other diseases, or the violent conflict wracking the region.

Kahambu now lives with her grandmother and is doing well in school. She says her favourite subject is history and one day, she would like to run a shop of her own.

10 friends and counting

“When I got better, I wanted to know where my family was,” says 12-year-old Tulisa, who also attends a school in Butembo. But staff at the treatment centre where he had been cared for had to share some difficult news: not only had he lost his mother to Ebola, but his father abandoned the family when she died.

“They told me they had both left and would never come back.”

Tulisa’s experience is a reminder that the effects of Ebola aren’t just physical. The stigmatization that some children experience can be isolating at a time when they are already struggling to cope with incredible hardship and loss. The emotional scars left behind can take years to heal.

They told me [my parents] had left and would never come back

Fortunately, Tulisa doesn’t have to face these challenges alone. He now lives with his two older brothers and says that he has been welcomed back to school by his classmates.

“I have 10 friends in my class” he says, with a bright smile. “We play hide and seek.” 

DRC. A child sits at a desk in a classroom.
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Tulisa sits at his desk in a classroom at Tarse Primary School in Butembo, eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.

UNICEF is covering Tulisa’s school fees and vocational training for his two older brothers, so that they can eventually become mechanics. He is also receiving ongoing counselling from a psychologist.

Tulisa’s favourite subject is mathematics, and he dreams of becoming a doctor. Teachers at the school are impressed with his progress. “We’re very proud of Tulisa,” says the school’s principal, Mumbere. “He passed all his exams and has lots of friends.”

 


UNICEF’s Ebola response focuses on a cross-cutting community-based approach. This includes engaging with communities; providing safe water and improving sanitation and hygiene as part of infection prevention and control; boosting psychosocial support, education and child protection services; and providing assistance with nutrition. Read more about Ebola and UNICEF's response here.