Last night I watched this excellent film and I felt the need to say once again what amazing work these people are doing, how inspirational is their help, and how grateful I am for their service. And more than anything how proud I am of Georgie for what she is doing.
And how amazing, too, to be reminded by this film of the incredible resilience of people in the face of the worst kind of adversity. How heartbreaking their stories and how utterly incredible the smiles they still manage to find. It is worth a watch, but I give you fair warning that it is tough to see.
Mostly when Georgie and I talk we keep to light topics. We talk about the stupid things that I’m doing, or something nice to do with our families or what we’re going to do when she’s home. I know how hard she is working. I have an idea of how tough it is for her. But when we speak we don’t dwell on this. In the last couple of weeks Georgie has been travelling around the country speaking to survivors of Ebola and trying to understand their needs and requirements. She is trying to work out how to help them, the ways in which their lives have been affected and how she can better help those that are suffering, those that have lost everything and everyone close to them, and how they can begin to put their lives back together. Over the weekend Georgie wrote to me about some of her experiences. My heart breaks reading these stories, and I feel so so proud of Georgie for being there to help. These people’s lives have been torn apart, turned upside down in ways that we cannot imagine. And it’s important to remember that, for many of those that survive, their hardships are only just beginning. I truly hope that in the midst of all this it brings some small degree of comfort to see someone like Georgie and to know that there are people in the world who have not turned their backs on them.
I am sitting in the Paramount Chief’s bari in Lunsar with fifteen women and girls, all with one thing in common: they have survived Ebola.
They are now the most talked about people in the country, these survivors; everyone is interested in their immunity. Everyone is asking them to care for the sick at home or to staff the hospitals and treatment centres – even if they have never worked in healthcare before. They want them to look after the orphaned children and save the entire country.
People want to celebrate them and call them heroes – and rightly so! But sitting here and listening to their stories I can’t help but wonder what these heroes are returning to.
Like all of the Sierra Leonean women I have met, these are incredibly poised and self-contained women, at least on the surface, giving very little away until we start to talk.
I am sat with a list of questions that seem inadequate to the task.
“What problems have Ebola caused you?” I start, awkwardly, and the first woman begins to talk.
“I may have survived Ebola but the pain is still in me,” she says, “I have lost my mother, father, sisters and brothers. Ten people in total have all died – I am the only one to survive them.” You have to take a moment to process that – to have lost ten family members in one go. I cannot imagine how that must feel. But her story is not finished:
“When I was taken in the ambulance they stayed and burnt all my possessions.
“I have no mattress, they burnt it. I have no clothes, they burnt them. My pots and pans are gone. Everything. I have come back to an empty house, no family and no possessions. I used to have a vegetable patch so I could grow food but that has been ruined, too.”
And straight away the next woman speaks: “I too have lost all of my family – my aunts, uncles, siblings and my mother,” She pauses and now I can see she is fighting to hold back the tears, “My one joy in life has also gone – my one child.”
She tells us that she and her daughter were sick at the same time and when the ambulance came they put them both in the back and drove them to a holding centre, where they described miserable conditions. They left her daughter there and then drove a further five hours to a different treatment centre. She had no way to contact her baby daughter, and it was only when she had recovered that she discovered that her baby had not.
Could she have survived if she had taken her with her! She breaks down at this thought – it is so rare to see a Sierra Leonean woman cry!
Her tears bring tears to the eyes of us all. She says that she can’t stop thinking about how it could have been different if her child had been with her.
Another young girl begins to talk. Before Ebola she was in her last year at school, one of seven siblings. When she became ill so did her parents.
Her parents died in the family house along with one of her brothers. She and the rest of her brothers and sisters were in the house with the corpses for 3 days before the ambulance came to collect her.
She was taken to the MSF treatment centre in Bo and she survived. She has returned home and as the oldest surviving member of the family she is now the only breadwinner for her young siblings. She has no way to earn money, she can hardly feed herself let alone the others. She said an aunt is supposed to be coming but has not come yet.
“I should have been at school sitting my WASSCE,” she says, “but now I don’t think I will ever be able to finish, what will happen to me?”
Sierra Leone is a tough place to grow up, even in a large family. It is hard to imagine how so many young orphans will fare.
I know first hand how hard the doctors and nurses are working here, under almost impossible conditions. The PPE is stiflingly hot and restrictive and the strict safety requirements of putting it on and taking it off mean that doctors can spend perhaps as little as an hour a time on the wards. This adds to the desperate shortage of doctors and nurses caring for a complex and ever-expanding caseload. Kind people from all over the world are putting their lives on the line to provide the best care that they can.
And we are working hard to assure these patients that their humanity and dignity remains important throughout this, but it is easy to understand how they must feel, suddenly taken from their villages, spoken to in an unfamiliar language in an unfamiliar syntax by foreign people in protective gear, separated from those they love and shepherded into tents amongst people they watch die. No wonder there is suspicion and paranoia.
Many of the survivors are angry. The disease robs you of your family, your possessions and your dignity, and they do not know what now lies ahead.
Despite the promise of survivor packages to replace food and other items lost, little seems to have reached these people. Their disappointment is palpable.
I ask lamely- how are you coping?
For some, their families and communities won’t speak to them – they are ignored. They are told by them not to come back. They are alone! People are afraid of them and blame them and are angry with them.
“How are you coping?”
“We are not!”
All they want is a job – through their tears they want jobs – they want to work as psychosocial counsellors. After all that has happened to them, they now want to give hope to people who are suffering they way they did.
They want to do something to regain some control in their lives.
So far we have managed to hire one woman as a counsellor and some of the survivors have been hired for the water and sanitary health (WASH) team.
It all makes me feel powerless. There is so much money in the world and so little reaching those that need it. It makes me feel slightly dirty. It makes me want to scream and shout and but I think I still believe that one step is to listen. I believe it is the right thing to do to give people a voice, I suppose I am just frustrated that it cannot be more than that.
I think I still believe that we are helping in some small way by hearing them and giving them a chance to say all the horrible things that have happened if they want to. You cannot try and protect the people from this pain, they have to feel it so that they can come through it.
I still believe that – I think that is something – it doesn’t feel good enough, it feels like we should do more.
But it is a start.
It turns out you can read more about some of the people mentioned above in this article.
You can donate to the International Medical Corps here
Or to the Disasters Emergency Commission here
Or text EBOLA to 70600 to donate a fiver to the Red Cross appeal.
You can also still donate to the organisation helping our friends in Makeni here – it looks like their funding drive is closing in the next 6 days so please help them out if you can! (For more info on their campaign read this entry)