A Dispatch from the Girls of Sierra Leone about the impact of the 3-day-Ebola Lockdown
I always look forward to hearing from my girls, because they brighten my day. When I noticed the +232 area code, I answered because I knew the caller was a loved-one. Ever since the Ebola epidemic, not one +232 number has gone unanswered.
The phone rang and I heard Isatu’s cheery voice, she was flashing me, a regular practice that Sierra Leonean’s use to alert their loves one to call them back.
“Aunty Moiyattu, call me back—I don’t have any credits.”
Since this was a normal occurrence between us. I called her back in haste. She told me that it was the second day of the Ebola lockdown that Sierra Leone’s government had imposed on the country. When I asked her how she was doing, she expressed that all was well, and that she was in high spirits. This made me smile as I wondered when next I would see her.
Every year, my organization which is focuses on girls empowerment work in Sierra Leone, hosts an annual summit that brings 50 Sierra Leonean girls aged 12-16 from various backgrounds together for a two-day Summit, providing them with various workshops to help enhance their sense of self, to build relationships with peers, and to train young Sierra Leonean women mentors. Throughout the year, the girls meet in small cohorts and participate in community development projects.
My team and I have been doing this since 2012, but for the first time, things are uncertain. Our Sierra Leone-based programming has been placed on hold because of the Ebola outbreak and we have no idea what the next steps for the girls or the organization would be in the next few months.
During our chat, I asked Isatu how the lock down was going.
“The Ebola people dem cam tiday,” she explained.
The Ebola Ose-to-Ose (house-to-house) response team that had been conducting sensitizations during the three-day lock down in Sierra Leone. When they came to her house, she reported, the team had instructed her family to wash their hands, avoid bodily and skin-to-skin contact, and left them with a bar of soap.
I smiled at the innocence of her explanation and asked her if she had found the information helpful. She responded that indeed, it was good to hear it, but that she had also heard the same information from our country coordinator.
I wondered how a bar of soap would help Isatu stay stimulated educationally so that she wouldn’t fall behind on her classes? How would a bar of soap help prevent Ebola from affecting Isatu’s family and many other families? At that moment I wished that the bar of soap could wash away every terrible memory of this Ebola epidemic. I wished the bar of soap could bring back the 500 plus lives that have been lost, I wish the bar of soap can bring the girls back together to see each other, I wish the bar of soap would allow GESSL to happen this year, but it won’t. It would serve its purpose of a few hand wash cycles.
I worry for her, my GESSL girls, and other Sierra Leonean girls, because I don’t see an end to this epidemic. Since the beginning of the Ebola epidemic, a few of our girls have lost their parents from unknown causes. Furthermore, the government has banned gatherings in the country. Therefore, the regular meetings we held with them had been put on hold for three months and counting.
Knowing that the girls relied on our support and on each other for support, our staff devised a plan to call them every two weeks to ensure that everyone was doing well and to take note of any emerging needs with which we could assist.
It was during these calls that they revealed some of their fears and losses, and it was in this way that we found out about deaths in their families. During these calls, the girls divulged that they were anxious to reunite and how much they missed seeing each other at meetings, and how much they longed to return to school.
Ebola impacts girls on many levels; it insinuates fears and uncertainties and takes away their lifelines, including critical programs such as GESSL—their contact with other girls and their mentors. This is what Ebola does to such critical work; it dismantles meaningful projects, dilutes efforts and pushes girls further away from achieving their greatest potential. Our meaningful work has come to a standstill.
On our call, she tells me she is writing in her journal everyday to different people including me about her experience during the lock down. The most exciting thing Isatu had to tell me was that she came third in her class and was moving on to Senior Secondary Two (SS2). I was so proud of her and asked her what soft drink she would want when we celebrate her success. She chuckled and responded that “anytin normor” (anything). I wondered when school would re-open for her to go back and continue exceling in her studies.
In Sierra Leone, school usually resumes by September. Unfortunately, with the uncontrollable spread of Ebola, they have been closed down indefinitely under government instruction. Any stretch of time that the girls spend out of school is detrimental to their learning and social functioning. This severely impacts children in the country, especially girls who are already at a disadvantage when it comes to secondary education. According to a report by the UNICEF “though attendance rates for boys and girls are almost equal at the primary level, there is a high dropout rate for girls and their enrolment in secondary education is low with net a secondary school attendance rate of only 19 per cent”, most girls drop out of school during secondary school and the Ebola epidemic could make this much worse. The fact that the girls have to stay at home can expose them to behaviors. Though there are some efforts within the country by local NGOs to help children stay stimulated via radio programming, this is the best that can be done. But it is still not enough.
As we were about to say our goodbyes, Isatu asked me,
“Aunty Moiyattu, is the summit going to happen this year? Will I see you this year December?”
Every year, my answer has been the same,
“Yes, of course my dear—ah dey live en direct,”
I usually tell them that I will be there. This year is different and it pains me. My voice shook in response. I realized that the answer I was about to give her was one more entry onto her list of uncertainties in the midst of Ebola. In that moment I wasn’t a Co-Founder of an organization, I was her sister.
“I am not sure yet, we will let you all know when the next GESSL summit will be.”
I could hear her sadness on the other end of the line.
“Noooooo! Aye booooo!”
At that moment there was nothing I could say to pacify her; it was impossible to assure her that Ebola would come to an end, or that life would resume as usual. I was at a loss for words. That was one of the hardest conversations I have had this year.
In the meantime, we continue to encourage the girls to write about their experiences in journals not only to stimulate their minds, but also as a means of therapy. We hope for them to be able to share their stories in a communal manner some day. We encourage them to call each other, and, we work on ways to support their families. As I ended the call with, I assured her that I would continue to pray and asked her to do the same. I assured her that, one day hopefully soon, we will have another summit, where she will play a key role. I can only hope that all they have learnt in these two years will keep them connected and keep them going through these hard times. When I hung up the phone, I realized that Isatu’s story and the story of many Sierra Leonean girls, girls in Kailahun, Kambia, Kono, might go untold in the midst of such an epidemic.
Moiyattu is a Feminist, Writer and Digital Mover and Shaker. She currently teaches Women Studies courses at Temple University and does consulting work for social enterprises in West Africa. She was a participant at AWDF & FEMRITE’s first writers workshop held in July 2014. Follow her on Twitter @Wcaworld or read her blog www.womenchangeafrica.com.