Voices from behind the Lock Down

Three Sierra Leoneans Discuss Ebola and the Holidays

By Marika Escaravage

In October 2014, I joined the DDI team as Communications Manager. I’d barely gotten my foot through the door when I was asked to join the discussion surrounding our response to the Ebola crisis.

DDI has highlighted Kono in orange on this WHO map

DDI has highlighted Kono in orange on this WHO map.

For this third installment of our series on the effects of Ebola in Sierra Leone, I had the opportunity to interview three people directly affected by the Ebola crisis. I extend my heartfelt thanks to Steven Sannoh, Mary Foyoh and Mohamed Abass Kanu, for their generosity and candor on this difficult topic.

Their home district of Kono is normally the site of DDI’s Development Diamond Standards Project – DDS, but since of December 10th, it’s been on lock down. No one in or out but medical and humanitarian personnel, until at least December 23rd.

Sadly, as the holidays approach, the situation has worsened, with Kono identified as an Ebola “hot spot” by the World Health Organization and Sierra Leone overtaking Liberia as the country with the highest number of reported cases. Sierra Leone now has the highest total number of reported cases of the three in tense-transmission countries, with 7897 cases reported to date.

Isolation & Regulation: Steven Sannoh

I began by reaching out to DDI’s Sierra Leonean Project Coordinator, Steven Sannoh. While field activities are on hold, he is leading our new Ebola Response Project.


Steven Sannoh is DDI’s Project Coordinator in Sierra Leone

Steven Sannoh is DDI’s Project Coordinator in Sierra Leone

After sharing reassurances of the health and safety of his family, he spoke of the social isolation in what is normally a very warm community. Dances and festive gatherings should have already begun by December 10th, he explained. Instead, one can’t expect as much as a handshake from their neighbour.

“During the war, we still found ways to get together, to gather with family or meet with friends at the bar. In this respect, it feels worse,” he said.

Facing the new lock-down and increasing regulation, he feels like a prisoner. Not helping is the fact that in the one mile between Steven’s home and his office, there are no less than five check points. I can’t imagine I’d feel any differently.

Health, Education and Economics: Mary Foyoh

Next I spoke to Mary Foyoh. Mary is a former district councillor and a gender issues specialist, but she spoke to me first and foremost as a mother.


Health, Education and Economics: Mary Foyoh

Caption: Mary Foyoh (right) with DDI’s Executive Director in 2012, Photo credit: Steven Sannoh

She feels tension in the air; people are wrought with worry and burdened by economic problems. Most business activities are shut down. Gone are the bustling markets one tends to associate with Africa. People are in debt.

Parents commiserate over the toll Ebola is taking on their children’s education. With schools shut down, the school year is lost. I had imagined this would be the case. What I hadn’t expected to hear was Mary’s observation that there appears to be an increase in teen pregnancy, a result of “teenagers being idle.”


The Koidu Secondary School is deserted. Photo credit: Steven Sannoh

The Koidu Secondary School is deserted. Photo credit: Steven Sannoh

Beyond teenage pregnancy, Ebola has had repercussions on maternal health as a whole. Women are not receiving pre and post-natal care. According to Mary, they don’t want to go to the hospital for risk of infection and the Doctors aren’t too keen to see them for the same reason.

She says that people are dying from malaria at home because they fear the hospital more than going untreated.

Adding to the stress is the new lock down. People worry about their family members on the outside. Whereas they’d normally gather at this time of year, they are living in quarantine.

I tried to imagine my own Holiday celebrations having a 7pm curfew. The people of Kono don’t have to imagine. They have no choice but to sit still and wait. It is frustrating; people just want their kids back in school, their businesses up and running and life to go “back to normal.”

The Digging Fields: Mohamed Abass Kanu

With Steven’s help, I contacted Mr. Kanu, an artisanal miner living in Kono. He might, under normal circumstances, be engaged in the DDS project, but today he’s focused on surviving.

I can hear some strain in his voice as he describes a situation far removed from my own.

“It is very difficult to mine right now”, he says, explaining that the informal channels of microfinance, through which miners finance their tools and implements, are not running. More official forms of financing have never been in reach.


Mohammed Abass Kanu

Mohammed Abass Kanu

Regardless, Mr. Kanu and others like him have been returning to the digging fields daily in search of whatever small things they can find to support their families. Outside of daily subsistence activities, Mr. Kanu’s career plans have suffered a setback as a result of Ebola. He was registered in Teacher’s College and would have completed his course by now if Ebola hadn’t shut everything down.

In his view one of the most important things for people right now is access to food and proper nutrition. With the crisis food prices have risen, as incomes and access to credit have all but disappeared.

Something

I asked Mr. Kanu what he foresees happening for Christmas. Echoing Mary and Steven’s testimony, he comes back to one word: nothing. He emphasizes it: “There is NOTHING going on: no school, no business, no socializing…”


Sierra Leonean miners gather for a DDI training session in 2012

Sierra Leonean miners gather for a DDI training session in 2012.

That word, “nothing”, sticks with me. In this season of plenty here in North America, the people of Kono are dealing with scarcity –not just in terms of food and crucial medicines, but also in terms of human touch, connection and peace of mind.

In spite of this, the inhabitants of Kono are getting by, and the three I’ve spoken to don’t sound defeated. Mary Foyoh has still made special plans for Christmas; she and her family will enjoy some goat meat and attend a church service. Though all the usual social gatherings are banned, churches and mosques remain open. At least there they can enjoy some human connection and a taste of “the usual” amidst fear, isolation and impatience.

Author’s notes:

  • DDI is launching its Ebola Response Project in Sierra Leone. To learn more, click here.
  • Help us fight Ebola: To donate to DDI’s Ebola response please write to enquiries@ddiglobal.org

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