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From an Ebola survivor to an Ebola fighter

Daniel Pelz/ Abu-Bakarr JallohMay 24, 2015

It's one year since the first Ebola case was officially diagnosed in Sierra Leone. Ebola survivor Haja Kargbo has dedicated her time to protecting people from the virus.

A woman (Haja) and a man stand on opposite sides of a police tape
Image: DWD. Pelz

Haja Fatmata Kargbo (pictured above) quickly washes her hands without even looking at the blue bucket. A quick temperature check and she heads down the stairs towards the small huts with corrugated iron roofs, crammed together, with the blue ocean gleaming in the background. Moa Whorf is known as one of Freetown's worst slums - now it's an Ebola hotspot as well.

"People in Moa Wharf are very stubborn. When we tell them not to touch each other, they do not listen to us. When we tell them not to keep their sick relatives inside of their homes, they go ahead and hide their sick relatives from us," Haja says as she navigates her way through the filthy alleys, past floods of people, goats and pigs. Street corners are stacked with garbage and a smell of urine fills the air. "Some communities are now aware of Ebola. I do not think these communities will have cases anymore." But in Moa Wharf, she insists, people are just stubborn.

Haja makes her way to the slum several times a week. As a contact tracer for the Red Cross, she visits people who are kept in the closed off quarantine zones. Everybody who has been in contact with a person suffering from Ebola is put under house arrest for 21 days. This way, the government wants to stop anyone who might have contracted Ebola from spreading it.

Street scene with women and children in Moa Wharf
Crammed living conditions in Moa Wharf made it difficult to contain the virus.Image: DW/Abu-Bakarr Jalloh

Entering the quarantine zones

Despite the heat and the crowds of people pushing by, Haja and her fellow volunteers do not slow down. She comes to a halt in front of the police tape that has been put up to stop people from entering the narrow alley. A grim-faced soldier stands guard - a bottle with disinfectant looking out of his front pocket.

"Good morning everyone. Did you have a good night," Haja shouts at the people behind the police. "I was told three people in this house came into contact with a corpse," she explains. "But all of them are doing fine for now."

One of Haja's colleagues quickly checks the temperature of the people behind the barrier. Anyone with more than 38.5 degrees Celcius (101.3 degrees Fahrenheit) would be taken to an Ebola treatment center immediately. But nobody is showing any signs of illness. Haja reminds them again. "If you develop any symptoms, you have to go to hospital immediately," she tells the group.

Red Cross volunteer Haja Kargbo
Haja Kargbo lost her husband and her child to Ebola.Image: DW/Abu-Bakarr Jalloh

Life goes on for those who survive

Haja means every word that she says. She does not just know what Ebola is, she knows what it feels like. She contracted the virus from her husband in August 2014. "I did not feel good, I used to cry a lot when they took me to the Ebola treatment center. I did not believe I would survive," Haja remembers.

23 members of her family died from Ebola, including her husband and her 7-month old baby."I feel happy when I am on the job, but sad when I am home," Haja says. "Every time I am alone at home and thinking about the people I lost, mostly my husband and my children, that makes me really sad".

At the next house, Hassan Kargbo is already expecting the volunteers. He is standing behind the police line with a black cap and white trousers, his wife and the little daugher watching from a distance. It's the same procedure again - a quick temperature check, a few health questions, a short chat. "Haja is telling us the right thing - we have to get rid of Ebola," Hassan insists.

Ramata Jalloh, a Red Cross workers, watches Haja from a distance. Sometimes a proud smile crosses her face. Ramata met Haja when she was discharged from the Ebola treatment center. "I was going to her house every two days. She was always lying down or sitting in the room alone," Ramata remembers. "Her mother told me 'She is not happy. She is not doing anything, she does not even have the money to buy soap'".

Moa Wharf still has a few quarantine zones
Moa Wharf in Freetown.Image: DWD. Pelz

Ramata asked Haja to join the Red Cross as a volunteer - a request that she happily obliged. "I felt the nurses in the Ebola treatment center had done so much for me. I wanted to give something back."

Three homes and three families later, the Red Cross team is done for the day. Haja and her colleagues wash their hands again and have their temperature checked one more timeIt's 2 pm and the fresh ocean breeze does not reach the hot narrow alleys of Moa Wharf. When the Ebola crisis was at its peak, the team would sometimes take entire days to visit all the people under quarantine.

Making ends meet

Yet for Haja the day is far from over. Her home is just a ten minute drive from Moa Wharf. She stays here with her mother and her five year old son. As soon she get home, she opens up her shaky wooden stall in front of her house. Now that her husband can no longer provide for her she sells mangos to supplement the small amount that she earns at the Red Cross.

"I am the eldest child to my mother and since I do not have any husband I have to work," explains Haja. "My mother looks up to me to fend for us. After God, I am the second most important person in the family. I am often under a lot of pressure from my family to provide for everyone."

If it was up to her, she would look for a new life, far away from Freetown and her community. "My dream is to go to Europe", Haja says and bursts into laughter. "Sierra Leone has become such a difficult place to live in. There is no money in the country, so I would be very happy if someone would assist me to get to Europe."