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The unsung heroes in the fight against Ebola

Daniel Pelz and Abu Bakarr JallohMay 18, 2015

Local volunteers are at the forefront of the struggle to stop Ebola in Sierra Leone. They inform the public about ways to avoid the virus, counsel survivors and reach out to orphans - even though cases are declining.

Sierra Leone Ebola Rotes Kreuz
Image: Abu-Bakarr Jalloh

At first glimpse, they look like a group of university students waiting for their lecturer: A group of ten young men and women in jeans, caps and sports shoes sit on ramshackle chairs between overflowing bookshelves and dusty files in a tiny office. They are Team Nr. 5 of the Red Cross office in Kenema, Sierra Leone's third largest city. Their mission: Fighting Ebola.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," shouts Hallie James, a tall, athletic man in a blue shirt. He gives his orders with the voice of a military officer and the emphasis of a preacher. "The message we need to spread today is 'Ebola is not yet gone'." As he spoke, the country had not recorded a new Ebola case in days. That, sadly, has changed. On 19 May, the World Health Organization announced that there had been 36 new cases in Sierra Leone and Guinea in the past week.

After 15 minutes of briefing the volunteers set out in two white jeeps with the Red Cross and the Red Crescent symbols on their front doors. They are among 2,200 volunteers who support the Red Cross all over the country. Many more Sierra Leoneans volunteer for other development organizations and the Ministry of Health.

Keeping people alert

Today's destination is Komende Lyama village, a 40-minute drive from Kenema. It's nothing more than a collection of brown mud houses, covered with corrugated iron sheets, tucked away between green palm trees and fields.

In 2014, this was one of the hotspots of the Ebola disease. More than 42 villagers got Ebola and only 13 of them survived. For months, Komende Luyama was under quarantine. Soldiers stopped the villagers from leaving so that they could not spread the virus. And whoever could, avoided the village. Hallie James and his colleagues did not. They still visited the village, sometimes two times a week, to inform the residents about the best ways to avoid Ebola.

"The people used to fear to send Ebola cases to the health facilities, because they regarded the health facility as a threat, a place where you actually could get Ebola. But through our social mobilization people have accepted that they can go to the health facility and that is why this area is very pure and peaceful today," Hallie James explains. In the meantime, the first villagers start to gather around the volunteers.

Volunteers in Sierra Leone
This selfless team of volunteers have been at the forefront in fighting the Ebola virus in Sierra LeoneImage: Abu-Bakarr Jalloh

'Eradicate Ebola once and for all'

The volunteers still come here two to three times a month, reminding the people not to bury their dead and to refer all suspected Ebola cases to a health center. "We want to fight and eradicate Ebola once and for all in our nation," explains Hallie James.

His volunteers do what they can: Although the sun burns down from the blue sky, they put on a passionate one hour program. Songs, speeches and even a short play - two volunteers bring a bucket, water and soap in front of the villagers and show in slow motion the appropriate way to wash hands. At the end, one volunteer says prayers for the dead.

The villagers are more interested in other issues than Ebola prevention. A farmer complains that he needs tools and seeds. Another asks when the village primary school will be completed - work had to stop because the workers could not go to the village because of the Ebola outbreak. The volunteers take notes and promise to present the villagers' grievances to the local Ebola response comitee. But they can only hope that someone will act.

"This is where the Ebola outbreak started," says Christine Akopome, one of the volunteers. She points to a small white house in the distance. The wooden window blinds are closed. "A lady came here who was affected by Ebola, but the people did not recognize that it was Ebola. When she died, they washed the body and buried her. So the people who washed and buried her developed Ebola and died."

Crying with the survivors

Sheku Foday is the only person still living in the house. The other inhabitants either died or are too afraid to return. He lost his elder brother, his sister-in-law and their children to Ebola. Now he is standing on the front porch, looking at the Red Cross team standing outside. The volunteers regularly visit him and the other villagers who lost family and friends to Ebola. "Sometimes all they can do is cry and sometimes I cry with them," says Christine, her voice trembling.

A few encouraging words, a few minutes of time - that's all that Christine and the other volunteers can offer. "It's not easy. I tell them to forget, to let go. Those who have gone will not come back, there is nothing we can do about it. They should try and put their faith in God", Christine says.

An elderly woman listens to Red Cross volunteer
Because of Ebola most of Sierra Leone's elderly have lost would-be caretakersImage: Abu-Bakarr Jalloh

That is, however, of little comfort to Sheku Foday. "Ebola has a great impact on me," he says in a low tone, speaking slowly, his eyes firmly fixed on the ground. "I don't know how to take care of my children and my late brother's children as well. I am all alone." The lockdown makes it even harder for him to take care of his family - the farmers could not work on their fields for months, many do not even have seeds left to prepare for a new harvest.

Many problems remain unsolved

Leaving with the feeling that many problems remain unsolved is something that Christine Akobome and the other volunteers have to get used to. After some two hours in Komenda Luyama, they start moving back to their white cars that are parked in the shade next to one of the houses. 30,000 Leones (6 euros, US$7) is their pay for a day in the field.

"Sometimes it is not easy when I go home. I shed tears sometimes. You meet someone who is all alone, who has lost his wife, his children, maybe his father or mother. I realize how difficult it is for them and it is not easy for me." Christine is still among the better-off volunteers - one of her colleagues says that his family even kicked him out of the family house after hearing that he visited areas affected by Ebola.

The Red Cross cars slowly leave the village behind and head for Kenema. For this day, the volunteers are done. But they won't go home after reaching the city. They plan to stay at the Red Cross office and share their experiences.