At the SOS Children’s Village in Freetown, I meet with Labor. She has been the director of the SOS Children’s Villages Freetown for the past 15 years. In the summer of 2014, she was shocked – like all other people in the region/Sierra Leone – with the news about the outbreak of the Ebola virus….
When we visited Sierra Leone in June 2014, we already felt the concern, like a precursor of a threat which shortly after has been declared an epidemic. I remember how we were greeted by the children back then with, handmade sign: „Welcome to SOS! Feel free, you’re safe with us!“
Shortly after our departure, life has changed abruptly: There were no larger gatherings anymore, the slightest contact with others was afflicted with the fear of infection, support from the outside has been stopped completely, festivities and even Sunday Mass had been cancelled. The SOS Children’s Village – like the whole country – was isolated from the world.
Besides the strong losses, this was the worst for a culture like the African one. A warm embrace or friendly handshake are an essential cultural part of the everyday life in the African community. Going outside and having a chat with the neighbors is something everybody enjoys. Within a family the contact is even closer, since they often share a common room for eating and sleeping. However, this strong closeness was torn apart abruptly by the epidemic. Out of necessity, the people had to be separated, because everybody was a potential carrier of the virus…
The children in the SOS Children’s Village could only hardly understand the isolation. The grown-ups did what they could to keep them busy. Until the government decided to hold classes via TV and radio. During this time, employees of the SOS Children’s Village had permission to visit their families, however, most of them stayed due to the high risk of infection. But many of them had to suffer losses within the family and there was nothing they could do about it. Many victims of the epidemic couldn’t be buried by their relatives. Funerals had to take place quickly and therefore were taken care of by the teams of the public health service. Survivors often don’t know until this day, where their relatives were laid to rest.
The stories are depressing, but talking about it helps to process and comprehend. Even now, all preventive measures are still in line to avoid possible, new risks of infection. Top priority for everybody is still to wash hands regularly and thoroughly. The temperature of all inhabitants is also measured randomly, to catch possible symptoms early and prevent all risks as best as possible. And there are still notes on every second lamppost that read to call 117 and get help. This number was in times of the Ebola epidemic often the only possibility to get rescued from the virus.
The SOS Children’s Village here in Freetown definitely set an example during this life threatening time – this confirmed the government of Sierra Leone with an award. The certificate and the silver medal for the „Special Ebola Award“ are now displayed in the office of the Village where they remind the employees of their incredible team work. Right after the official declaration that the region was free of Ebola, the SOS Children’s Villages Sierra Leone took in 50 children, who have lost their families due to the virus. In the near future, 30 new children will find a home in the SOS Children’s Villages. During the epidemic, many children found shelter in collective emergency homes of different aid organizations for the time being. A total of 9000 children in the whole country were found without care at the peak of the epidemic. Most of them, however, could be later united with their relatives.
The pain about the losses in the heads and hearts of the children will take a long time to, at least, fade a little bit. The traces of the consequences of the epidemic will certainly remain visible in the cities and villages of Sierra Leone for a long time.
However – while talking to Labor and walking through the SOS Children’s Village, the time of the traumatic events of the Ebola epidemic seem to be far away already: Life here has found its way back to normal surprisingly quickly. I can see, how the children come from school, how their mothers prepare lunch in the kitchens, how the children sit together in the living room and do their homework and how they go outside in the afternoon to play. When I say goodbye to Labor later, I have a good feeling. I feel that the people of Sierra Leone find their way back to their everyday life and to new normality.
With this impression I head back home to Germany.
Goodbye, Freetown – Wegoseeback!