By Agnes Aineah
Freetown, 15 November, 2022 / 6:18 pm (ACI Africa).
Sometime in 2014, as Sierra Leone was healing from the devastation of the civil war that had ravished the entire country, another disaster struck, Ebola.
The outbreak of the virus disease, which had been first reported in Guinea, extended to neighboring countries and reportedly led to the deaths of 3,956 people in Sierra Leone. At 14,124 cases that were reported, Sierra Leone was the worst hit country in West Africa.
Mustapha Massaquoi was a happy father to a three-year-old girl when Ebola knocked on his door. By the time the country was declared Ebola-free in 2016, Mustapha had lost four members of his family, including his wife. And to date, he battles health complications he was left with when he contracted the disease himself.
In an interview with ACI Africa, Mustapha narrated his ordeal with the disease that left thousands of Sierra Leoneans with lifelong health complications, even after they were declared Ebola-free.
“I remember I was hospitalized in a critical condition on October 2, 2014. This was also the day that my wife died. She died in a room next to our bedroom where she was staying in isolation. She was a prayerful woman. I could hear her voice waning as she sang a worship song. Then there was silence, and someone said ‘She’s dead’. I was too weak to go and see her. And I was in hospital when she was laid to rest,” Mustapha narrated in the November 8 interview.
Mustapha’s wife had passed on four days after she was sent from hospital because health officers at the facility were too scared to touch her. Then, the stigma against people who were suspected to have contracted Ebola was very high, he told ACI Africa. His wife, he said, had been left to her devices to nurse body aches and diarrhea.
Mustapha’s family had taken in a young girl who was staying with his mother-in-law after the elderly woman succumbed to Ebola. Unknown to them, the girl had also contracted the disease and she died three days before her aunt (Mustapha’s wife) also succumbed to the illness.
“It is a miracle that my daughter who was aged three was spared of Ebola. All of us, including another young boy we had also taken in, got the disease. He too died,” Mustapha said.
At the hospital, Mustapha recalled having lost consciousness and waking up to find himself surrounded by dead bodies in an isolation room. Without medication at the facility, Ebola patients were left to die.
A friend, learning of Mustapha’s condition, rescued him and took him to a bigger hospital in Hastings, outside Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. The hospital, he said, had an Ebola treatment center.
“Four of us were taken in an ambulance to the bigger hospital that day. I remember three patients died in that ambulance and I was left alone. I was very weak, and I was moving on all fours when I was booked at the center. I was treated for a month and allowed to go back home,” he said.
With the danger of the infection gone, Mustapha found himself battling yet a bigger challenge – that of stigma.
“No one wanted to be around me. It killed me that I wasn’t allowed to see my own daughter even when the hospital had handed me a certificate to show that the infection was gone,” he told ACI Africa during the November 8 interview, adding that his boss also fired him when he reported back to work.
“At some point, my landlord gave me a notice to vacate his premises. This was also the time that people were not allowed to move to new residences. No one was allowed to move back to the provinces. Life was so difficult. I wished for death,” he said.
He said that it was not until authorities passed strict laws against stigmatization of Ebola survivors that life became easier for him and thousands of others in the country.
What the survivors were left to deal with, however, were health challenges as a result of the infection, including frequent body aches and weakness, poor eyesight, and reproductive challenges. Many, Mustapha said, have been left incapacitated, unable to fend for their families and rely on support from donors.
“I suffer a number of health challenges but mostly, the disease took my appetite away. It is now 5pm yet I have not eaten anything since morning. Lifting slightly heavy objects also leaves my body with serious aches,” Mustapha said.
Many Ebola survivors’ eyesight has been deteriorating, Mustapha said, adding that some have gone totally blind over the years.
Many, he said, had lost their sex drive while women, including young girls, do not menstruate.
Mustapha is the liaison between Caritas Freetown and the Sierra Leone Association of Ebola Survivors (SLAES), a support group with a membership of 4,052 survivors. Caritas Freetown activities at SLAES include yearly distribution of food, household items and money to Ebola survivors all over the country.
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Initially, Caritas Freetown ran a feeding program for the Ebola survivors in Freetown, providing rice to the families several times a month. But with time, the program became unsustainable, according to Fr. Peter Konteh, the Director of Caritas Freetown, who mobilized funds to start sustainable economic projects for the survivors.
Beginning 2018 and through, the charity arm of the Church in Freetown, in partnership with Caritas Germany, ran the project, “Enhancing Ebola survivors’ income generating and educational opportunities project in the western area Sierra Leone,” which equipped women in the western part of the country with technical skills in catering, event decor and cosmetology.
Justifying the focus on women in the Southern part of the country in a past interview with ACI Africa, the Caritas Freetown Director said, “It is the Diocesan boundary. Besides, it is the Western side of Sierra Leone that was hit the most by the Ebola outbreak. There are so many Ebola survivors in this area from impoverished backgrounds despite living close to the city.”
Other components of the project included educational support to school going children of Ebola survivors and provision of healthcare services to 1,000 Ebola survivors, widows, orphans and children of Ebola survivors.
Towards the end of 2019, Caritas Freetown, through mobile clinics, treated 1,263 Ebola survivors drawn from members of 10 communities who were provided with accessible and free of cost medical services at the comfort of their varied localities.
Those treated, Fr. Peter told ACI Africa during the 14 August 2020 interview, had various symptoms including headaches, chronic pain, ocular problems, lack of erection, loss of hair, early menopause and ear problems.
The project was also aimed at enhancing psychosocial support including trauma healing, counseling and body mapping for survivor’s children and adults.
During the implementation of the project, some 50 women drawn from impoverished backgrounds were taken through six months of intensive skills training in catering, event decor and cosmetology, practical sessions and apprenticeship and allowed to graduate in a colorful ceremony.
The women were then awarded certificates of completion and equipped with start-up kits to set up their income-generating ventures in their specific areas of training.
In the November 8 interview with ACI Africa, Mustapha expressed gratitude for the support of Caritas Freetown, saying, “We have seen the lives of women in our association transform gradually. They were given money to start businesses and are now supporting their families. Men were also given electric cars and they are doing well.”
“Just recently, our offices across the country had huge rent arrears and no organization was willing to help us. When we came to Fr. Konteh, he settled our debt immediately. That is who he is. He never fails us whenever we come to him seeking help,” the Caritas Freetown volunteer said about the member of the Clergy of Freetown Archdiocese.
He added, “I thank Fr. Konteh personally because he gave me a fresh start when I had lost all hope to live. It is him who placed me here to serve other Ebola survivors.”
In his message to the Caritas Director, Mustapha said, “I pray that God gives Fr. Konteh strength to continue doing what he has been doing for us, especially in the provision of medication. The world might have moved on from the devastation of Ebola but for survivors, the situation gets complicated each passing day. People continue to lose their sight, and those who were orphaned at a tender age have attained the age to attend college, with no one to support them through school.”
Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor’s Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya’s Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.
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