As the people of Sierra Leone continue to rebuild their lives, it feels necessary to document the remarkable resilience that so many people have shown in the face of emotional trauma and extreme economic hardship. Ebola stole many livelihoods and reduced trade, rendering those already financially weak, even weaker.
Women in the country have less of a voice than their male counterparts, there are only 13 – out of 124 – female members of parliament, and women’s literacy stands at just 32 per cent, compared to 54 per cent in men. With this in mind, the unsung female heroes of the Ebola response – who worked quietly and efficiently to fight the disease – deserve particular attention.
Between them, the four impressive women below – a burial worker, nurse, local Chief and mother – played crucial roles in the nation’s battle against Ebola, or showed extraordinary resilience when returning to their changed lives.
Nursing Student, 25
Bilikisu was halfway through her second year of nursing school when Ebola hit Sierra Leone. Schools and universities were forced to close and her studies were suspended.
“It was very frustrating”, she says. “I wanted to graduate and become a nurse”. A few months later her father caught Ebola and died, she also contracted the disease while nursing him.
Lying in bed at Connaught Hospital, Bilikisu watched people lose their lives around her: “so many of them were dying miserably. I’d lost my father and he was everything to me. My brother and his children also died. My boyfriend, Yusuf, was sick. I was really praying that I should die – I had nothing to live for”.
While critically ill – and tormented by such thoughts – a doctor at the hospital, called Marta Lado Castro, started counselling Bilikisu. “She told me not to lose hope. She said that I should try and live to tell my story. It was really her who gave me back my life”.
After being discharged from hospital, Bilikisu finished her nursing qualification and married Yusuf. She graduates this June and has promised Marta Lado that she will go back to Connaught Hospital and work as a nurse there.
“I want to be like Marta, she is a fantastic doctor and an inspiration. I will do a good job working for my nation”, she says.
Haja Fatmata Meama Kajue Koroma
Paramount Chief of Mano Dasse Chiefdom, 72
Haja Fatmata is the elected traditional leader of a small area in the south of Sierra Leone. There are 149 paramount chiefs in the country, of which only 17 are women.
During the outbreak, Haja Fatmata managed to ensure that her region remained Ebola free. She reflects on the achievement: “Most of the Chiefdoms around mine had recorded cases, some only three miles away”.
Twice a week, she would call meetings for the 12,000 citizens of her Chiefdom and relay the latest information on the outbreak. She banned people from travelling into the area without a full screening and heavily penalised the one family who did not declare that a relative had died – even though the cause turned out not to be Ebola.
The day that the outbreak was declared over, Haja Fatmata called her people together to pray and give thanks.
“It was very solemn”, she says, “we had won the battle. We were all heroes and heroines of Ebola”.
Burial Worker, 35
Fudia was the first woman to join the burial team as a stretcher bearer. When she put herself forward she was told that the work was too difficult for a woman and sent away. She returned the next day saying: “I want to help. Both men and women are dying so both men and women should be working to fight the disease”.
She was finally accepted and admits that the work was very physically challenging. “I would get pain in my back and sides”, she tells me. “Sometimes we were carrying 18 bodies to the graveyard in a day”.
The job also took a heavy emotional toll: “at night I couldn’t sleep. I could hardly eat – I kept seeing bodies in my imagination”. Along with her team, she was verbally abused by distraught family members when taking corpses away from their homes.
Once Fudia had joined the burial team she became an example for women all over the country and many more started signing up. On November 7, 2015 when the World Health Organisation declared Sierra Leone Ebola-free, Fudia remembers feeling proud and happy.
She says, “I had helped my country fight this awful disease”.
Fatmata A. Kamara
Psycho-social support worker, 31
When Fatmata started displaying signs of Ebola, she put herself in quarantine.
“I recognised the symptoms because I’d read a leaflet about the disease”, she says. “I stopped breast feeding my youngest child and took her to a neighbour’s house, then I locked myself in a room and told my husband and other daughter to sleep in the parlour. When the symptoms got worse I called the emergency line”.
Fatmata was living in a cramped house with her family and husband’s relatives. She was struggling to feed her children and pay their school fees. She survived the disease, and afterwards went on to volunteer with International Medical Corps in the Ebola Treatment Centre. To many fearful and ill people, she acted as living proof that they had a chance of surviving.
After the nation became Ebola free, Fatmata was asked to join IMC as a full time psycho-social support worker. She started counselling traumatised survivors and those who’d lost their families.
Fatmata’s life has also been turned around by the new salary she earns. She is able to provide for her family, send her children to school, pay for her brother’s university, and live in a more spacious house.
“There is always food on the table, now I can really manage my life”, she says smiling.
“This work makes me very happy. I am helping people and giving them back their hope.”