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Ebola’s double victims in Sierra Leone

By Umaru Fofana

I had a chance meeting with Mabinty Bangura. It was on the 4 April 2016. Ebola survivors were demonstrating between the office of the President (State House) and the iconic Cotton Tree. They were demonstrating against what they deemed as the government’s neglect of them and their plight. Most if not all of the protesters had recovered from the debilitating virus. Others had been orphaned or widowed by it. For some others it was a combination of at least two of those.

As a direct result of their condition as people who had won a battle against the deadly virus, some of their colleagues had gone blind due to neglect, said the survivors’ president Yusuf Kabbah. Some others had even died due to relapse emanating from the lack of care, he went on. Some of the men have become impotent. Some of the women still experience regular irregularities in their menstrual cycle.

Ebola being a poor man’s disease - besides health care workers almost all those who contracted the virus were poor people or had relationships with a health worker - these victims of the world’s worst health emergency need all the help they can get. And only the state, when well-organised, can provide that for them.

Among the hundreds of Ebola victim protesters was 29-year-old Mabinty. As soon as I parked my car to cover the protest they surged towards me, chanting their problems and pleading with me to tell the world. I asked for the orphans, and the organisers split the crowd and brought four kids with an average age of five years. Then I asked for the widows and a good number of them stepped up to my microphone. Mabinty was one of them.

As I juggled between doing my work and observing basic crowd and Ebola-related protocols, Mabinty approached me, again. “I want to talk to you sir,” the Ebola widow and survivor pleaded. We stepped aside - less noisy and a bit away from the feisty protest chants. Her children’s names had not been accepted by the ministry of social welfare for any future assistance, because, according to her, they were not “true orphans”. I asked her for clarification and she said it was because she was still alive and that the 5-year-old girl and 3-year-old boy had only lost one parent. I tried to crosscheck this with the ministry days later and it was confirmed to me. When I challenged this as nonsense because the breadwinner it was who had died, a ministry official sounded very confused - probably frightened or sympathetic - maintaining that that was the instruction they had received from their political leaders.

Mabinty’s other wish was for me to help her secure her inheritance from her late husband’s employers. I assured her I would do my best. She gave me all the details of who he had worked for,  but I won’t name the employers for reasons of employer-employee confidentiality in this instance. I gave her my number and encouraged her to call me later for a reminder as I might forget. She did call on the following day. Immediately after we had spoken I made a few enquiries about her late husband. The pressure of work was such that I forgot to follow up almost two weeks later.

Exactly two weeks later I was almost running to my car in central Freetown to drive to New England for an interview I had to have broadcast in under two hours. In view of the traffic in that part of town it was a very short deadline. Mabinty saw me as she left a gift shop in town. He called me out and said hello. I recalled her face but struggled to place where. “Hi, how are you ma’am”, I responded in my usual way to cover up my not fully recognising someone I think I should remember.

As I twitched to rush to catch up with my interview appointment, I noticed she looked desperate and there was something she wanted to tell me. Something in me pulled me back. I stopped. “I am sorry I don’t quite remember you,” I said. “I am Mabinty Bangura” she said. “Mabinty ehhhh…” I still struggled to place her. “The Ebola survivor who lost her husband, we met during our demonstration”. I felt ashamed of myself. “I am sorry” I said. Then tears started to icicle down her cheek.

Mabinty opened her bag and showed me a pair of wedding rings. She had gone to sell them at a gift shop to raise money to pay her two children’s school fees, she told me. More tears went down her cheek. I apologised to her that I needed to dash off, and promised to call her.

Once I had left her I felt something unfulfilling about me. I had brushed off a woman in distress. So I called her as I drove to do my interview - using my bluetooth earpieces, incase you think I was breaking the law. “How much did you want to sell your wedding rings?” I enquired. She said the shop had haggled her too low down and she agreed to accept Le 600,000 ($100) but nothing less. The shop would only give her Le 500,000, apparently capitalising on her situation. So she refused to sell. I asked whether she had any use for the rings and she said “no” - but was quick to add that she would have preferred to keep them in memory of her late husband.

Not having much cash on me and she needing money urgently, I let her decide saying I would give her the difference if she chose to sell them, and would give her a certain amount if decided otherwise.

Once I returned from my interview I called her to come to my office, advising her to no longer sell the rings. But she already had done so - the shop paid her less than they had earlier haggled for. I asked her to return the money and take back her rings but she had already used part of the money to buy some school materials for her children, which she showed me. That was when I tweeted about her plight and posted on Facebook. I would be surprised, very pleasantly, by the outpouring of emotions by Sierra Leoneans - with some offering to help almost instantly.

Ordinary Sierra Leoneans have never ceased to amaze me when it has come to intervening whenever I have highlighted a humanitarian situation: From the lady abandoned at Murray Town during the Ebola outbreak after she had been prematurely discharged from a Lumley hospital, to those orphaned twins who were threatened with eviction from their house in Kenema after Ebola claimed the lives of their parents. But none attracted as much speed and quick action as did the plight of Mabinty and her two children.

In less than an hour I started receiving phone calls. One of the callers - a Sierra Leonean in Liberia - instantly sent Le 600,000 ($100). Mabinty was still in the office when someone brought in the money. Another - a member of Forward Sierra Leone which is a Whatsapp Group I belong to, called me from London almost instantly once he had seen the post. He would later send another Le 600,000. A lady, Jalikatu Bah in the US saw a screenshot of my Facebook post someone had shared and sent me a Facebook message for my number. We spoke and she sent Le 1,750,000 through a friend in Freetown. And a senior Sierra Leonean lawyer called to empathise and sent Le 2,000,000 on the following day. In two days Sierra Leoneans contributed almost $900 towards Mabinty’s children’s education and upkeep. Additionally, a local NGO Project Pikin pledged to pay the kids’ fees next academic year. Mama care Salone Pikin also brought huge amounts of books, pencils, crayons, rulers, slates, watercolours and paper files to be given to Mabinty. She now has a business plan which should be able to keep her and the children for now at least. This genuine outpouring of emotions and the will to help out prove many things including the fact that we have a humanitarian spirit. Even those who could not give expressed genuine concern. That is a spirt we should harness.

Mabinty is just one of the hundreds of women widowed by Ebola. There are orphans too. According to UNICEF, there are 6,376 children either or both of whose parents got snatched by the virus. She is lucky, for now at least, that we had those chance meetings. She was lucky she had wedding rings to sell however heartbreaking that may sound. She is lucky that she lives in her self house left by her late husband even though it is unfinished and in poor shape in a poor neighbourhood outside Waterloo. Hundreds of others inner situation are left to suffer in silence, unnoticed, in remote parts of the country or even in Freetown’s slums.

This is exactly why I said earlier that only the state could take care of Ebola victims - no matter what helps cometh from abroad. I know some individuals would want to help but the issue of trust - or the lack of it - has featured very prominently in the feedbacks I have got over the issue of Mabinty. Perhaps for good reason, people lack confidence that money given to government will be properly spent. But we have got to find a way to make it work. We have to find a way to look after these unfortunate compatriots of ours. Otherwise the risk exists that they will be forgotten as much as the victims of our war were forgotten and turned into tours attractions.

A well-run scholarship scheme by the state for their children’s education is my priority. A proper free medicare for the survivors is not beyond the reach of the state if only some unnecessary government spending is cut. Unlike the amputee war victims who could no longer use their hands, some of the survivors are fit again - with proper followup medical interventions. We cannot afford to let this generation of Sierra Leoneans be sacrificed as those further victimised by the war, society and the state. It will be a scar on the conscience of our leaders - assuming they have any - to let down the many Mabintys that are out there - and their children.

(C) Politico 21/04/16