Three years ago I travelled to Sierra Leone. Of all the incredible people I met it was the women and girls whose indefatigable attitude to life bowled me over. But since the Ebola outbreak in 2014, heartbreakingly over 12,000 children have been left orphaned in Sierra Leone. What is life like for Ebola orphans and the women supporting them now?
Bandor, 13, is an ActionAid sponsored child. She lost her granny, who raised her after her parents died, to Ebola.
I met women like Ma Musu. A community activist for nine years, we trained her during the Ebola outbreak so she’s now able to practice psycho-social counselling for her community in Freetown.
“Our community has been very badly affected because most children are orphaned in some ways now. Many now can’t afford to go to school because the main breadwinner has died,” she says.
Ma Musu has set up a children’s club to bring them together so that they can talk about their problems. Ma Musu says, "We don’t want them to give up. We want to let them talk about their stories and what has happened to them."
Bandor lost her granny to Ebola
Bandor, 13, was orphaned at a young age. ActionAid’s child sponsorship programme supported Bandor’s grandmother to raise her. “She was my best friend. She used to tell me stories and sing to me,” Bandor says.
Tragically, Bandor's granny died of Ebola. She told us, "I wasn’t allowed to visit my grandmother and I wasn’t feeling good because they wouldn’t let me go and see her. The house was quarantined. She was alone in the house and they put a barrier around it."
Bandor says, "I was crying a lot and thinking about her love and this affected my schooling. I wasn’t going to school at the time because school had been suspended because of the Ebola outbreak so I was just here and very sad."
ActionAid gave Bandor text books and stationery to help her keep up her studies. They are now among the 13-year-old’s few possessions. After her grandmother died from Ebola, Bandor’s house was burnt to stop the disease spreading.“I lost everything – even the photographs of my grandmother," she says.
Facing stigma from Ebola
Grieving Bandor has also had to overcome stigma. “Some children at school said I shouldn’t use the water tap because my grandmother died from Ebola. I felt angry - it wasn’t her fault she died.”
Despite these challenges, she is looking to the future. “I want positive things to happen in my future. I enjoy studying maths and I’d like to be a bank manager."
Bandor has been taken in by a relative, Mama Alice, who is a nurse and mother of six. She is one of ActionAid’s 1,200-strong team of volunteers who have been instrumental in combatting Ebola in Sierra Leone.
Trained as a “neighbourhood watch” volunteer, Mama Alice is able to spot signs of Ebola in her community, get help for victims, and prevent the disease spreading. She says people now wash their hands frequently and have adapted their burial practices to ensure safety from Ebola.
“We have tasted the bitterness of Ebola in our community, so now there is better understanding about the need for controls,” she says.
Ebola: the crisis isn't over
Despite the promising news that that last week was the first week since March 2014 that there have been no new Ebola cases in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, the long term impacts of Ebola on communities is still of great concern. Many survivors in West Africa face ongoing medical complications related to mobility and vision.
We have reached 500,000 people in Sierra Leone and Liberia since the outbreak, and we know that women and girls like Ma Musu, Bandor and Mama Alice have all suffered. The economy and health services have been badly impacted, and rebuilding public services and livelihoods will take time.
We can't forget the orphans of Ebola or the incredible women who do all they can to help integrate them back into society. Can you sponsor a child like Bandor, and give a child the support and help they need at this incredibly difficult time?