14 October 2015
Washing your hands might seem like a very simple and unremarkable thing to do. But this small act can help save lives. On Global Handwashing Day, we look at how spreading awareness of the importance of handwashing, and providing soap and buckets needed to do it, has helped to bring the Ebola crisis under control in Sierra Leone.
When the Ebola outbreak struck the district of Bo in Sierra Leone, Hawa, 52, who ran the local mothers' club, decided to become a neighbourhood watch member to help tackle the disease.
ActionAid trained the neighbourhood watch team to spot signs of illness in the community, to safely deliver medicine to people quarantined in their homes, and to raise awareness of how to stop the spread of the disease.
Key to this was explaining to communities why they shouldn't touch the bodies of people who had died of Ebola, and why handwashing is so important to prevent Ebola from being transmitted from person to person.
'A man threw away my handwashing materials'
At first, Hawa says that some people were suspicious, and believed that she was spreading the disease. “There was a time when I went to one house and a man threw away my handwashing materials which I was distributing to the communities," said Hawa.
But she said that this attitude changed. “They saw the fruits of the work of neighbourhood watch committee members who educated communities on the need to wash hands regularly, as nobody died of Ebola within the community.”
Thanks to the efforts of women like Hawa, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have had the first week with no new cases of Ebola since the crisis began. But the devastating impact of Ebola, especially on children, continues.
Orphaned by Ebola
Eight-year-old Isatu from Sierra Leone doesn’t stop thinking about the moment her mother left their house in an ambulance. She never saw her again.
“I waved bye-bye to her. The people were wearing white who took her. My grandmother went to the hospital with my mother and when she came back she told us that our mother is dead,” she said.
Isatu's mother was infected with Ebola when she nursed her father, who also died of the disease. Now Isatu is an orphan, and she and her older sister Mariam live with their grandma.
"Everything has changed," Isatu said. "When my mother was alive she used to cook for us, and gave us breakfast before going to school and was there when we got home. My grandmother can’t afford to cook us breakfast."
Not only has Isatu lost her parents, but she has also lost all her possessions. “They put orange plastic around our house. Then the people came with white and burnt everything that was in our house”, she says. This included her school uniform, which had to be burnt to prevent infection.
"My only hope is to go back to school"
Isatu can't go back to school, because her grandmother can't afford a new school uniform for her. She says: “My only hope is to go back to school. I want to be able to provide for myself and get a good job.
"I am afraid that my grandmother will die one day and then there will be nobody to look after us."
Helping communities overcome Ebola
ActionAid has supported over 583,000 people in response to the crisis in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. We have provided advice and information on infection, education help to children both in and out of schools, sanitary items, food and other supplies, and psychosocial counselling for affected families.
You can help by sponsoring a child in Sierra Leone today. Your sponsorship will ensure that a child can go to school, and support their entire community.