As the Ebola epidemic spreads with ferocious speed, The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone is intensifying the fight against the outbreak by joining efforts to reach remote villages.
National infection rates continue to rise. The epidemic has travelled from the far eastern districts of Kailahun and Kenema – which previously recorded the highest numbers of deaths – to the capital city of Freetown. More than 4,000 people have died in West Africa since the epidemic began. Ben Bawoh, the community health officer of Mercy Hospital in Bo, died Oct. 12 of Ebola. Bawoh is believed to be the first United Methodist health-care worker to die of Ebola.
Smart Senesie, director of Community Empowerment for Livelihood and Development for The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone, announced that his department received funding from United Methodists in Norway – in collaboration with the Norwegian government – for anti-Ebola campaigns in areas where they support projects. The church in Norway partners with the church in Sierra Leone and funds the community empowerment projects.
Those areas are below the poverty line even during normal times and with the Ebola outbreak interfering with commerce, the survival of families in these communities is threatened.
The community empowerment department put together a relief package that includes 103 bags of rice, sanitizer buckets and bars of soap, together with Ebola information packages to deliver to remote communities.
Louisa Kamada, community empowerment coordinator, says she hopes our group can reconnect with the communities, pray with them, educate them about Ebola and assure them of our love and care. The relief package is worth $12,000 U.S.
October 2: Departure
Borrowing from recent efforts by young adults to dramatize anti-Ebola tactics, our Ebola Response Team convoy of two vans and a four-wheel drive truck leaves the United Methodist House in Freetown on Oct. 2. Ebola message songs blast from the public address system mounted in the truck.
Our easy drive through what would normally be chaotic traffic reminds me of the economic devastation from Ebola – no schools are open and several road construction projects around the city have been suspended.
I find more Ebola checkpoints than the last time I visited. At the checkpoints, people get out of their vehicles for Ebola screening – a scan on the head with infrared thermometers that will determine if the traveler is feverish. The screening, at its best, is poorly coordinated. People either escape the queue or drive through without being checked.
Worse still, some poorly trained volunteers get false readings. I remember all three of us on a previous trek had the same temperature reading of 36.4 Celsius (97.6 Farenheit).
To a large extent, the checkpoints create fear. I have yet to hear of a single case of an Ebola patient being found at a checkpoint.
The Rev. Michael Gbenday gives an educational program about Ebola in Mende, the local language of the people of Moyollo village in Sierra Leone. Photo by Phileas Jusu, UMNS
First stop at Mamakah
Our first stop will be Mamakah in the Tonkolili District.
The Mamakah residents call Andrew Momoh repeatedly to ask where we are. Momoh, a Community Empowerment project field officer, replies in Krio: “We dae cam, we nor dae far again.” (In English, that means “We are coming, we are now very close to the village.”)
We are actually some 40 kilometers (25 miles) away when the engine of our vehicle shuts down and we have to call for help.
About five kilometers to the village, our public address system breaks down, too. The music team can’t get it fixed, so Momoh unwraps the megaphone that is part of our gift package.
The villagers are called to the meeting hut, where there is a hand-pump well built by the Community Development project. Parouk Sesay, the section chief, tells us the pump is the only source of pure water that the community has.
No public official has visited Mamakah since the Ebola outbreak began, and the villagers are touched that United Methodists are delivering food and information. Sesay appeals to us for another well, since the village demand for water outweighs what the lone well provides. He says the Community Development well worked even through the worst months of the dry season.
Mamakah has not recorded a single case of Ebola yet. We hope our information will help them keep it out.
The Rev. Winston Ashcroft, director of connectional ministries, brings greetings from Bishop John K. Yambasu. He tells the villagers of the church’s concern and love for them and preaches the ways to prevent Ebola.
Daniella Charles teaches hand-washing. We give them the soap and three sanitizer buckets to be used at the village community hut, the church and the mosque.
On to Yonibana
We proceed about 18 kilometers (11 miles) to Yonibana village, home of the Rev. Elizabeth Kamara, the district superintendent.
We repeat the same messages and learn from Pa MB Kamara that The United Methodist Church has been in the community exactly 115 years at the time of our visit. He expresses his joy that the denomination came during their time of need and could celebrate the anniversary.
The district superintendent gives us a generator, since our music team has discovered that was the problem with the PA system. We address the residents of Yonibana, then hurry away, hoping to reach Levulema before nightfall and before threatening rainfall begins.
Levulema and Moyamba
At Levulema, we repeat our messages of hope and teach hand-washing.
We head for Moyamba, one of several districts now isolated due to high Ebola death rates. Police and military men guard the security checkpoints. No vehicle can drive through unless the occupants have passes, which we do.
“Where are you from and where are you going?” a solider asks us, peeping through the window of our van. His breath reeks of alcohol. We refer him to the Rev. Winston Ashcroft in the car ahead of us.
Just a few kilometers away at Jaagbahun Junction, we slow down for another security check. As we leave, a man shouts at us in Mende, “Bring us food on your next visit.”
We go through one more checkpoint on the outskirts of the town, finally entering Moyamba.
Just as in Freetown, road construction projects have been abandoned. On the muddy streets, a few motorbike taxis hoot their horns to attract passengers, but no one comes.
We head straight to a low-cost guesthouse where we spend the night.
October 3: Lungi and Moyollo
At dawn, we go to a community store to buy more rice for the remaining villages in the Moyamba district. The shopkeeper looks excited. It appears he has few customers these days.
Our convoy has grown. We’ve been joined by the Rev. David Foray, the district superintendent, and Isatu Peacock, principal of Harford School for Girls in Moyamba – the oldest United Methodist girls’ school in Sierra Leone.
We pass four quarantined houses. At one of the quarantined homes, I catch a glimpse of a teenage girl standing outside the house and fiddling with her phone.
I see at least four policemen and soldiers in the compound just outside the quarantined homes. As we pass, I wonder what that girl might want to communicate through her phone. Is she calling a family member to ask them to send her food or a bar of soap? Or does she need water to wash her clothes in a community that does not enjoy pipe-born water?
Just a few meters down the road, near what I guess is a market area, a man in the crowd shouts in Krio “Na una nor more dae enjoy the Ebola moni.” Roughly translated into English, he is complaining that we were the few people privileged to enjoy the millions of dollars that the Ebola crisis has attracted into the country while the vast majority suffer.
A shabbily attired man we pass next yells: “Una all dae die; arsweh to God,” meaning “You’re all going to die, I swear to God.”
I think the remarks are evidence of bitterness I have sensed among many other Sierra Leoneans. Many are complaining through social media about corruption among public officials in charge of donations coming into the country to fight the Ebola virus.
Finally, we leave for Lungi, where the Community Empowerment group has been installing community toilets.
We pass a newly constructed Ebola holding center, where I see a few people in personal protection gear. I want to take a picture, but Isatu Peacock thinks they might not allow it. She urges the driver to speed past the holding center.
I see that she is terrified by the sight of the holding center and probably of the men in personal protection gear. In talking with her later, I learn that she would do anything to avoid direct contact with Ebola or any Ebola-related environment.
Two of our men in the pickup are using microphones to act an Ebola drama in the local Mende language. The drama covers what Ebola is, how it infects, what to do when infected and how to prevent infection.
One character is a health professional, the other is an illiterate villager with no knowledge at all about the Ebola outbreak. The character of the villager is curious to know about Ebola and the professional answers them well. People come out in droves as they hear the music accompanied by conversation in their language.
Our men unload the rice, buckets and other materials. Then, we are asked to leave and come back later because the villagers have a meeting with the district health management team.
Later, when we return from Moyollo, I learn that there was a questionable death in the village and that the villagers were awaiting approval of the health team from Moyamba to allow them to bury their dead. The team arrived while we were away and gave permission for burial.
THE CHURCH RESPONSE TO EBOLA
Warm welcome at Moyollo
At Moyollo, a smiling Joseph Genda welcomes us. Genda, a United Methodist pastor, says we are demonstrating love and concern for the community. He is especially touched that we have come during the rainy season, when the road is so muddy.
Town Chief Daniel Ansumana Bindi is also pleased. “This is the first time we in this community are enjoying such a recognition and honor from our denomination,” he says.
Momoh gives the message of hope and prayers from The United Methodist Church in Norway.
The village imam thanks us and prays for God’s blessing for The United Methodist Church and staff.
Foray, the district superintendent in Moyamba, expresses sadness over the plight of people in Moyollo, since the community is both quarantined and isolated. He tells them Yambasu is still abroad looking for help and support for communities like Moyollo. He asks them all to continue to pray for the bishop.
Hannah Massaquoi, a United Methodist, listens to Ashcroft’s explanations of the seriousness of the Ebola crisis and asks what villagers could do to stay alive.
“With the new disease, how do we now sit in church?” she asks.
The Connectional Ministries director responds swiftly: “Sit apart to stay alive.”
We leave late in the evening for Bo, where we take full advantage of the empty streets to play our Ebola message songs. Small groups of people gather on the edges of their compounds, waving and congratulating us.
United Methodists are especially proud of our work and yell encouragement.
“Well done, United Methodist Church, we are proud of you,” a youth in a T-shirt with cross and flames shouts.
October 4: Mongere
In Mongere the next day, Paramount Chief James Vonjo, is proud to tell us there are no confirmed cases of Ebola in his chiefdom of Valunia.
But, he says, the community shares borders with nine other chiefdoms. And, since his chiefdom has diamond and gold deposits, people come from all over the country and stealthily enter the bush to compete for the chiefdom’s mineral resources.
He says he is proud of the leadership of The United Methodist Church and is elated that his chiefdom is benefiting from the kindness of the people of Norway.
Our team will be the first to reach most of the communities we are visiting with aid and Ebola messages. It is clear from our conversations in those villages that rural and hard to reach communities need more Ebola information.