International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

The ghosts of Ebola continue to haunt survivors

Kadiatu Bangura, 13, is a young girl with a bright future ahead. But, for the moment, she cannot let go of the past. The soft spoken teenager was only 11 when she crossed the threshold of the Red Cross Ebola treatment centre in Kenema, Sierra Leone. She was alone, separated from her mother, father, and siblings who were all taken to different facilities after falling ill with the potentially deadly disease.

Everyone eventually returned home except Kadiatu’s father, a farmer and breadwinner of the family.

“While my father was with us, we had a better life,” says Kadiatu through tears. “What we are doing now, selling charcoal, we didn’t have to do before. My father would take care of us.”

The family now survives on one meal a day. Sometimes it is rice. Sometimes a dish from cassava leaves.

“It costs me 15,000 SLL ($4 US dollars) a day to feed my family. But I don’t always have the money, so sometimes I have to barter and promise to bring the money after I sell the charcoal,” explains Jeneba, Kadiatu’s mother. “I buy the coal by the bag but sometimes it is not too full, so I won’t get any profit from it. When I do make a profit, it is small, 3,000 SLL ($ .73 US dollars) per bag. For one week, I can make maybe 20,000 ($5 US dollars).

Ebola has taken its toll on this family. Red Cross staff at the Kenema treatment centre tried their best to make Kadiatu as comfortable as possible. She was their second patient; their youngest patient – and severely ill with Ebola, having survived a gruelling five hour drive from her home near the capital of Freetown to the waiting arms of those charged with her care. Disoriented and confused, Kadiatu thought she was meeting the devil when she first saw staff in their protective gear approach her. “They gave me food but I couldn’t eat,” says Kadiatu, quietly. “I was feeling bad in my stomach. My neck was aching, and I was also thinking about my mother.”

Over the course of the following two weeks, Kadiatu’s strength began to return. “I started feeling better. I was playing. They brought me balloons and paper and crayons, and some peanuts because I really like them,” says Kadiatu.

She formed friendships with other patients, falling under the maternal wing of Haja Kargbo, a mother who lost two of her own children to Ebola before falling victim to the indiscriminate disease herself.

Future dreams

After two blood tests came back negative, Kadiatu was given the good news. She could go home. She had a final shower to ensure any potential contaminants remained on-site. She said goodbye to Haja, received her ‘survivor’ certificate, and then, “the staff brought me music and said we should dance. So we danced to Michael Jackson,” says Kadiatu.

It was a happy moment, but also one that still haunts her. During a recent visit to her home in Waterloo, Kadiatu willingly obliges a suggestion to dance. However, just seconds into the music and tears are again flowing down the now-teenager’s cheeks as she is transported back to the treatment centre and her time there.

As part of its recovery plan, the Red Cross is ensuring that survivors of Ebola, as well as their families, receive psychosocial support as they work through the trauma they have experienced. Kadiatu and her family will undoubtedly be on that list.

For now, she is focusing on improving her grades. Her favourite subject is math, but she receives the best mark in religious studies. With a goal of making her father proud, Kadiatu says, “I want to help people. I want to be a lawyer.”

And for those at the Red Cross treatment centre who helped ensure she could return to school and pursue her dreams, the lanky young woman has a special message: “I want to thank them for what they did for me. Because if not for them, I would never have seen my mother again.”

In Sierra Leone, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ (IFRC) recovery plan of 44 million Swiss francs focuses on providing support to people affected by the outbreak, and includes activities related to strengthening resilience to future disease outbreaks, improving access to health care and psychosocial support, improving food security and livelihoods; and National Society development. The recovery plan is currently 1 per cent funded.

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The ghosts of Ebola continue to haunt survivors