“So many people were hungry, dreadfully hungry”, Doe Kantley Jacob said, referring to what he felt was the worst aspect of the seven month Covid-19 lockdown in his home country of Liberia, between March and September last year.
“It was awful,” he said, “our country struggles anyway because our economy is in such a mess and the government promise but don’t deliver, and during the lockdown it was worse because even food was in short supply. Some people were so hungry they were driven to suicide.”
I have visited this delightful country in West Africa a couple of times, six years ago and again in 2019. With a stunning Atlantic coastline, plenty of trees and an abundance of natural mineral resources it has huge potential to provide its relatively small population of five million with a wonderful standard of living. However, in common with many other sub-Saharan countries, Liberia is not a country that properly looks after its people – for many years it has been one of the poorest countries in the world, and still is; things we take for granted such as a roof over our head that doesn’t leak, healthcare when we need it, education for our children and a full stomach are simply not a given for Africans living in these countries.
When I travelled to Liberia, I spent most of my time in the capital, Monrovia; a sprawling city teeming with the locals walking with bowls on their heads piled high with mostly fruit, vegetables or bread – but sometimes towels, toiletries and even clothes. Hundreds of other people sat by the side of the road, selling such wares – proudly running a business not only to provide for others but also, of course, for themselves. As darkness fell, the bustle would dissipate slightly, but it never felt very quiet. People kept going, kept providing, for as long as they could, as long as they were needed, before returning to their shelter-like homes for some much needed rest.
Such a way of life provides little in the way of security, certainty, or income at the best of times. But at least it is something; when the ‘lockdown’ restrictions were imposed last year, in a similar way as to how they have been here, these liberties were taken away, and the government, Jacob told me, quite simply, did not properly provide, in response.
“It was so hard,” he said “Many families’ sources of income were closed down, particularly those who sold food from their stalls by the road – which was needed by families on a day to day basis. The government stepped a bit, but for weeks we lived on a ‘hand to mouth’ basis. Health care was only offered to those with emergency health needs, so many people were ill. People were frightened, worrying about sanitising but unable to afford, or even track down enough soap; that was another nightmare.”
I went to Liberia on behalf of the charity for which I am a trustee: Elizabeth’s Legacy of Hope, which raises funds for child amputees in developing countries. Doe Kantley Jacob is ELoH’s project leader in Liberia caring for fifteen children – missing legs, or arms. With our money, Jacob is able to give these children what they need – including prosthetics, and education for all of them. He has worked with children who have disabilities for the past five years, initially looking after partially sighted and deaf children, and turned to serving the needs of amputees, for ELoH a year ago.
Prosthetics in Liberia are not provided by the state, for children or adults; they can be bought but for most people the cost is simply too much – amputees have to manage with crutches if they are lucky, some don’t even have those. Ezekiel, pictured here with Jacob, is now 16 years old. He broke his leg in four places, after he fell whilst trying to do summersaults from the metal bars his family used to dry their clothes, when he was just two years old, and had to have an above the knee amputation after badly administered operations left him with a near-fatal infection.
Ezekiel only received a prosthetic two years ago, after he came across ELoH. He grew up only with crutches which, he told me, resulted in a lonely childhood because – quite simply – whilst he did manage to get to school, his journeys were exhausting, but worst still other children did not want to be with him. However, from the moment he received his prosthetic he told me he was seen ‘completely differently’, and began to make friends very quickly. Ezekiel is a bright boy, now with hope and determination; “I am hoping to be a brain surgeon,” he told me.
Jacob explained the ‘stigma’ amputees have to live with is very real, in part because of the country’s two recent civil war which lasted for over 11 years. “During this time”, Jacob said, “many people – men and women – were amputated, and a lot of those whose limbs were taken died because they didn’t receive the medical help they urgently needed. There are people in our society today who still think that children who are born without limbs, or lose limbs, are the ‘rebirth’ of amputees who died during the war, associating them with bad luck and failure – so they are ignored and left alone. I experience it sometimes if I try and get in a taxi with one of the children I am looking after … I have to bully the drivers into taking them.
Our society has a negative perception about child amputees; but once they receive a prosthetic, that negativity goes. To every child amputee, a prosthetic limb is an escape from stigma and rejection.”
Jacob understands what it is like to grow up with a disability in Liberia; he was bullied for having a speech impediment – teased to such an extent he, as well as looking after child amputees, now does what he can to try and change the way people behave towards each other.
My visits to Liberia were specifically to meet the children ELoH cares for, but inevitably I saw too just how many people’s needs are sadly not being met; so many people whose disabilities leave them wanting. Covid-19 itself, predominantly because it is an illness which hurts older people and Liberians have a much lower life expectancy than us, is probably not what frightened them the most. However, knowing how these people live – survive – I am certain the consequences of the lockdown would have hurt them far more; all of them, but especially those live with a disability, whatever that might be.
The lockdown restrictions of Covid-19 in Liberia have now been lifted Jacob told me, but during the ‘dark’ seven months of lockdown, whilst schools were closed too, he said:
“Through ELoH I made sure all the children had books, pens and paper so they could keep learning, and students whose parents can’t read were tutored through phone calls. ELoH also gave the amputees and their families soap and masks; and vital food to stave off hunger.
I’d like just to recall one especially memorable visit to a family the father of whom, when I arrived with a two week supply of rice (provided by ELoH) for the whole family, got out of his seat and ran around dancing and singing with joy!”
Elizabeth’s Legacy of Hope is a charity registered in England and Wales, number: 1141287. To donate, please visit: www.elizabethslegacyofhope.org