Thoughts from Victoria Panton Bacon, ELoH Chair of Trustees, on Sierra Leone’s one year anniversary of being Ebola-free, and her recent visit to ELoH’s child amputee projects in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
“One of the poorest countries in the world, the people of this West African country should be proud that they no longer have to live in fear of this crippling epidemic, which ran rife through the country between May 2014 and November 2015, resulting in at least 4,000 deaths. It left the nation grieving and wanting; children were robbed of their parents, forced out of schooling and onto the streets in order to care for orphaned siblings and cousins. Thousands will have witnessed the pain this cruel disease inflicted upon their loved ones – whilst it struck like ‘lightning’ on contraction, death came relatively slowly; fever, muscle pain, sickness and diarrhoea making way to fatal internal and external bleeding.
Only in neighbouring Liberia was the death rate to Ebola even higher; Guinea, to the east of Sierra Leone lost around 2,500 of its people. Ebola took hold in the virulent way it did because of the way it spread; bodily fluids – blood, saliva, mucus, vomit, faeces, tears, breast milk, urine, semen and even sweat – being the main carriers. When the outbreak occurred, Sierra Leone was ranked by the UN Development Index as one of the poorest countries in the world – it remains so, with over 60% of the population living in dire poverty; to live in hygienic conditions for so many is a dim and distant dream. I have recently been to Sierra Leone and buckets with chlorine solution outside shops, hand sanitiser at the airport and awareness-raising posters remain in some places – regardless, it seems nothing short of a miracle that a year has gone by without the cruelty of Ebola re-occurring.
The challenges the Sierra Leonean people face, every day, are beyond what I think most of us can possibly imagine. The heat and humidity is relentless, and access to health care is sporadic at best. The streets of Freetown, the capital city, are busy with ladies carrying their ‘shops’ on their heads, men selling their goods on tables on the pavements, whilst motor-bikes and cars race by on roads full of pot-holes. Driving is terrifyingly precarious; those behind the wheel are as at much risk to themselves as they are to people in the streets.
I can only describe the scene because of my visit; I went in my capacity as the Chair of Trustees of Elizabeth’s Legacy of Hope, our family charity which helps amputee children in developing countries. We have supported this very vulnerable group of children in Sierra Leone since 2012, working with our partnership organisation, Street Child. It is a model of care which works well, in spite of the huge logistical challenges. Street Child employ local social workers to identify and work with the amputee children, and we help fund travel to the rehabilitation clinics, prosthetic legs, crutches and physio. Where possible, too, we fund bone-trimming operations because it can be lethal for a bone to grow out of a residual limb – it can cause infection which is sadly far too often a cause of death to amputee children.
Isabelle, ELoH’s charity manager, and I, arrived at Lungi airport across the river from Freetown in the early hours of the morning on 21st October. We were driven to Makeni, in the heart of Sierra Leone; even in the darkness of the early hours the pavements along the roads into the town were bustling and busy. Huts, many with crumpled, probably leaky, corrugated iron roofs cropped up everywhere and you could see lots of children – some in colourful school uniforms on their way to school, some with bloated tummies and bendy legs indicating malnutrition and rickets. Our tour of Sierra Leone began in Oslo Village close to Makeni, a government-built former camp for victims of Sierra Leone’s civil war that has grown into a sprawling village. Here we met amputees whose lives have been changed, immeasurably, by the provision of a prosthetic leg. Not only does this enable them to walk and go to school – it means, quite literally, they are as their friends because they are no longer stigmatised, excluded outcasts.
We found the same, too, in Freetown. We were taken into the backstreets, stony-paths of clay ground, hazardous even to those not challenged with disability. We met Aminata, a fifteen year old amputee who was wearing her second ELoH-provided leg. She loved wearing it and told us how happy it made her. Thanks to it, she was able to go to school, be mobile, and generally, actively join her friends and family and partake in life.
Difficulties aside, there is a palpable resilience and cheerfulness resonating through the lives of the children we met, despite many of them having suffered loss and hardship. Eyes are surprisingly bright, and smiles wide and uplifting. Elizabeth’s Legacy of Hope is reaching out to amputee children in Sierra Leone, and in neighbouring Liberia. There is so much more that needs to be done – we are barely scratching the surface but we have started our vital work. The infrastructure is in place. Every amputee child deserves the start in life that a good prosthetic leg can give them; whatever their reason for being an amputee (be it an accident, often on the road or falling out of a tree, or illness such as cancer or meningitis, infection from native medicine, or as a consequence of civil war) it is never their fault. This is a country blighted in the past fifteen years by hardship beyond only poverty; their eleven year brutal civil war only came to an end in 2002.
Then, of course, Ebola.
However, Sierra Leone demonstrates, I think, by the fact it can ‘celebrate’ being Ebola free for a whole year on 7th November, that its people have resilience and determination. Long may it last, may support continue where it is needed, and one day may Sierra Leone no longer need this help. The time needs to come that this country is self-sufficient, with a standard of living worth living, giving so many more of its people a reason to smile.”