Ebola: extended families stepping up for orphaned children

Nzérékoré, Guinea – Upon the deaths of his brother and his sister-in-law, Aboubacar (72), the sole breadwinner for his family, took in his brother’s six orphans. After a few days, three of the six started showing the signs of Ebola: Ousmane (14), Massa (12), and Adama (10).

Having heard Ebola sensitization messages on the radio, Aboubacar immediately called the Guinean Red Cross who came to take the three children to the Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) in Guéckédou. Watching the children being taken away by people in full protective gear made him cry for the first time. He worried that they may also die, just like his brother had.

When Ousmane, Massa and Adama left, Aboubacar’s neighbors accused him of having sold his brother’s children, because to them, going to the ETU was “a one way trip, with no return”. Some believed that children were sold and experimented on in the Ebola treatment centres, before eventually being killed. People stopped speaking to him and shunned his family.

The rumors got so bad that his relatives in Fouala, a village over three hours away by car, sent his sister to find out about the children. After speaking with the doctors in the ETU and seeing for herself that the children were being well cared for, she informed the elders and the people in the community.

The day the children came home, Aboubacar told the mosques and the local authorities, “As you see, I have not sold the children. I tried to save them.”

Aboubacar’s hopes that the suspicion would subside following their safe return faded as a new problem arose for the family – stigma. While some of the families gradually began speaking to them again, other neighbors went so far as to move away. Others continued ignoring them and forbidding their children from playing with all the children in his household – something unthinkable in Guinean culture.

Aboubacar, now responsible for 15 children, needs all the help he can get. To assist families like his, UNICEF has developed a cash transfer programme aimed at preventing the families of children affected by Ebola from falling into extreme poverty. Additionally, it is the hope that by supporting families like Aboubacar’s, extended families will be encouraged to take in orphans, especially those who would otherwise be unaccompanied. Fortunately, in Guinea, you seldom have children without guardians. Extended families, more often than not, voluntarily come forward to care for children that have lost both parents or guardians.

When asked how they felt during their medical treatment and their experiences after returning, Ousmane, Massa and Adama said that the worst time for them was when the team came dressed “in scary gear” and took them in the ambulance, leaving behind their other siblings. They didn’t know where they were going; they didn’t know what was happening to them.

In the back of the ambulance, they held onto each other in fear. After some time, they realized that at least they would be together wherever they were being taken.

Their experience in the ETU was traumatic. Despite being well cared for and looked after by the medical team, they witnessed violent sickness and death on a regular basis. This coming so shortly after the death of both their parents, still haunts them.

On the day they were discharged, they received new sets of clothes, sheets, and food. UNICEF additionally arranged their return home. To help the children better cope with such traumatic events, UNICEF is implementing psychosocial support programme for communities, families and children affected by Ebola throughout the country.

Just a few weeks ago, the children returned to school along with the rest of the girls and boys in Guinea. They welcome this sense of normalcy in their lives.


Timothy La Rose is a Communication Specialist, and Kadijah Diallo is an Information Officer at UNICEF Guinea.

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