A few days before Liberia was officially declared free of Ebola transmission – on May 9, 2015 – I had a chance to chat to Monrovia Mayor Clara Doe Mvogo, an extraordinarily energetic woman, who took the battle against Ebola personally and into the hearts of local communities.
When I met her in her office, Mvogo was wearing a bright yellow African dress and matching headgear, but if you’d seen her campaigning in the streets a few months ago, you’d have seen her sporting the Operation Stop Ebola T-shirt – and heard her telling residents in no uncertain terms that they needed to do their bit to stop the deadly virus.
Mvogo told me the support from the international community was crucial in the fight against Ebola – which killed more than 4,600 people in this West African country – but that it was communities themselves who won the battle.
“If you really want to credit anyone for where we are today, you have to look at the community leaders, the grassroots people,” she said, pointing to a large map of the city hanging in her City Hall office.
A few months ago, Liberia had clearly turned a corner in the Ebola crisis, but cases continued to be reported in Zuma Town, a suburb of Monrovia. The mayor wasted no time in taking to the streets with UNICEF-supported social mobilizers to talk to residents and tell them how they could avoid getting, and spreading Ebola.”
“We campaigned in Zuma Town over three days. We were there each day, with the help of the community volunteers, with the help of the bloc leaders. And about 10 days later, we were able to see no new cases, and 21 days later, still no new cases and so we got to zero,” Mvogo said.
Like Mvogo, numerous Liberians worked tirelessly to rid their country of Ebola and alleviate the suffering it caused. People like social worker Lucy Jagbeh, who would visit families affected by Ebola and “help anyway possible.”
At first, she said, she and others who had volunteered to help, had no idea about measures that would help protect them from the dreaded disease, like avoiding physical contact and standing at a safe distance from a person who may have been infected.
“We didn’t know at the time that Ebola can spread by touching,” the 53-year-old told me. “And I didn’t know if I was going to die, but I wanted to help.” She eventually received training in Ebola-specific protocols.
As we drove to the outskirts of Monrovia to meet one of the women Jagbeh had helped, we passed a huge billboard warning: “Ebola is a killer” – a reminder of the early days of the outbreak, when many still believed that Ebola was a myth, and a warning that Ebola will remain a threat as long as transmission continues in neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone.
When we arrived in Kpallah Town, Jagbeh introduced me to Adama Loyma, whose story shows just how strong kinship remained even in the face of adversity.
A 32-year-old mother of one, who ekes out a living selling charcoal and doing some sewing, Loyma is now caring for the six children of a friend who died of Ebola last year. And when Ebola killed one of her brothers and his wife, their seven children were adopted by an aunt.
The orphaned children now all live in the same compound. When I visited, they were playing in a dusty patch of ground outside an open-air kitchen shared by several families. Smiling broadly, Loyma told me the children keep her happy and often make her laugh, even though she sometimes worries about the future.
More than 3,320 children have been registered as having lost one of both parents to Ebola. Of those, 884 were left parentless. But, almost none of them are in orphanages, and most are now in the care of relatives or other members of the community, who braved fear of Ebola, and often economic hardships, to open their homes – and their hearts – to children orphaned by the dreaded virus.
The eldest of Loyma’s adopted children, 16-year-old Jerry, helps with the charcoal business, as she can’t afford to send him to school. The others attend school at her local church. “When schools reopened I went there to make sure they were taking the precautions against Ebola, washing hands and taking the temperature,” she told me.
And she insists she and her family will continue to follow the advice given by social mobilizers during outreach campaigns in her community, where Ebola killed 16 people. Teams were deployed across the country to tell people how to protect themselves and others, by washing hands, reporting sick people to the health centre, and by allowing specialized teams to conduct safe burials.
“I want my children to be safe,” Loyma said, pointing to some of the younger ones who played a game, called Lapa, that involves passing a ball, scattering a pile of slippers and rearranging them in pairs.
Patrick Moser is UNICEF’s Ebola communication coordinator