Popping his head out from behind the front door is Francis, a 13-year-old boy who welcomes me into a sparsely furnished home on the fringes of Kailahun town. The house is humble but sturdy, nestled on the side of one of the lush, gentle hills that characterize the landscape of Sierra Leone’s Eastern Province.
The highly infectious nature of Ebola coupled with crowded living conditions, has meant that in one brutal swipe, entire families are becoming infected. In the case of Francis, his two younger sisters Rose (5) and Alice (3) entered the MSF run Ebola treatment hospital in Kailahun after their mother, father – and later grandmother – became sick.
His parents died soon after being admitted, while his sisters and grandmother who showed symptoms and tested positive, were moved into the positive case zone of the hospital.
Miraculously Francis escaped the disease and was brought to the ‘Interim Care Centre’ – a halfway house supported by Save the Children and UNICEF. Headed up by an elderly woman called Mamie Kpulum, the home provides a welcome haven of stability in the worlds of children whose lives have been ravaged by Ebola.
“I feel so, so sad for these children, they lose their parents and then they have to adapt to a new life. It is our job to make them feel safe and secure,” she says.
In the past two days, four more children have arrived at the house – three of them just toddlers – bringing the number of occupants to 10. Rose, Francis’ five-year-old sister is one of the new arrivals, following her remarkable recovery and subsequent discharge from the hospital. Tragically, the youngest of the siblings did not survive, a devastating piece of news that Rose shared with big brother Francis when they were reunited.
Hawa Kamokai is another volunteer carer who spends her days and nights with the children. She feeds them, distracts them with games, and tries her best to fill the cavernous gap left by parents who are no longer around. Carrying their sadness is an unimaginable burden which Hawa does with kindness and warmth, and it is clear that the children have quickly grown fond of her.
“It’s the older ones I think about most, they know exactly what’s happening. I try to encourage them by getting them to explain their feelings,” she says looking over at Francis.
Francis hovers around the table where I sit with Hawa and Mamie Kpulum. He is one of those wide-eyed children who listens keenly to adult conversations, and he looks around knowingly while we discuss the situation.
Francis feels the absence of his father Emmanuel Sakila most deeply, “I miss his encouragement, and the way we used to walk together, he would talk to me and advise me, I miss that because now he is gone”, he says softly.
On top of the grief he confronts each day, Francis also faces the trauma of being an ‘Ebola contact’. Given that the rest of his family became infected, Francis must be observed closely throughout the three-week incubation period and each morning Hawa measures his temperature. The previous day was particularly worrying when he displayed a fever.
“We isolated Francis and then got him tested for Ebola again but it was negative and he was okay, it was just a small fever. His little sister Rose was very concerned, she wouldn’t eat, she wouldn’t sleep, she doesn’t want to lose another family member,” said Hawa.
Rose is quiet when we are first introduced, clinging to Hawa’s skirt. “She misses her mother so much, she cries for her mother”.
On my second visit her mood has changed, she is playing with the other children, smiling and giggling – it’s easy to forget she has lost most of her family to a terrible disease she is too young to understand. Rose soon catches my eye and Francis instructs her to show me something. She skips off into the bedroom and brings out the certificate of good health that she was presented upon her release from the Ebola treatment hospital. She holds it up proudly, not fully comprehending its significance.
Hawa and Mamie Kpulum, with the help of Fattu Fomba, a Child Protection Officer from Save the Children, attempt to provide support to the children through a routine of psychosocial counseling activities that include storytelling, role-plays and songs.
According to Fattu, “The smaller children just need our attention, they need love and we try and show them that, we just want to make them happy.”
“Sometimes I come back to my office and cry, I wonder what will happen to these children and their future. I have been a counsellor for 10 years, and this situation is just so hard. Ebola is a secret war, there are no guns but people are going through the same traumatic events,” says Fattu.
Francis and Rose will stay in the halfway house until a more permanent home is found for them. Save the Children, with support from UNICEF, and the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs, is working to trace family members who are willing to care for the children.
The hope was that their grandmother would recover from the disease and return with them to Kusedou village in the nearby Kissi Teng chiefdom. Sadly she died at the time of writing this, and the future of these children remains even more uncertain.
To date over 300 children across Sierra Leone have been orphaned by the Ebola virus, and this number is likely to rise considerably as the virus continues to spread.
UNICEF News Note: At least 3,700 children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have lost one or both parents to Ebola since the start of the outbreak.
Jo Dunlop is a UNICEF consultant based in Sierra Leone.