Under the shade of a makeshift blue tarp, I sat with community members in Freetown’s Moa Wharf area. Children were playing on a nearby staircase and the sound of their chatter mixed with the waves at the seafront. The social mobilization team for Freetown was on the ground, co-led with the government by UNICEF and including NGOs and UN partners like WHO. I was also there because after a few “zero” days in the Western Area, it was disappointing for everyone working on the Ebola response when two days earlier, there were three positive cases coming from this community.
As a result, the Western Area’s Social Mobilization Rapid Response Team (SMRRT) went out and did a quick assessment. They concluded the following:
- this is a transient boating community with various entry points,
- there is a lack of social mobilization activities inside the community and high levels of complacency,
- there are not a lot of recent Ebola-focused print materials or hand-washing stations present,
- there are three religious centres which promote gathering and common use of praying mats and kettles,
- there are five nearby markets that community members are utilising, and
- the sanitation situation is really bad with no public toilets and most community members defecating in open spaces.
The SMRRT engaged key leaders (chiefs, task force members, and other community stakeholders) and they arranged the community meeting – to be attended by Chiefs, religious leaders, Ebola community taskforce members, landlords, the Harbour Master, District Surveillance Officers, social mobilizers, and community members. As I sat and waited for everyone to turn up, I noticed UNICEF’s ‘hotspot busters’ arrive; I smiled and complimented them on their new t-shirts which read “UNICEF Ebola Champion”. I made small talk with Hassan, who is a “hotspot buster” and he tells me he lives in this community. He said Ebola was not new, but people like to hide when they are sick because they fear the authorities.
The community meeting started with prayers and in the normal Sierra Leonean custom, they were said by a priest and an imam. As we said our amens and ameens, I smiled at the religious harmony that is one my favourite things about Sierra Leone.
Everyone was given the chance to speak, and while the majority of the meeting was in Krio, I understood most of what was being said. The Chief (a woman) called her community to action and told them that they must be diligent in knowing the signs and symptoms of Ebola and they must call the local Ebola hotline, 117, to report sick people. Some members called for the complete destruction of the affected homes (now quarantined) and the District Ebola Coordinator (also a woman) spoke sternly, telling community members that the high-risk contacts would be provided the option to stay at an offsite voluntary quarantine facility, but that this did not mean that everyone should become complacent. She called upon everyone to remain fierce in the fight against Ebola. One of the team, a UNICEF Field Support Officer, addressed the meeting by reminding the people of some important messages – that hand-washing with soap is one of the best ways to prevent the transmission of Ebola (as well as many other illnesses), and that calling 117 at the earliest onset of any symptoms can save lives and protect their family and communities.
During the meeting, the community decided that there should be a three-week surge. This would consist of active case finding (by district surveillance officers, contact tracers, and community task force members) as well as intensified social mobilization (by the active social mobilizers working for different organizations in this community). As the area was broken up into five different zones, and everyone placed into teams, I noticed that Hassan had been appointed as a team leader. I gave him a thumbs-up and told him to stay safe.
After the meeting, my team took me deep into Moa Wharf and as we approached the quarantined homes, through the narrow pathways filled with community members milling around, we came upon some security officials who told us to step aside. We watched (and I held my breath!) as the 11 high-risk contacts were taken to the offsite voluntary quarantine facility. I heard my colleagues saying in Krio ‘have courage’ and ‘you are helping us contain the Ebola virus, thank you!’ I stayed silent, overcome with emotion, realising how brave and how scared everyone in Moa Wharf must have been.
I left Moa Wharf with the team and we headed back to the Western Area District Ebola Response Centre (WA DERC), which is the nerve centre of the Ebola response for Freetown, and my base. There we debriefed and planned for the next steps. Energised by the community meeting, everyone was committed to getting to zero and we are sure the Moa Wharf surge will help us to get there.
To date, Moa Wharf has resulted in 13 Ebola cases; social mobilizers have reached 3,566 households (7,613 males and 7,865 females); engaged 120 religious leaders; 36 societal head; 46 Chiefs, and 27 traditional healers.
Lucille Knight is a UNICEF Communication for Development Specialist and co-chairs the Western Area District Social Mobilization Pillar, which covers the Freetown area.