This article was originally published on Ebola Deeply.
By Cinnatus Dumbaya
Sierra Leone’s northern Koinadugu district recorded 57 cases of Ebola—fewer than most other districts, and reached zero cases several weeks ago. But over the weekend, Koinadugu suffered a setback when a new diagnosis of Ebola was recorded. Cinnatus Dumbaya travelled to Kabala, Koinadugu’s capital, to meet with the district’s paramount chief, Ali Balansama Marrah III.
Ebola Deeply: At Ebola Deeply, we’ve been recording the ways that different districts tackled Ebola. You took the drastic move of cutting off Koinadugu, hoping to keep it safe from the virus. Tell us what happened.
Balansama Marrah III: When we heard about Ebola in the news, we learned that it is a very dangerous disease that kills fast. We knew we had to do something fast to prepare ourselves for it. At that time, the government of Sierra Leone had not put enough modalities in place to prevent Ebola from coming to Sierra Leone. Being that we shared borders with Guinea, we decided to call an emergency meeting of district stakeholders. One of the outcomes of that meeting was to set up a Koinadugu District Ebola Task Force Committee. This committee was given a mandate to go across the district and tell people that a disease has come from our neighbors that has no cure, but that there are preventive measures we could all take to prevent it.
This kind of initiative requires resources. We knew that we could not send people out to go around the district without giving them any money, and the government hadn’t disbursed any funds to help this drive. Some of us committed stakeholders contributed our own money in order to fund this drive to educate our people. It was after we started this fight that the government and other stakeholders joined us to help fight Ebola. The government later came in big to support our efforts. We did not only stop there, we also established community by-laws. In addition to all this, we ensured that we isolated our entire district from the rest of the country. No one came into Koinadugu or went out except people providing essential services. This is what we did to prevent Ebola from entering here.
Ebola Deeply: Nevertheless, despite all these measures, Ebola entered your district. Do you know how?
Balansama Marrah III: Unfortunately, it entered through one of our chiefdoms, Nieni chiefdom—which borders Kono district. We also share a border with Guinea. We were worried when this happened, because at that time we were priding ourselves to be the only district in the entire country that was Ebola-free. The case from Nieni messed up our record of being Ebola-free. But we didn’t lose hope, we continued with the fight.
We came together and agreed that we should immediately isolate Nieni chiefdom to ensure that we could protect the remaining 10 chiefdoms in the district. We provided logistics, money and strengthened security to ensure that no one could go in or out. However, when doing all this, we were also very cautious of our actions, as we didn’t want to end up totally marginalising one sector of our district. This is what we did in order to contain Ebola, so it would not spread across the district.
Ebola Deeply: How did people react?
Balansama Marrah III: When we got the first case, there was a big panic, not only in Nieni chiefdom, but across the district. The place become a no-go area. So people were locked out. But as a paramount chief representing the whole district in parliament, I was the first to go there, even before the World Health Organization (WHO), could send their team.
My mission there was mainly to engage the people. I talked to them about the need to stay in their chiefdom at that moment, so they could not move out and put other people at risk. I engaged traditional and religious leaders to talk to their constituencies about Ebola, and encouraged them to practise healthy habits and proper hygiene. We encouraged them to seek early medical treatment if they were to experience any of the scientific signs and symptoms of Ebola, and they complied. They said Ebola does not have a cure, but I told people that the cure is to listen to the health messages being given by government and health professionals. That is the only way to end Ebola.
Ebola Deeply: Despite reaching zero cases a few weeks ago, Koinadugu suffered a recent setback with a new case recorded at the weekend. What happened?
Balansama Marrah III: This particular patient had not travelled out of Koinadugu for the past 10 years. She only leaves her home for her vegetable garden. We have formally informed the National Ebola Response Centre in Freetown through our district Ebola Response Centre that we need an independent investigation into this case. It's confusing, so we would really like to know how this happened.
At this time, we are enforcing our by-laws more firmly than ever, because we don’t want our efforts battling Ebola to be in vain. I usually remind people that Ebola came to Sierra Leone through one individual and how we should be careful of strangers. We don’t want to go back. And the best way to do this is to ensure that we don’t become complacent. I am reminding my people at every opportunity I have, about the importance of working hard in order to keep Ebola away.
Ebola Deeply: There’s much talk about recovery from Ebola now. How has Ebola affected livelihoods in Koinadugu? What are the greatest needs?
Balansama Marrah III: Ah! It has damaged my people badly. About 75 percent of my people are mainly farmers. They could not do their farming work as actively as they used to do. There is a big problem now with food. Hunger is a big challenge. We used to have people visit our beautiful mountains and nice scenery; generally our people, especially the youths, make a living working as tourist guides. But now no one is coming because of Ebola.
Ebola Deeply: Schools have reopened in Sierra Leone. How has that gone in Koinadugu?
Balansama Marrah III: Like everywhere else in the country, our children have resumed school. Prior to the reopening, we worked with the government to ensure that all schools were properly cleared up and cleaned to meet best hygiene practices. We want our children to learn in an environment that is free from health risks, especially Ebola. Life has started becoming normal again for our kids, who were seriously affected by this epidemic. A lot of the girls have been affected by becoming pregnant. But now we are picking up again. Education is the only hope for our next generation and it is good we have got the kids back in school.
We just had an unfortunate incident on Tuesday when a heavy wind blew int he middle of the night, damaging houses in the Kabala township. Some schools were even affected. But we are working hard with other stakeholders to ensure that we fix this up in the shortest possible time.
Cinnatus Dumbaya is a contributor at Ebola Deeply.
[Photo courtesy of Ebola Deeply]