Ebola and education: Chernor Bah on an emotional return to Sierra Leone

Education in emergencies

On a drum sits a small radio. And around the drum sit dozens of girls, leaning in to hear a drama which could save their lives. The theme of the broadcast is Ebola awareness and the audience is a girls’ club in a rural town in Sierra Leone.

With schools closed for months during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that killed more than 10,000 people, radio learning became the only way for classes to be taught in communities such as this one in Kagbatama, in the northern Port Loko District.

The picture was taken by Chernor Bah – Sierra Leone native, peace activist and campaigner for girls’ education. A child refugee in the civil war, he was an advocate in his own country before taking on roles with the United Nations and co-founding the global education initiative A World at School.

During the crisis, Chernor made two trips to Sierra Leone to see for himself the effect on education and to prepare a report on how the three West African countries worst affected could begin to safely reopen their schools. After an eight-month shutdown, Sierra Leone’s classrooms started to welcome back 1.8 million school-age children in mid-April. But the numbers returning have been low and there are fears that many will never go back. Pregnant girls have been told to stay away from school, causing outrage and leading to Chernor meeting President Ernest Bai Koroma to ask for a solution.

Here Chernor – who will return to Sierra Leone in July – talks about his journeys into rural parts of Sierra Leone during the crisis, the harrowing sights he saw and heard and his hopes and fears for the future of the country’s children. The picture captions have been written by Chernor.

“The new norm. We had to sanitise our hands at every opportunity”

Q. What was the education picture like before Ebola hit Sierra Leone?

The three countries worst affected by Ebola – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone –  were also the worst in the world in terms of adult literacy. You can tie the rise of Ebola to the fact that these countries had low levels of literacy and therefore a lack of awareness. In the 1980s each of them suffered barbaric dictatorships that did not prioritise education.

They were then seriously destabilised in the 1990s by civil conflicts and were basically in ruins. We all ran for our lives and became refugees. Most of the teachers fled. And then – just as we had made democratic transitions, were getting things right on school enrolment and making significant gains in equality for girls – we got Ebola. It was like the worst nightmare.

How did you react when you heard about the Ebola outbreak?

When the outbreak started I was in New York and nobody knew what the scale of it was going to be. I just knew that Ebola had found a perfect host. We have a very weak public health system, low literacy rates, low penetration of getting across the right messages.

What Ebola required from us as a people was for us to change who we are. We touch each other, we take care of the sick, we wash the dead. All of those things were recipes for further spreading of the virus. I knew a lot of people were going to die and this was going to be a terrible situation.

“We are a prayerful country. Even more so now. Girls pray passionately for God to heal us of Ebola at a public meeting”

What was your motivation for going to Sierra Leone?

I went to do an assessment on the education situation for the Global Business Coalition for Education and A World at School, particularly on how it related to girls, and to see whether there were plans to address the impact.

What measures did you have to take before you went there and after you arrived?

The first trip was in October, when there was a frenzy across the United States – they had just had their first reported case and it was being talked about as the next apocalypse. I was worried that if I went into Sierra Leone they would not let me back. I had to buy a lot of personal protection equipment to keep safe.

When I went through the airport, they checked your temperature and you had to wash your hands with chlorine. I had my own personal thermometer. I had to get special passes from the government, from the Ebola team, so that I could distribute the things that I had brought into the country. I had to seek special permission to go into certain areas, to hire a vehicle and to get passes.

“A common scene. The Ebola ambulance is called into another home. The staff go through the safety ritual”

How were you welcomed by people in Sierra Leone?

When I went to see my mum and everyone I knew, nobody came to give me a hug. It was very surreal. Everyone was so afraid for their own safety. My mum was not particularly happy to see me. She said it was a very precarious time for the country and my family were very worried for my safety. My mum knew I was going to be going to places where no one else was going, to take pictures and videos and talk to people.

But when I got there people were very happy to see me. There was a sense that the world had forgotten them. Their houses, their districts and communities had been quarantined, shut down. Nobody had come from the outside who was interested in hearing their stories. People were grateful I was there. It reminded them that they would not be completely forgotten.

Where did you go and what did you see?

I went into orphanages, distributed supplies and just talked to people to see what was happening. I talked to teachers and school communities and asked people what they were most wary of and how this was affecting their lives. For kids and parents, the biggest thing they wanted was food. But everybody also wanted the schools to go back because that was the future.

There was no plan at the time, nobody had done anything, they just said that schools were closed indefinitely. When I went in October at the peak of the crisis, it became very clear that I should not be only worrying about the immediate impact of Ebola but what it was going to mean long-term.

The community chief says there are “too many Ebola orphans”

I talked to the government, the head of the Ebola emergency planning, and nobody was talking about education. The teachers were at home having nothing to do.  I talked to young students and saw what was happening to them. They were being sent on to the streets to help fend for their families. And girls were being forced to sell their bodies for sex. Pregnancy rates were going up. I went to some of the toughest places in the country and saw these things for myself.

I realised the government and the people had been so shocked by this epidemic that they were being driven by the crisis – there was no strategy. There was crisis mania. They were shutting down programmes. Our partners who provide services to rape victims were all told to go home. Everybody was shocked and people were trying to get out. But it’s my country and it’s people I love and I felt I had something to contribute. Not just there, but to come back and help tell the story.

What were the children doing while their schools were closed?

The majority of children – especially from poor families – are economically depressed. People don’t have money at home, they don’t have a bank account or access to an ATM. They go to the farm, sell their products and combine what they get with their own produce and they cook for the day.

“Education is hope. School bags with an assortment of school and sanitary supplies ready for distribution to 150 orphans in one of the most affected towns”

Even for those of us not from farming economies, it was the same thing. We went to school, we sold some things in the market and we brought the money back and then we used that to buy food to cook in the evening.

So with the quarantine, these communities were shut down. There was an increased pressure on the girls to contribute to the family. Kids were having to sell things to help. Some did labour or menial jobs just to help make ends meet and contribute to their families. 

Girls were being forced to do really unpleasant things – having sex for transactions. A lot of people were just at home with nothing to do. If your home was quarantined, you were kept there for 21 days. If someone fell sick, it was another 21 days.

Were the schools being used in any way?

The government converted a good number of schools into holding centres for Ebola treatment. In doing so, they vandalised a lot of the furniture and lots of schools needed a significant amount of refurbishing for them to be ready and to be safe, to make sure there is no residue of the virus remaining and to assure the the community that the school is a safe place to send their kid.

“A widower explains to me his ordeals. His wife died of Ebola and he now takes care of his three children alone. He says: ‘I don’t know how to take care of children’.”

During the outbreak, what alternative schooling was available?

The government created the radio learning programme in October, with lessons on radio for children at home. But radio penetration is still only about half of the population. And most people didn’t have batteries to power their radios. If you have the choice between buying food and buying a battery for your radio it’s a pretty simple choice. The lessons weren’t particularly appealing. They were given by an older teacher on the radio – it’s not really what a kid wants to do, especially if you are on an empty stomach.

What were teachers doing during the school shutdown?

My mum is a head teacher at a girls’ school. The government continued to pay them. But they wanted to teach too. They didn’t want to be sitting at home not doing anything. They care about their kids. My mum got calls all the time from parents telling her that kids in her primary school were pregnant.

Eight to 10 of the kids in her classes had become pregnant. They were trying to figure out ways to get these kids back to school or give them support. Some teachers were converted into public health workers – they trained them to do tracing and helping with the Ebola response.

Sierra Leone classroom lies empty because of Ebola outbreak

“A classroom. Empty. Dilapidated”

You were there to do a job but how did you keep your emotions in check? And what was the most moving thing you saw?

For me, it was not professional. These are people I love in towns I have been to before. It was always overwhelming and emotionally tough. But what gave me strength was the people themselves and how they were dealing with it. I knew I had a way out, that I was coming back to the United States. So while I was moved by it all, I just admired them.

My friend was a doctor at an Ebola hospital. We went to school together, sat in the same class and played football together. He is now a military man. He gave me a lot of videos and photos of himself in the Ebola ward at the peak of the outbreak when a lot of doctors were dying.

I watched him go into that ward and he went in there five or six times a day when people were dying to give his patients IVs. Some staff refused to go in more than once a day because it’s not a pretty sight seeing people with Ebola in the last stages. They are dying, they are peeing, they are shitting their pants and it’s just a really horrible sight. They are in pain and they are crying in these videos.

And my friend, this young man my age, he goes into that place at great risk to his own life. We lost many doctors in Sierra Leone – but he just went in there and kept on going in there every day. What gave him hope was when one person survived. When I saw my friend do that, it made me realise if you can do anything you should.

“Happy. The Ebola orphans display their bags and their cash donations”

Did that type of resilience surprise you?

The people of Sierra Leone have been through so much. Our generation grew up in war, running for our lives every day. So every day you went to school was an opportunity. In some ways, we are just numbed by disaster. But I was moved by the Ebola survivors. I went to one ceremony where my doctor friend was releasing a batch of 20 to 30 patients. Among them were little girls just so happy to be going home. They had lost their parents and lost everything else. But they were just happy to be the people who had survived.

I asked one of the little girls what she wanted to be when she was older and she said a nurse – because her mum, who was a nurse, had contracted Ebola and died. She wanted to continue her mum’s work. That was one of the most moving things that I have ever heard. This little girl had just survived a near-death experience, she had lost everyone she knows and yet she wants to get an education to become a nurse and give service. That, for me, is true heroism and the kind of thing that gives me hope.

Did you worry that you would catch Ebola?

I was seriously sick after my second trip in January. It turned out to be malaria and strep but, having been in Sierra Leone, you can imagine what was going through my mind.

“At the Ebola orphanage in the western area, we read aloud after I made book donations provided by Litworld”

What part did you play in the process to get schools reopened?

When I came back after the first trip, I worked with the Global Business Coalition For Education and A World at School to produce a major report and released it in November, calling on governments to put in place plans to reopen safe schools across the three countries. I am very proud of the work we did because it was the first major report that specified what needed to be put in place to reopen schools.

The government of Liberia took that report and adopted it. The government in Sierra Leone was slow but after my second trip in January and some following up, they came out with a plan themselves and reopened schools in April. They adopted in entirety what we had called for.

Our Global Youth Ambassadors in Sierra Leone wrote letters to the minister for education calling for education to be part of the response. I met with presidents and ministers. The advocacy was something we can be proud of. The guidelines we called for have been implemented – including training teachers, refurbishing the damaged schools, providing thermometers to check people’s temperatures, providing soap, water and hand sanitisers to each school so that students can wash their hands twice or three times a day.

And incorporating the health messages into the curriculum across all of the countries. We will continue to be in close touch with the authorities. We lost almost a full school year but it’s remarkable progress from where we were at the start of 2015.

“The smiles remain. She’s nine. Never been to school. Lost both parents to Ebola. Yet she smiles. She just received books. And she’s hopeful that she will go to school soon. We remain hopeful”

Do you think there is a realistic possibility that, instead of losing a generation of children, the school system could emerge even stronger because everyone is working together?

I am cautiously optimistic. This country has had so much to deal with. The major challenge was getting the schools up and running and now helping the young girls who are pregnant or who have entered into marriage. There is a generation of people who are not ready to come through those school doors – the most marginalised and most vulnerable.

Those girls who have become pregnant or got married are missing from the school system and that’s where the work is cut out for us, to make sure that those girls find their way back into education.

Are you planning to go back?

Absolutely, I’m going back at the end of July. I work with a coalition of organisations in Sierra Leone and I’ve been providing strategic support to them. I monitor what’s happening and my goal is to go back there and to do what I can to support the heroes who are on the ground trying to make things better.

A World at School believes a Global Humanitarian Fund for Education in Emergencies is needed to protect the most vulnerable children and get them back in school in situations like the Ebola outbreak, the Nepal earthquake and in conflict-affected countries.. Help us send a message to world leaders at the Oslo Summit by signing the #UpForSchool Petition.

More news

See all news