Education is key to Sierra Leone after Ebola says award-winning reporter Umaru Fofana

Education in emergencies

November 7, 2015 is a date that will be etched on the minds of the people of Sierra Leone – the day when the World Health Organization declared the country free of Ebola.

The outbreak caused more than 11,000 deaths across West Africa and the shutdown of Sierra Leone’s schools for nine months, leaving 1.8 million students missing out on education.

Reporting from the front line for American radio station NPR, the BBC and other news outlets, freelance journalist and dad-of-four Umaru Fofana knows all too well the devastation the health crisis has caused in his beloved country.

His selfless efforts to tell the heartbreaking story and issues surrounding Ebola to the world were recognised when he recently received a prestigious radio accolade by winning a Peabody Award.

Through the crisis, Umaru lost friends and witnessed how terrified residents threw food to two children orphaned by Ebola because they were too scared to go near them – all because of the virus which he says “thrives on love and empathy” due to its contagious nature.

One year on from the outbreak that killed people 3955 in Sierra Leone and ripped apart families and communities, the country is slowly getting back on its feet. The WHO announcement followed confirmation that 42 days had passed without any new Ebola cases.

Umaru Fofana in Sierra Leone: “There are monumental challenges”

However, Umaru believes more needs to be done to help Sierra Leone and says healing the scars of the outbreak in an already struggling country is not a simple task.

He said: “I am very hopeful that this is the end of the current outbreak in Sierra Leone. However, the challenges that lie ahead are so monumental that there could be pockets of the outbreak remerging in the near future.

“With the eyes of big powers and foreign NGOs having shifted to other trouble spots around the world, Sierra Leone is not yet out of the woods. Its healthcare system, which even in the best of times was largely dysfunctional, needs a complete overhaul.

“That cannot be done if corruption remains as endemic as it is at the moment.

“The agony of those who recovered from the disease – the so-called Survivors – continues with health and emotional complications emerging largely unattended. Children orphaned by Ebola and women who were widowed by the virus are shunned by society and neglected by the authorities.”

The survivors of the virus have been bearing the brunt of the cruel disease which has left many children without parents. Two vivid memories stick in Umaru’s mind.

Sierra Leone student gets her temperature checked when secondary school in Kenema reopened Picture: UNICEF/Bindra

He said: “I saw a child – possibly five years old – in a treatment centre in the eastern town of Kenema inside an Ebola treatment ward.

“As he walked away from my cameraman and me towards his bed it seemed he was going to the gallows. I returned home, hugged my two-year-old daughter and flashes of the boy returned.

“I also saw two children inside a derelict building in Devil Hole, just outside Freetown. They had lost their parents to the virus and had gone days without an ambulance to pick them up despite persistent calls to the toll-free number.

“The neighbours were scared to come anywhere close to them. In one instance a good neighbour flung food at them. Horrendous.

“Just two of the many difficult times I witnessed for children – but also I witnessed entire families being decimated by a virus that thrives on love and empathy.”

During the crisis, 1.8 million children were shut out of their schools until classes began to reopen in April. The disease claimed the lives of 945 school students and 181 teachers.

In December last year, a report by the Global Business Coalition for Education and A World at School recommended a three-fold response to the outbreak in a bid to sustain the education of five million students affected by Ebola in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

A health worker advises resident in Kailahun district during Ebola outbreak Picture: UNICEF/Douglas

Since the reopening of schools, students have been praised for following safety protocols from the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF in a bid to keep schools free from the deadly virus.

Concerned for their own children’s safety, Umaru and his wife kept them at home and self-taught them as best as they could. He said: “I have four children for whom education was very challenging during the Ebola outbreak.

“Like other kids across the country their education ground to a halt. Schools were closed.

“First it was children in Kailahun District where the virus had started in the country who were told to stay at home. This is an area which even in the best of times is badly neglected with education at a very low ebb.

“Then children in the rest of the country followed as the virus snaked its tail throughout Sierra Leone. My children also stayed at home as my wife and I took turns to teach them.

“We thought of bringing in a teacher to teach them at home but that in itself was exposing them to risks. It was very hard to keep them with books outside school and not on a planned holiday.”

A health worker at an Ebola treatment centre outside Kenema in 2014 Picture: Anna Jeffreys/IRIN

The first to go to school in his family, Umaru knows too well the value of education.

He said: “I struggled to get an education. Neither of my parents went to school. Despite that, or maybe because of it, my mum always wanted me to become educated.

“I remember how she would go out of her way – sell her favourite  clothes – to pay my fees and prepare food for me when I went to secondary  school and had to leave my birthplace – Bumpeh – which only had primary schools.

“A friend paid for my school-leaving exams when my parents couldn’t afford it. And I mined for diamonds and hawked to be able to raise my university fees. That was the typical life of most of my peers – and many had to drop out of school. It remains largely so for most even up to today.

“To say education is the key to everything in a country like Sierra Leone is an understatement. Learning – from primary to tertiary (post-secondary education) – has taken a nosedive and this predated the Ebola outbreak.”

More than 230,000 children of primary school age were already not enrolled before the disease took hold, according to UNICEF’s Sierra Leone Country Status Report 2013.

Sierra Leone girls return to St Joseph’s Secondary in Freetown in April Picture: UNICEF/Irwin

The journalist added: “With Ebola we need to build the health sector and the doctors and nurses and other healthcare workers need to be trained – that’s education. This country needs engineers and scientists who are to be trained in schools and colleges with hardly any schools having a proper science laboratory. I would say EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION before anything else.”

Speaking about receiving the Peabody Award for his Ebola reports for NPR, Umaru said: “It gives me a bitter-sweet feeling. The misery I reported on – the needless deaths of thousands of my compatriots and the attendant consequences on those who survived the virus are an everlasting presence on my mind.

“But I am also happy that the risks I exposed myself and my family to – to be able to bring the story out to gain world attention for intervention – paid off. The world came and my effort is being recognised. I feel truly humbled that the NPR team I was a part of was recognised this much.”

After the announcement about the end of the Ebola outbreak, Dr Anders Nordström, World Health Organisation Representative in Sierra Leone, said today: “We now have a unique opportunity to support Sierra Leone to build a strong and resilient public health system ready to detect and respond to the next outbreak of disease, or any other public health threat.”

Liberia was declared Ebola-free in September but in Guinea four new cases have been recorded in the past two weeks.

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