The small villages in the far east of Sierra Leone have been dealing with Ebola for so long they’ve developed their own unique methods of resiliency.
In the chieftaincy of Peje Bongre, Paramount Chief Henry Hukpoh Taaka Baion III has enforced rules since day one of the outbreak: To enter his house, you must wash your hands in the hand-washing station provided—soap and a bucket with a tap on the bottom of it. During the early days of the outbreak, when most shrugged off the danger or outright denied the existence of Ebola, Chief Baion was one of the first to take a strong stance. (Chieftaincies are somewhat like counties in the U.S.; paramount chiefs are the local government officials of the chieftaincies.)
Although leadership is crucial, how people adopt Ebola prevention is extremely important. In a family-oriented, communal culture like the Mende in eastern Sierra Leone, isolating the sick and staying inside your own home is not just difficult, it’s exceptionally rude.
Nevertheless, there are strong signs that villagers are adapting to this new reality. In Jokibu, one of the villages where OneVillage Partners works, when a man recently died of what turned out to be natural causes, the villagers still took the proper precautions and called in the clinic staff to help bury the body with protective measures. This way they were safe, just in case the person had contracted Ebola.
Recently, community members in Jokibu faced a dilemma. A young man had returned from school in Kenema. In his dorm building, a fellow student had developed Ebola and died in the hospital. Ebola has an incubation period of up to 21 days, and once you start showing symptoms, you become contagious. But the boy refused to go to the hospital in Kailahun or Kenema for testing—he was sure that he didn’t have Ebola. The villagers couldn’t risk it, though, and presented an ultimatum: Either he go get tested or he would be forced into a ‘quarantine’ they had made with sticks and thatch on the outskirts of the village. He would be forced to live there for 21 days. After two days staying there, he volunteered to go get tested.
Yusuf Jonny, a OneVillage Partners staff member, is originally from Jokibu, but recently moved his family to Kenema.
“I think the villages are safer than Kenema,” he told me recently after a trip back to the villages to deliver hand-washing stations and sensitization materials. He said that the people there are united against this disease in a way that hasn’t yet happened in Kenema.
Despite their will, the villages do not have the resources to hold out on their own—especially if the outbreak continues to intensify all around them. This morning, there was a suspected case of Ebola in a village in Peje Bongre Chieftaincy, a half-hour walk from Jokibu. The patient was isolated, and the ambulance was on the way to pick up the victim and his family to take them all to be examined by experts. If this does turn out to be a case of Ebola, villages in this area will face a whole new test of their resiliency.
Chad McCordic is a community projects manager with Minneapolis-based nonprofit OneVillage Partners.