A snapshot of success: Ebola, healing and reconciliation in Sierra Leone

Healing, Reconciliation and Recovery for Ebola Virus Disease Affected children and families at community level

The case of Mammy Fatu and the Rosanda Community in northern Sierra Leone

 

The outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in Sierra Leone has affected the lives of over 12,000 individuals, families and communities. Beyond its infection and killing rate, the EVD has created severe economic and social problems. The peaceful coexistence of people in communities has been undermined, with blame games and resentment often resulting in increasing tensions.

The story of Mammy Fatu and the Rosanda Community in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone provides a great example of the negative side-effects that the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) outbreak has created.

It all started when Abass Kalokoh, resident of Aberdeen in Freetown, felt sick and decided to travel to his mother at the Rosanda Community for traditional herbal treatment. Upon arrival, he reported to the people of Rosanda that he had been to a hospital in Freetown and was never tested positive for EVD. However since the hospital couldn’t cure him, he suspected that he was shot by a ‘witch gun’ and was in need of traditional herbal treatment.

Mammy Fatu and her family

His mother, Mammy Fatu Kalokoh, immediately contacted all the herbalists in the community to cure her son. Herbalists together with members of the community made frantic efforts to treat him, only to see Abass die two days later. After conducting tests, it was proven that Abass was in fact Ebola positive. All those who came in contact with Abass were infected and the chain of transmission was extremely rapid within the community. Following his death, over fifty community members became infected, of which 95% died.

Rosanda community members wasted no time to express their anger towards Mammy Fatu and her entire family not only for bringing the virus into their community, but also for deceiving them regarding Abbas’ “negative” testing to the virus in Freetown prior to his travel to Rosanda. The community members threatened to kill Mammy Fatu and her entire remaining family members, either physically or spiritually, if they attempted to return to Rosanda. After being infected, Mammy Fatu and her relatives were taken to the Matenneh treatment Center in Makeni. While she lost four of her children to Ebola, Mammy Fatu survived the virus along with few family members including her elder sister, daughter in-law (wife of Abass) and five children of late family members. Yet, since they were discharged from the Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU) in March 2015 they were forced to stay at the Interim Care Centre (ICC) in Makeni. Many agencies attempted to help them resettle back into Rosanda but the resentment feeling in the community couldn’t be overcome.

 

DCI’s intervention

When Defence for Children International – Sierra Leone (DCI) became aware of the case, it decided to include it in its community Ebola recovery and healing plan, which is part of a bigger ‘Care and Support for EVD affected Children’ project supported by UNICEF. DCI-SL mapped out all the stakeholders concerned with Mammy Fatu’s case and started engaging them individually. Several meetings were held, sounding stakeholders’ opinions, providing counseling and discussing possibilities for the return of Mammy Fatu and her family. DCI aimed to create empathy and was able to convince community members that Mammy Fatu too was a victim, not only because she lost her loved ones, but also because she was suffering from not being able to return to Rosanda and live the life she was used to. DCI-SL informed community members that she and her family wanted to return to the community to apologize for the grievances caused and ask for forgiveness from the community before she died. DCI-SL also explained to the people that Mammy Fatu’s remaining children were in poor health condition and often refused to eat due to their feeling of guilt. The process lasted for a month and the separate groups engaged included: community youths; elderly including community leaders; the chiefs (Paramount chief and the section chief); the most aggrieved families; Mammy Fatu and her family; and the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs (MSWGCA). In parallel to the community process, DCI-SL also provided counseling and support to Mammy Fatu and her family as they constantly expressed fear for their safety, even when staying at the interim center.

When the Section Chief of Rosanda Community declared his willingness to drive the reconciliation process forward, DCI-SL decided to team up with him in order to perpetuate the dialogue within the community. A general community meeting was then co-organized by DCI-SL and the Section Chief, with the blessing of the Paramount Chief. During this meeting, a holistic reconciliation, healing and cleansing plan was developed, in which was included the return of Mammy Fatu and her family and the healing and cleansing of children that lost their families to the EVD. At the end of the meeting, community members asked the Section Chief and DCI-SL to inform the paramount chief and the District Emergency Response Center (DERC) that they had forgiven Mammy Fatu and her family and were ready to receive and reconcile with them. On Monday 13 July 2015, DCI-SL accompanied the Section Chief to Makeni to officially deliver the message of the community to the DERC and express the Rosanda community’s willingness and readiness to re-accept Mammy Fatu and her family.

Official Reconciliation and Cleansing event at Rosanda

On Saturday 25 July 2015, DCI-SL in collaboration with the MSWGCA, UNICEF and DERC, organized an event at Rosanda to officially handover Mammy Fatu and her family to the Paramount Chief of Paki Massabong chiefdom. The event’s attendees included: the Paramount Chief of Paki Massabong Chiefdom, PC Kabobom II; Paramount Chief of Bombali Shebora Chiefdom, PC Bai Shebora Kassange II; other traditional leaders and elders; dignitaries from UNICEF; MSWGCA; MoHS; DERC; DCI-SL; other NGOs; social mobilizers; survivors; and children and youths.

Mr. Raymond Senesie, DCI-SL Programme Manager in Bombali district, introduced the event and particularly highlighted the evolution of the reconciliation process up to this day.

Making her presentation on behalf of the Ministry of Social Welfare Gender and Children’s Affairs, Madam Josephine said that “survivors of Ebola are strategic pillars in Sierra Leone’s Ebola Recovery Programme” and that “stigma should not be tolerated if survivors should contribute to the development of their communities.” Madam Josephine added that the reconciliation, healing and recovery ceremony for affected persons, especially for Mammy Fatu and her family, was meant to restore hope amongst community members and that all was not lost to Ebola. She concluded by saying that “it will give them the opportunity to learn from their individual mistakes that will prevent any further spread of the virus in the chiefdom”.

Statements were also made by Ms. Olivier Angelique (UNICEF), members of the DERC, World Hope International (on behalf of Social Mobilizers), the Survivors chair of Bombali and the leader of one of the most affected families.

The head of DERC later handed over Mammy Fatu and her family to the Paramount Chief. On behalf of the chiefdom, PC Kabobom 11 of Paki Masagbong Chiefdom said: “this is a very historic day and if we do not accept them who else will do that for them? Let us once more live in peace and harmony.” He, however, warned all those who would attempt to intimidate Mammy Fatu and her family that the “laws of the land will take the best of action if anyone makes any attempt to abuse any survivors or EVD affected persons in the chiefdom” and advised Mammy Fatu and other survivors to be tolerant and disregard side comments and gossip.

Let us once more live in peace and harmony”

Mammy Fatu, on behalf of her family, thanked the Paramount chiefs, DCI-SL and the entire community for bringing smiles to her face again after a grueling period. She asked everyone to forgive her and asked the children in particular for a special forgiveness for the loss of their families.

The climax of the event was the performance of a traditional/cultural/spiritual ceremony to cleanse Mammy Fatu, her family and the child orphans. The ceremony involved prayers, which were followed by water being sprinkled on the orphans and Mammy Fatu and her family. According to the tradition, this was done to appease the dead and disconnect them from their living family members, stating that if this ceremony did not take place, the children would continue seeing their dead family members in dreams, hence affecting their health and mental state. At the end of the ceremony, Mammy Fatu was then taken to her house by MSWGCA, DCI-SL, UNICEF and the chiefs and was given resettlement supplies including mattresses, food items and toiletries.

DCI-SL is now planning to continue to support Mammy Fatu and her family by providing them a grant to engage in economic recovery activities.

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