Arriving at Port Loko, one of the largest towns in the north of Sierra Leone, is like reaching a country under siege. In the face of Ebola, the 500,000 inhabitants of this district have been sealed off from the world, stigmatized like a cellblock of criminals, and left largely to fend for themselves. Even to bring them food and schoolbooks, you need a government pass. And they are not alone. Counting other districts under quarantine, more than a third of the nation cannot move freely.
There is something chillingly familiar about the fear, suspicion and desperation I saw. The military checkpoints, the closing of schools and entire towns, people begging and queuing for scarce relief food all reminded me of a childhood in the 1990s I would rather forget — one of civil war, displacement and peril. Many people told me they thought today’s Ebola crisis was worse than the war, because at least we could see or hear the enemy then.
During two weeks in late October I was on a mission to bring food and supplies to a Port Loko orphanage where 39 children and one teacher had just completed a 21-day quarantine. In those three weeks, the children received no outside help. No food. No visitors. No games. No real schooling, despite the teacher’s presence; her task was simply keeping them alive.
“I’ve got nothing for these kids,” she told me. “They have nowhere to go. There’s no food, nothing.”
It made me realize that what may be in the shortest supply in Sierra Leone is hope for the future. Each day further into the epidemic, it becomes harder to imagine how to recapture time lost — not just in the caring of parents who have died, but in education when schools are closed, in income when people can’t work, in food cultivation and road-building when cash itself has run dry.
Ebola is not just a health emergency. It is a tragedy that has swept away fragile new roots for a new society, put down after the decade of civil war. While a vast majority of Sierra Leone’s 6.1 million people have not been infected, Ebola has loosed many other threats that will linger long after the virus is quelled.
The orphanage and Port Loko are emblematic. Every place I visited felt locked down, even in the ways people showed emotion. When I reached my mother’s home, she kept her distance — no hug or touch. “For your protection,” she said.
Perhaps the most tragic challenge is what is happening to Sierra Leone’s children while schools across the country are closed — at least until March, the government says, but that seems optimistic. I can understand the logic of closing schools during an Ebola outbreak to lessen the chances of contact with others. Still, I can’t help but wonder whether, in the short run, Sierra Leone’s children would be safer in schools than languishing at home, with very little food and almost no mental stimulation.
It is not as if they are safely alone. In fact, there can be as many as two dozen people — relatives, neighbors — sheltering together in a small house. And contagion from them is not the only danger. There are also widespread and sickening reports that girls, cooped up for weeks at a time, are being raped. This points toward a surge of pregnant teenagers, whose hope of reaching their intellectual potential by staying in school will be dashed. My mother, an elementary school teacher in Freetown, knows of at least four of her sixth graders who are pregnant. When she is outside and recognizes any of the girls she teaches, she worries they will be attacked sexually or exposed to the virus: girls especially, because their families are likely to press them into taking care of someone sick with Ebola.
The streets are not the place for girls, she says. They should be in school. But Ebola has killed many qualified teachers, who were in desperately short supply even before the epidemic. And the teachers who remain are forbidden to hold informal learning sessions because the government has prohibited gatherings of more than five people. (Curiously, though, authorities have allowed large groups of worshipers to go to churches and mosques.)
This presents a grave contrast to almost any other type of humanitarian crisis — even most wars. In those, one strategy is to keep children in school when possible; there, children have some protection from the turmoil outside, are cared for by responsible adults, and can be helped to build resilience against hardship.
Closed schools also mean more children will fall into illiteracy, which is already too high, and leave the society more vulnerable to future health crises. Sierra Leone’s Ebola victims include a disproportionate share who could not read the billboards and other public messages advising them how to stay safe.
The government is making some effort to broadcast lesson plans over the radio, but those boring programs don’t distinguish among grade levels or ignite a child’s spirit of inquiry. And, of course, the poorest families don’t own a radio.
Still, children instinctively crave learning, and I met many even under these awful circumstances. One group of girls, on their own initiative, had arranged a study club that met in order, as one girl said, to keep their minds alive.
At an official discharge ceremony of 41 patients who had been treated for Ebola, I asked two children what they most wanted now. First, they said, food. Then school.
I handed them a couple of bags, holding pencils, pens, paper, crayons and books. They were grateful. In those simple items, they saw hope.