Women were worst affected by the West African Ebola epidemic, and yet in the aftermath of the crisis, there was no gender-based strategy for female survivors. Fatou Wurie decided to change that. Britt Mann reports.
But Magdalene did what almost 4000 of her countrypeople did not: she survived Ebola.
Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma honoured Magdalene for her efforts during the crisis.
But the nurse, who has returned to work at Freetown’s Connaught Hospital, is among those who still face stigma, rejection and segregation as a result of their survivor status.
The outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease in West Africa in 2014 was the first in the region, and the worst in history. There were more than 15,000 laboratory-confirmed cases, and more than 11,000 deaths.
The majority of the dead were women. In Sierra Leone, the figure reported was 59 per cent. In neighbouring Liberia, women comprised 75 per cent of the death toll.
Fatou Wurie was working as a gender consultant and communications specialist for the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response, when it became clear that despite the number of women affected, the Sierra Leonean government and international NGOs grappling with the crisis were ignoring their needs.
As primary caretakers of the young, elderly and ill, performers of traditional rites for the dead, as well as occupying the majority of nursing positions, women were perhaps doomed to fare worst in the Ebola crisis.
Wurie had seen firsthand the crisis’ catastrophic effect on mothers-to-be.
An article published in The Lancet in March last year said: “without emergency maternity care or family planning services available and immunisation programmes halted, the Ebola crisis could quickly erase the gains” Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea had made in maternal healthcare.
The countries, the article stated, were already “among the worst places to be a mother”.
Six months into the crisis, Wurie’s friends and colleagues in the diaspora, worried about pregnant family and friends, requested her help. Where public hospitals were overrun or shutting down, Wurie referred the women to private hospitals, paying for their care.
As the crisis wore on, groups of survivors began attending conferences held at fancy hotels, where they received a free meal, a new mattress, and a few hundred dollars. Then, they were sent back into the world.
The prevalence of illiteracy in the population, traditional mindsets and ill-founded rumours about how Ebola spread meant communities were reluctant to accept survivors back.
Wurie says faces at these conferences soon became familiar; the women did not know where else to turn for support.
Wurie’s assessment is stark. “As a UN response, we failed Sierra Leonean women.”
The reason, Wurie writes, was the “scattered” approach to reintegration, resulting from poor data collection. Even today, the numbers of men, women, children and health workers who died in the epidemic have not been made public.
Wurie gathered 20 of these survivors – the familiar faces – who ranged in age from 14 to 52. They were students, orphans, traders, widows, nurses, heroes. Together, they are sisters in the Survivor Dream Project.
Wurie says her organisation is the only one to have provided “holistic, consistent psycho-social, entrepreneurial survivor reintegration in the country”.
The women, from rural and urban communities in Sierra Leone’s Western Area, began meeting in safe spaces established to discuss their experiences. Soon, a picture of their lives as Ebola survivors emerged.
One of the girls had failed the exams she was required to pass to stay in her prestigious government school. She’d taken the test a month after being cleared of the disease.
Another woman’s husband had been a health worker during the crisis, and unknowingly contracted the virus. The woman survived the disease that killed her husband, but was left homeless, ostracised by a community who threatens to kill her if she returned.
Another survivor, a healthcare worker, became suicidal after a patient refused her touch. She had returned to work four days after discharge from an Ebola Treatment Unit.
Wurie says despite efforts of community groups, government and international NGOs, the stigma surrounding survivors was inevitable.
The term itself is complicated, she says.
“You’ve gone through something horrible, yes you’ve survived, but what does that really mean?
“For me, the project is being able to look at what surviving looks like, and dream about superseding that.”
One of the first meetings involved a makeover and photo shoot.
The explanation given was simple.
“Today we’re going to remind you that you’re beautiful,” Wurie told the survivors.
“Your pictures are going to show you at your best, because you have been dealing at your lowest for a long time.”
“It was almost like, you’re not allowed to be happy again because you’re diseased, you’re othered, you don’t deserve this.”
Wurie says before the makeover, some of the women hadn’t been touched in more than a year.
“Some people didn’t even know what lipstick was anymore because they didn’t feel the need to be beautiful.”
For the past year, Wurie and her team have been brokering tension in schools, workplaces and communities, where survivors have been made to feel unwelcome to return. The Survivor Dream Project is the only organisation to compile a directory of services available to survivors.
In addition to sharing their stories with each other, Wurie encouraged the women to share their stories with the world.
The women were given access to an iPhone, and asked to photograph what mattered to them. Bread, a bus station, where their children were playing, a funeral procession – quiet scenes, emotive in their authenticity.
A collection of the photos, curated by the survivors, was exhibited at a swanky Freetown restaurant in May.
Attendees, who included the WHO country director for Sierra Leone, were asked to wear white, symbolising a blank slate.
Still, unease lingered.
Among the expatriates and Sierra Leoneans in attendance, some had never seen an Ebola survivor.
“Can you imagine?” Wurie says.
“They had lived in Sierra Leone throughout the [epidemic] and had never seen a survivor. And they would come to me and say, ‘can I sit near them?’
“I’m like, are you kidding me?”
Wurie says the women in the programme will continue to be supported.
When traders graduate from business training this month, they will be given access to a seed fund. The programme’s seven school-age girls will be supported until college.
Wurie’s project has expanded its ambit to include sexual violence survivors, but its mandate remains: giving women the opportunity to dream.
Britt Mann is a journalist from New Zealand, working for stuff.co.nz. She visited Sierra Leone in March 2016.