Catherine Kane is a senior communications officer for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Based in Geneva, she was recently deployed to Sierra Leone to support beneficiary communications initiatives as part of the Red Cross response to the ongoing Ebola outbreak.
As we headed into a community in Freetown, Sierra Leone, this morning, I saw a blue wooden bench at the side of the road, labeled “Long Bench Brotherhood”. It seemed inviting, a perch from which one could see all of the neighbourhood’s activity, but it was empty. I took a photograph, wondering why it was empty on Christmas Day, a day of rest.
A uniformed policeman let the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society team with which I was travelling pass through a series of narrow alleyways into a community of several dozen people. We were in Kington Bridge to engage with the community for several reasons. They were in quarantine, following several members having gotten Ebola. The Ministry of Health and partners recently scaled up holding centres, where one waits 24 hours for the results of a laboratory test while receiving care, and treatment centres in the Freetown area from 16 facilities to 90. The more recent cases in Kington Bridge were uncovered quickly. The community had learned from the Red Cross social mobilization and contact tracing teams that sick people must not be touched and that they should call 117 as soon as they are sick so they can receive safe medical care.
Mamvana, an animated man, perhaps in his forties, who described himself as the right hand of village headman Suleimon, met us at the entrance of the community and gathered his family and neighbours. An inviting smell rose from the pot next to me, cooking over a woodstove as we spoke. As a special Christmas treat, they were cooking a chicken to go with the potato leaves being chopped by the young women next to us. Mamvana, asked by the social mobilization team, described his understanding of Ebola and how the community should protect itself. Multiple discussions with Red Cross community engagement teams over the past few months of intermittent quarantines had helped him and others know what to do, especially now that more treatment centres are available to accommodate the sick, and more rapid pick-up is available to ensure a safe and dignified burial for the deceased.
To the contact tracing team, which comes to the community every day for 21 days after a case is discovered, he proudly announced that everyone in the community was still feeling well. This daily health check is essential to ensure the safety of the community itself, since the virus has an incubation period of three weeks, and to ensure people don’t spread the disease to others in this heavily populated area. Only six more days, and they would be free to leave the community when they wanted and, most importantly, resume sitting on the Long Bench Brotherhood. Mystery solved!
While Mamvana disappeared into his home, built of corrugated tin, to find his favourite photograph of the bench, we spoke with a young woman who had been leaning against a concrete wall during our conversations. Mabinti is one of the strongest people in the world right now. Having come to Freetown to care for her sick auntie, she contracted Ebola. But she survived. Shyly, she described the experience. Mabinti, as a survivor, is now immune to the virus. Still, she is stigmatized by some. Her village would not allow her to return, a difficult challenge for the young woman. Though she has been welcomed into Kington Bridge by Suleiman and his wells that is starting to peek through at moments.
We catch a glimpse when Mamvana returns with his photograph, one of his most treasured possessions. It shows the smiling men of the village beside the long blue bench. As we all smiled, thinking of the freedom that will be theirs in less than a week, he led the community in singing, “We wish you a merry Christmas”. Threading my way back through the narrow streets, escorted by the police officers, I hoped and sang again to myself, “and a happy, healthy New Year.”