Mohammed Elshamy / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

As Sierra Leone quarantines lift, locals take stock of losses

Residents of Massesebe, a small agricultural village, say their crops died during the recent quarantine

MASSESEBE, Sierra Leone — When Ramatu Sankoh’s village in northern Sierra Leone was placed under quarantine after a man died of Ebola in July, she was terrified. She was pregnant and due any day.

Sankoh gave birth a few days into Massesebe’s quarantine. Her mother-in-law, who is a birth attendant, safely delivered her baby boy. They were taken to an observation center as a precaution to be sure the baby wasn’t exposed to the virus.

But after the quarantine was lifted Sankoh felt even less safe. She and her husband’s modest groundnut, cassava and rice crops suffered when they couldn’t farm them during the 21-day quarantine, which stretched from mid-July into August. Now they have a baby to care for, and don’t know if they will be able to sell enough food to support themselves.

More than a year after West Africa’s Ebola outbreak began, leaving more than 11,000 people dead, the vast swaths of Sierra Leone that were quarantined are still struggling to return to the normal. Some areas were quarantined for months at time.

“I’m not feeling good, my husband has no way to find money for our living,” said Sankoh. “Before the quarantine, I planted groundnut, but it got spoiled and the rice too, animals ate them. So now I’m not sure what we’ll do, we don’t have much food for now.”

Her husband, Mohamed Conteh, worries he won’t be able to support his newborn son.

Many of Massesebe’s more than 600 residents rely on agriculture to survive. Only two additional cases of Ebola emerged during the quarantine and both people survived, but the outbreak had a much larger effect on society. Like many small villages in Sierra Leone, Massesebe has few shops. During the quarantine NGOs provided food to people who would have otherwise gone hungry.

Ramatu Sankoh and Mohamed Conteh with their newborn son.
Nina Devries

Alhaji Sankoh, 36, one of the two in Massesebe who recently survived Ebola, also saw his groundnut, cassava and rice crops fail during the quarantine. He has a large family — two wives and six children — and doesn’t know how he will support them now.

“I’m discouraged, confused, I can’t sleep,” said Sankoh. “Everything planted, it’s now spoiled. I have all my kids to look after. I used to be the breadwinner — now I can’t work properly. I feel bad.”

Mohamed Bah, the government’s district coordinator for Ebola, said some Ebola survivors who are now immune helped Massesebe’s farmers with their crops during the quarantine. He said the government also provided farmers across the country with seeds this year.

“To me, much has been done, even though they may want more,” said Bah. “But for now, I check in every day, I’m in touch with them. We won’t just leave them there like that, it’s my responsibility to make sure they’re OK.”

Abubakarr S. Daramy, a spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, said the department is now distributing more seeds.

Daramy said the government also aims to help farmers expand their plots so they can grow more, and provide equipment such as tractors.

The NGO Concern Worldwide also stepped in to help Massesebe. Country director Fiona McLysaght said Concern arranged payment for seven days of agricultural labor for 110 families. She said an Ebola recovery program is also looking at how to support farmers, including assistance with tools and agricultural techniques.

Aimee Tholley, child protection officer with UNICEF in the Tonkolili district, where Massesebe is located, said one of the biggest challenges post-quarantine is ensuring that people don't become dependent on foreign or government aid.

“We’ve been providing, water, diapers, now our volunteers go to do the psycho-social counseling, to help them get on with their lives,” said Tholley.

“We’ve given them a lot and we will continue to support, based on need, but you don’t just go in and start giving, only if they need and then they appreciate it and then you’re making an impact.”

Still, many in Massesebe say they are still struggling to make ends meet as the country continues to try to stamp out Ebola.

On Aug. 25 Sierra Leone started a 42-day countdown to being Ebola free, but a recent death and two more cases of the virus put 1,000 people in quarantine in Sellakaffta, near the northern border with Guinea. There have been several more cases since then, stopping the countdown altogether.

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