Ebola saw to it that children in Sierra Leone often had to live in ghastly proximity to corpses. Like those in Liberia and Guinea, they faced death at every turn and their innocence, such as it was, was lost, stolen by a virus.
Forced to support their families, they became child labourers or sex workers. The tide has turned in the fight against the disease that has claimed more than 8,600 lives in West Africa. From hundreds of new patients a week, there are now just a handful, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) saying that the worst is over.
Now the focus turns to education. Thousands of children who have not seen a classroom for months have grown up too fast, aid workers say.
But what subjects do you teach children who have seen their parents, siblings and communities die? The answer is: life; how to live – and be children – again.
Those vital lessons will have to wait in Sierra Leone, which remains the last West African country without schools. Guinea’s classrooms opened last week and Liberia’s are due to open in a matter of days.
But the crisis is far from over. At last count, the northern district of Port Loko had 654,142 inhabitants. By tomorrow, even with the reduced Ebola infection rate, that number will almost certainly be diminished. Sierra Leone’s ministry of health and sanitation reports that 408 people died from the virus in the district. It warns, however, that current estimates are likely to be dramatically less than the actual number. Across Sierra Leone, 2,822 were confirmed as having died by the end of last week. Port Loko is among what health workers describe as continuing “hotspots” for the virus, along with the capital, Freetown, and the Western Rural Area.
Fatmata Sankoh teaches six- and seven-year-olds at Kulafi Primary School in Port Loko. For her primary school students, she describes education as “the key to the world”. The 45-year-old tells The Independent: “Without education we will lose a generation of doctors, politicians and teachers.”
Ms Sankoh adds: “In the period that Ebola has forced the closure of schools, children have been at great risk; without the stimulation and guidance they receive at school, many have engaged in bad activities.”
According to their former teacher, these activities include young girls becoming pregnant in early marriages, and some “have even started working as commercial sex workers in order to survive”.
She adds: “Many boys have been forced into hard labour or have started a life of crime. The risks are even greater for those orphaned by Ebola, as they have lost their parental guidance and want for food and the basic means to survive.”
A little over two years ago, Kalilu Jalloh didn’t go to school. He worked in Port Loko’s market on a food stall. He then enrolled at Amadia Primary School and became a top student, revelling in learning English. That was before Ebola closed the schools.
“I want to learn. I one day want to be a minister in the government,” the 10-year-old says. “School also gives me the chance to see my friends and play. Ebola has taken all that away and now I am back in the market selling goods – it makes me so sad. It isn’t as fun as school.”
Now it is feared that many children will be unable to complete their basic education – instead being forced to work with their parents in street markets or farms.
Campaigners hope the Sierra Leonean government will support children’s return to school with grants or agricultural support for their parents.
“They also need to receive advocacy to once again reinforce the importance of education to parents who have seen the benefits of sending their children to the market,” says Ms Sankoh.
According to Sierra Leone’s Education Minister, Dr Minkailu Bah, teachers will be trained to use thermometers to take the temperatures of pupils and other staff members and chlorinated water buckets will be made available in all schools. “We are planning to make sure our schools are safe and disinfected so that we can get back our children to school,” Dr Bah said last week as he announced schools would re-open.
Such precautions are valuable, say aid workers and charities, but more needs to be done. Since the Ebola outbreak began last year, the World Bank estimates that 180,000 people have lost their jobs in Sierra Leone.
The fact is that the virus hit countries where poverty rates were already high. In Sierra Leone 56 per cent of the population was living below the poverty line before Ebola, some 64 per cent in Liberia and 40 per cent in Guinea.
Today aid workers call for a multimillion-pound post-Ebola “Marshall Plan” to be created for Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Oxfam said the key to the success of any recovery scheme would be to address three areas of acute need – immediate cash to millions of families affected by the crisis, investment in jobs and budget support for essential services such as health, education, water and sanitation.
Oxfam chief executive, Mark Goldring, said: “People need cash in their hands now. They need good jobs to feed their families in the near future and decent health, education and other essential services.
“They’ve gone through hell – they cannot be left high and dry. The world cannot walk away now that, thankfully, cases of this deadly disease are dropping.
“Failure to help these countries after surviving Ebola will condemn them to a double-disaster,” he said.
“The world was late in waking up to the Ebola crisis. There can be no excuses for not helping to put these economies and lives back together.”
Meanwhile, health workers warn against complacency.
“This decline is an opportunity to focus efforts on addressing the serious weaknesses that remain in the response,” says Brice de la Vingne, Médecins Sans Frontières director of operations. “A single new case is enough to reignite an outbreak.”
Street Child, the charity which works to create education opportunities for vulnerable children in West Africa, is calling for increased support for the returning schoolchildren.
“The people of Sierra Leone place such a high value on education because it determines the growth and development of the country; this break due to Ebola has been devastating for us,” says Street Child’s deputy project director in Port Loko, Cecilia Mansaray.
“Sierra Leonean children have been extremely vulnerable since schools closed. There has been a huge rise in teenage pregnancy in Port Loko and we fear that many are engaging in commercial sex work. Boys have been engaging in child labour and it is so sad to see young children working in the farms or carrying heavy stacks of wood.”
Street Child’s chief executive, Tom Dannatt, adds: “For those who have lost parents or key adults, the teacher may end up playing part of that role for children. They may need to be a little like social workers.
“On the other hand, Sierra Leoneans are resilient – they have to be, even the children. Death of loved ones through unexpected illness is not a rare occurrence.”
From March – eight months after they last entered classrooms – Ms Sankoh will again teach children English lessons. “I will,” she says pragmatically, “enforce the no touch, hand-washing and spacing rules.” Kalilu Jalloh may yet go on to become a government minister.
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