The Mums on the Frontline of Ebola
By World Healthcare Journal-
Christina Lamb OBE, Chief Foreign Correspondent for The Sunday Times, meets the mothers on the frontline of Ebola prevention.
Life in eastern Congo was already pretty grim - more than two decades of war have left shocking poverty, 6 million people displaced, more than 100 militia threatening locals with kidnap and rape when they try to go to the fields and scrape a living. Then came Ebola.
The world's second deadliest outbreak of the terrifying disease started in North Kivu last August and got little attention until recently as deaths have topped 1250 and fears of it spreading across borders.
Ebola is a viral haemorrhagic fever which causes massive internal bleeding, vomiting and diarrhoea and spreads rapidly through contact with small amounts of bodily fluid, making it highly contagious. When it hit West Africa in 2014 it quickly spread from Guinea through Sierra Leone and Liberia and killed 11,000.
This time around should be easier with lessons learnt, and a new vaccine that is 97 percent effective.
But imagine dealing with it in a warzone where roads are dangerous to travel and locals are suspicious of everyone.
Two MSF clinics in the epicentre of the disease were burnt down, aid workers trying to deal with it have rocks thrown at them and one Cameroonian doctor was shot dead last month.
One of the biggest fears is that the disease might spread to Goma, a crowded city of more than a million people on the border with Rwanda.
Not helping the situation is the lack of sanitation – less than one in 4 of the population has access to safe drinking water in the DRC – one of the lowest in the world, and even fewer in North Kivu.
Last month I went to visit women living in a township of Goma among the lava rock from a volcanic eruption in 2002 which covered a third of the city.
There I met Mama Noella, 43, an amazing widowed mother of 7, who scrapes a living selling Thomson fish from Lake Kivu, and part of a brigade of volunteer women on the frontline of trying to stop the disease.
The groups were set up by Edinburgh-based charity Mercy Corps - Europe which is trying to address long-term root causes through innovative means. Helped by a DFID - UK Department for International Development grant, it has set up what amounts to its own water company in Goma, aimed at providing water to more than 400,000 people. Already this has halved acute watery diarrhoea among children under five.
For this to be really effective people need to follow basic hygiene. This is where Mama Noella comes in.
Life is not easy for her. A serious back problem has left her on crutches and two years ago she lost her husband when he was deliberately run down by a motorist who he had saved from a lynching by locals after he drove into a house.
Yet, she is an energetic host of weekly meetings in a crowded room in her small mud-floored hut.
One Monday at 7 AM I sat there on a brown sofa where the springs had long gone as women drifted in wearing colourful block-print dresses and carrying babies. A small grey cat jumped on the table. Mama Noella opened the meeting with prayers then started Lesson 37 - How to Prevent Diarrhoea.
First, there was a sing-song with hand clapping and the unlikely refrain “after going to toilet, wash hands with soap, before cooking, wash hands. ”
She then read the story of Mama Ruziki who ‘wasn’t careful’, left faeces around her yard and did not wash hands until one day her son fell ill, his eyeballs sunk into his head, and died.
“The idea is the women then go and practise what they have learnt in their homes and spread the word,” Mama Noella explained. Her own compound is spotless.
“Before you couldn’t walk into a compound without seeing a children’s dirty potty,” she said. Diarrhoea was a big problem, two or three children would die every quarter. Now it’s reduced a lot. ”
“Having a clean compound has brought me respect and also we are much healthier so I don’t have to spend so much on medical bills. ”
A nearby water pump from Mercy Corps' water project means she no longer has to walk 4 hours to the lake and back to get dirty water (women are often raped en route).
She told me that fear of Ebola is motivating people to join her hygiene classes. “I’m afraid of Ebola as any human would be of something that’s killing people but I know safe practices and we will be able to protect ourselves. ”
Christina Lamb OBE is a British journalist, author, and the Chief Foreign Correspondent for The Sunday Times. She has won fourteen major awards including four British Press Awards, and the European Prix Bayeux-Calvados for war correspondents.
Christina has authored eight books, including the bestselling The Africa House, and I Am Malala, co-written with Malala Yousafzai, which was named Popular Non-Fiction Book of the Year in the British National Book Awards 2013.
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