Love without touch

heart carved in wood

Ebola was still at its peak when I started my degree. I was excited about starting university, hoping to make friends and have a lot of fun.

But Ebola quickly dashed my hopes. The University of Makeni had brought in strict rules: no hugging, no touching, no shaking of hands, regular temperature checks and hand washing. Students were afraid of each other. New cases were being reported every day, even among colleagues and lecturers on campus.

It was a lonely, dispiriting time.

I was standing on campus one morning when I saw her. At first, I thought she was an illusion! She was walking to class dressed in a red blouse and black shoes with her natural hair in plaits. I couldn’t stop looking at her – the three-hour lecture passed in what felt like 30 minutes.

In 2014, the Ebola haemorrhagic virus spread through West Africa. It was the longest, and most widespread outbreak in history, killing more than all past episodes combined. Check out our fact spread on how Ebola impacted Sierra Leone.

When class finished, I sprang to my feet and approached her. She told me her name, we hurriedly exchanged numbers and she disappeared into the crowd.

It was hard to start anything on campus. Everybody was watching, ready to say: ‘This is Ebola! Be careful.’ And that fear was in us too. So we started to communicate by phone, using WhatsApp, text messages and calling.

It started off slowly. Getting acquainted was hard without being able to touch. I didn’t even know where she lived. But as time went on, we became more emotionally connected.

For six months, eighteen days and eight hours, our relationship was only on the phone. Endless WhatsApping continued till late at night. An hour without a message made me sick with anxiety!

But it could be fun. She would tease me, asking, ‘have you had breakfast?’ I would say no. ‘OK I will WhatsApp you tea.’ It felt like we were living together.

One time there was a flood – it rains a lot in Makeni – and I was stuck at home without food. I called her and asked if she had any food at home. She said, ‘I’ll send a boat with some food, give me 45 minutes.’ Exactly 45 minutes later she called and said, ‘We have a problem. Immigration officers have seized the boat because it’s not licensed.’

She beamed, radiant with joy. We hugged for more than five minutes

It was crazy at times. I felt like a first-timer in jail. I was engulfed by endless thoughts about her. I kept asking myself, ‘how long can I hold on?’

Sierra Leone’s 42-day countdown to being Ebola-free sparked renewed hope. I counted down every day with many others, and when the final day came, we arranged to meet at 7pm.

The preparation on both sides was intense, I must confess. I checked my jacket again and again. When I finally got dressed, I was wearing black shoes and a tuxedo with a black bow-tie. I’d asked her to wear the same clothes as the day I saw her – and she’d told me to dress for a job interview.

As I sat down, somebody tapped me on my shoulder. She said, ‘You meet the requirements for the job!’ She beamed, radiant with joy. I returned her smile and we hugged for more than five minutes.

I don’t know who finally released the other. We looked into each other’s eyes for a considerable amount of time, inhaled deeply together and breathed out. It was intense – I was shivering, gasping for air. Then finally we kissed. She spoke first: ‘I missed you.’ We talked for a long time.

We spent half of the night out in Makeni, with the blaring of motorbike taxi horns, the shouts of ‘Ebola Don Don!’ (Ebola is over!). Then, holding hands tightly, we walked three kilometres to my house where we sat and drank a toast to the end of Ebola, exams, and to our new relationship.

We still talk about the hug. To this day, it lingers in our minds. We say it was so special that it will be more important than our wedding day. It will remain in our hearts forever.

No hugging, no kissing, no touching. Bankolay and Christiana, against all odds, proved that romance could blossom on Whatsapp alone. Watch their story from the Back in Touch interactive web documentary feature, co-produced with On Our Radar. This is just one of 8 in an extraordinary collection of citizen reporters' tales of love, loss and re-connection in post-Ebola Sierra Leone.

Malaria battles in Sierra Leone

Mosquito

Radio Okapi under a Creative Commons Licence

Malaria is not a picky illness. You go to bed one evening and the next morning find you are unable to move: malaria has taken hold. The recently released 2013 World Malaria Report, which ranks Sierra Leone as the country with the fifth-highest prevalence of the disease, reveals the struggle Sierra Leoneans face in controlling malaria. According to the report, there are more than two million suspected cases in Sierra Leone; with fewer than six million inhabitants, this suggests around a third of our population are potentially living with the disease.

Malaria doesn’t care about skin colour. Locals die; expats die. Once you’re Sierra Leone, malaria will come to pay you a visit

Those working on the frontline of treatment and prevention suggest the number may be even higher. ‘In Sierra Leone, I estimate that around 70 per cent of population has some form of malaria,’ says Mohamed S Jalloh, a pharmacist at the busy Connaught Hospital in Freetown. ‘The lack of sanitation systems is the leading problem and it affects almost all communities.’

Globally, Sierra Leone ranks 26th with regards to the number of suspected malaria cases, but jumps to 5th when you measure the number of cases against the total population. The report shows that the number of suspected cases of malaria nationally jumped by over one million between 2011 and 2012.

A poor person’s illness

In the colonial era, Sierra Leone was dubbed the ‘white man’s grave’, but malaria doesn’t care about skin colour. Locals die, expats die. We have many Chinese immigrants in Sierra Leone currently doing road construction and they die, too. Once you’re Sierra Leone, malaria will come to pay you a visit.

I am myself sick with malaria four times a year. It can take me a week to a month to recover. Most of us are used to self-medicating. We go to the corner shop and get the pills we need, but as we grow older, our resistance to the drugs increases. The medication can be very hard on the body: the side effects are brutal. I was rushed to hospital last time I had malaria, to be flushed with fluids. The drugs can close down your system.

The recommended drug, Malarone, can cost more than $5 per tablet. The average income for Sierra Leone is 90 cents a day

While anyone can contract the disease, recurrent malaria is a poor person’s illness. Those with money can treat themselves intensively every three months and keep themselves symptom-free, while those in the provinces die of it more frequently because healthcare isn’t readily available and the treatment is not affordable. Just the test itself is expensive, and the medicine is not cheap either – the recommended drug, Malarone, can cost more than $5 per tablet. The average income for Sierra Leone is 90 cents a day.

Nowadays, most of the affordable tablets are Chinese made. Many on the market are counterfeit. Fake drugs make their way into the market through the porous borders and corrupt officials. Many of these drugs carry the label, brand and package of the originals. At best, these drugs are ineffective; sometimes they can make the situation much worse because people delay visiting a doctor and getting other treatment. The Pharmacy Board of Sierra Leone is responsible for testing, approving and issuing a licence for every medicine brought into the country. Though they claim that people have been arrested for trafficking fake drugs and that the existent stock has been destroyed, these tablets continue to saturate the market.

Many people have raised concern about the influx of counterfeit drugs but the authority says it has limited resources to track them down. ‘I have reported cases where people were suffering from side effects from these drugs; excessive dizziness being the most common one,’ says pharmacist Jalloh.

Bitter herbs and baboons

In the rural provinces, people take Bang Baa; a traditional herb made from the roots of a forest tree. A long, yellow root, you have to dry it first, then place it in water under the sun for a day before drinking the juice. It’s bitter and it will make your face look like a baboon when you take it but you must drink it every morning and evening.

Some say it has been the salvation of those who can’t get their hands on drugs. Most of the people who take it are impoverished villagers; they cannot afford medical treatment. Medical authorities strongly advise people not to take it, but there doesn’t appear to be any efforts to take the root to a lab to do some research to see if it offers an alternative. There seems to be some hypocrisy. The Chinese, who hold the market on antimalarial drugs in Sierra Leone, take their own traditional herbs and have turned them into medicine, but Sierra Leonean authorities are unwilling to test the country’s own natural resources.

‘Malaria continues to eat at the fabric of the youth in our society, under the eyes of those who are charged with the responsibility to prevent it’

Amjata Bayoh is a medical student from Freetown and a fellow community reporter. He says: ‘Malaria is a disease that can be resistant to certain types of drugs, based on geographical region. Earlier this year I was doing some malaria-related research for teaching purposes and I found out that chloroquine, one of the most popular drugs for malaria known in Sierra Leone, can’t treat the disease any longer in certain other African countries. So one of the reasons why the Chinese drugs are not trusted anymore could be that in Sierra Leone we are building resistance to them.’

As for Bang Baa, Bahoy believes that it can be effective: ‘Yes, it works; even I have tried it. The only fair concern that the medical profession has about it is that the dosage isn’t set – it can cause harm to your immune system if you take too much.’

Across the country, the lost days from malaria take their toll on industry, family life and development. ‘Malaria continues to eat at the fabric of the youth in our society, under the eyes of those who are charged with the responsibility to prevent it,’ says David Hindolo, a 24-year-old student from Freetown.

Many elders, often sceptical of new advances in medication, have found their fears confirmed by failing standards of medical scrutiny with regards to antimalarial drugs. My aunt says no to all ‘white man medicines’. All her life, she has taken only traditional medicines. I used to provoke her: ‘Your herbal medicine doesn’t even show an expiry date! You will kill yourself one day.’ Then one day I was sick and I had tried all the painkillers, with no relief. Finally, I went to my aunt and asked her to help me. Smiling, she turned and said, ‘Sorry! My medicine has expired!’ I took the teasing and I took the herb. I started to sweat, and within a few hours, I felt better again.

Bankolay Turay is a reporter for Radar.