'Everything is on my shoulders'

Health
Sierra Leone
Children
Serah

Serah is raising seven orphans since the Ebola outbreak. © Hazel Healy

The Ebola virus killed 10 members of Serah Tomba’s family, including her parents and three of her brothers and sisters. She was the only person left to care for her seven orphaned nephews and nieces.

Three of Serah’s new charges sit quietly nearby in plastic chairs. All Ebola survivors, these children are more subdued than their peers, who are gawping at the foreigners and larking about.

Satta and Jammie.

Hazel Healy

The youngest survivor, three-year-old Satta, calls Serah aunty and drifts back to her often; her solemn older brother Paul, aged six, has swollen, sticky eyes. The middle sister, Jammie, seems more robust, coming to the interview armed with her own pen and paper, putting a plastic chair on her head and leading the others on a short march.

Serah is gentle and affectionate but grief and worry lie just beneath the surface. She and the children live in two cramped rooms containing two collapsed beds edged by piles of pots and pans, buckets and plastic bowls. The only relic from the family she lost is a blanket in which her sister carried Satta as a baby.

On the neighbouring plot sits a roofless house, which Serah is building using funds from NGOs and government aid for Ebola survivors. The atmosphere lifts as she points out the rooms where they will sleep and the zinc roof still to come. But then her voice trails off; there are no other plans beyond that.

The district of Kailahun was the early epicentre of Ebola. It is home to over 1,600 orphans, the second-highest concentration in the country. Koindu, where Serah lives, is fortunate to have an orphan-aid project, Smile With Us, set up by a local woman and funded entirely by the efforts of her two sons abroad in Australia and the US. It educates and feeds 42 children, including Serah’s seven, during the week.

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My family died. They left behind all these young children. I am taking care of them.

The children prefer to stay at home. When I am out for more than three hours I find them waiting for me. I tell them to go and play with their friends. People used to drive them away when they first returned from the treatment centres, but since Ebola ended people come around us again.

I want the children to know I am the mother now, and that I can take care of them. The youngest, Satta, is three; the eldest, Sahr, is 16. Five of the children are survivors of the virus; they are all crying about [Ebola-related] problems. Paul always has itchy eyes, Jammie has joint pain in her hips and knees. Satta’s eyes go red and fever overwhelms her; she has more problems than the others. Every month they are called for treatment in Kailahan [55 kilometres away] at the Médecins Sans Frontières clinic.

My partner left me. He said he could not carry my burden

When Moses [10] was taken to the treatment centre he became mad. He is feeling better now, but sometimes, when the madness comes upon him, he beats the little ones. Moses didn’t used to be like that.

My older brother survived Ebola but he was driven mad by the death of his father, and the loss of his wife and child. He has not gone back to normal yet, so I am looking after his eight-year-old son, Francis.

I am finding it very difficult. Before, I had parents to take care of me. My mother provided for education and food. Now they are dead. I was forced to go begging to survive. Everything is on my shoulders.

I was a student – with good grades – until Ebola came. I feel ashamed when I see my old classmates, because I am a drop-out.

The pain in my heart is very great because when I lost my family to Ebola, my partner left me. He said he could not carry my burden. His mother told me the same story: ‘You will be a very serious problem for my child to carry.’ I asked him: ‘You don’t want me because my family is dead?’ We never spoke again. I cried a lot. We had been together for two years. We were going to get married. Now the boy avoids me. I will not go after men, never again.

I explained to my friend Mary that the boy I love had forsaken me because I lost my family. She gave me support and told me to have courage. She said: ‘Serah, lift yourself up, hold on to God with both hands.’ She gave me a loan so I could start a business to support the kids. But the business collapsed.

I find it hard to have hope. I need support to care for these children. If I had completed my education, at least I would have a chance of giving them quality schooling. But how will I provide for them now?

As told to Moses F James

Web documentary

You can explore these and other citizen reporters’ tales of love and connection in the time of Ebola as a set of short films in our beautiful, interactive digital feature: https://backintouch.org/