After Ebola

News & Analysis

After Ebola

Geraldine Lamin celebrates her survival, and mourns those consumed by the epidemic two years ago.

‘My mother got sick first. She was a nurse in a government hospital and one day she came home complaining of a fever. I told her to lie down, that I would take care of her. I did that because I am her eldest daughter, and also because she is my best friend.

By then we had all heard the radio advertisements, seen the billboards – that Ebola spread by touching. They said that you should stay far away from those who were sick, especially if you didn’t know why they were ill. But that is not so easy when it is your mother. In my life, this was the person who had cared for me most, the person who had watched over me every time I was sick. She was the one who told me everything I know about how to be a good woman, a strong woman. So you can understand that with my mother, following all those rules was not very possible.

But after a few days, I saw she wasn’t getting better. So I called an okada – a motorcycle taxi – and told him we needed to go to the hospital. By then, my mother was so weak she had trouble holding on, so I pressed her between us – the driver at the front, me at the back – and I wrapped my arms around her waist. She was so hot, and the road was so bad, all rocks and mud. I thought we might fall off.

She died after one week at that hospital, and after one week more, I began to feel ill too. At first, I thought maybe I was just exhausted from the sadness of thinking all the time of my mother. I remembered how she used to tell me, you’re stronger than you think. Sometimes when we would be working together, making dinner or carrying water, she would see me beginning to feel tired and say, you’re a woman. Men don’t always realise this, but we are very tough. Get on with it. So I tried to do that. But then I saw it was not just grief. My head hurt, I was vomiting and very weak. I told my father, and he said he was feeling bad too. This time we knew what it was, so we went back to the hospital right away.

At that time, many people with Ebola still feared the hospitals. They were saying that hospitals didn’t cure you, they were what made you sick. I had heard people say that someone was coming into the hospitals injecting people with the virus so the government could get more aid money from overseas.

I was so scared. I tried to stay awake all the time so I would know if they were coming to inject me too. But I was too weak. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. By then, there were five of us who had gotten it – my mom, my dad, my cousin, my uncle, and me. But after one month, there was only me left. Finally, they did the test and showed the virus was gone and I could go home to my brother and sister. No one had been staying in our house since my parents and I got sick, and the first thing the doctors told us to do was burn everything that had touched us when we were ill. This was the house all of us had grown up in, so all of our memories were alive there, everything we had to remember our parents by. My family had moved to Freetown, the capital, from Kono District when I was three years old because my father got a job as an accountant here. On the wall in our living room he kept all the certificates for awards he had won over the years, and my mother’s nursing pledge. But we didn’t really have a choice. We took their clothes, their bed, their mattresses outside and poured petrol over them. We watched them burn until there was nothing left. 

For some time after that, I was afraid to go out of our yard. People in the neighbourhood knew our family had been sick and they feared us. In the markets, no one wanted to take my money. People feared to touch me and die. But after a month I said to myself, I need to go out and face this. If I sit inside forever, I will have nothing to do but think. So I went out and found a job with other survivors training health workers on Ebola prevention. Mostly, I taught them how to put on the PPE very carefully – the personal protective equipment, which looked like a space suit – so that you never came into contact with the disease. It was satisfying, in a way. I felt that I was walking in my mother’s footsteps. She got sick taking care of a patient. I didn’t want the same to happen to anyone else.

“Training health workers on Ebola prevention, so they never came into contact with it, I felt I was walking in my mother’s footsteps. She got sick taking care of a patient. I didn’t want the same to happen to anybody else.”

After six months, I finished that job and went back to school. Now, I’m in my last year of high school. So is my older brother – he missed some time when they shut the schools for Ebola. Our sister is 15, she has two more years. There’s no one else with us, so we support each other now. We’ve got a fridge here and we sell sachets of cold water to our neighbours, but the money is very small, maybe 50,000 Leones ($8.50) each month. Sometimes the women from our church bring us rice or a small amount of money, but it’s not really enough.

This year, I’ll take my exams and then I’m going to start university and study law. I’m the head girl at my school now, and I’ve wanted to be a lawyer for a long time. They speak so well, and when they talk, people listen. They are the ones giving justice to the poor.

My mother was always very proud of this ambition. I still think of her every day, many times each day. It’s hard for me to describe what she was like. She wasn’t quiet and she wasn’t loud. She liked to encourage people, women especially. I think she would be proud that I survived this thing. I think she would tell me I am a hero for beating this awful disease. I think she would say what she always used to say to me – that I am stronger than I think.’

As narrated to Ryan Lenora Brown, previously a fellow of the International Reporting Project in Sierra Leone.

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