Mark in Sierra Leone

Ebola in Kangahun. What now.

As I sit here in my little North Douglas home next to the woodstove, I contemplate the past 2 weeks and how things have changed forever for my friends in Sierra Leone. I worked in Kangahun, a remote village in the eastern part of the country in the Kono District as a fish farming extension agent in the late 1980s. Solomon Saidu and his brother Francis Kamara soon adopted me into their families and were my keepers. We were all 20 somethings. Solomon and Francis needed only a machete (called a cutlass there) for their livelihood. With it, they could do anything they needed for their living, from cutting down a section of bush to burn it for a rice farm, to cutting cane and then splitting it to make a trap to catch crab and fish in the creek that ran near the town, to making a fence around their farm and then making ingenious traps in the fence to catch animals for meat that tried to get to their rice. I’d been a fishing guide on remote rivers in Bristol Bay and so was used to living without utilities. Getting to live full time in west Africa was a perfect fit for me, and my new brothers there were quick to accept and teach me.

I left Kangahun in 1988. Not long later, the country fell into what was called a “civil war”. It was really more of a war against the population, where the “rebels”, who supposedly were trying to overthrow the government, were really thugs who would come into a village, kill or maime anyone who did not escape, loot the town for anything of value, then burn the village to the ground and move on to the next village.

When the war found it’s way to remote Kangahun, Francis, with the help of Solomon, lead some four dozen people into the rain forest of the hills surrounding the village. When the rebels pursued them into the bush, Francis told me on my visit there in 2013 that it was not his skill, but only by “the grace of God” that the rebels, when they came to the spot Francis and his family had camped, had gone to the right, and Francis and his family, ranging from newborns to elders in their 80’s, had gone left. They fled further east and survived for 3 years in the far corner of Sierra Leone near Guinea until the rebels finally found their way there, and Francis led his people across the border and into Guinea. Mosquito, a notorious leader of the rebels, followed Francis and others across the Mano River into Guinea to the refugee camp. He came to Francis and asked him to come back to Sierra Leone, where the rebels said they would take care of them. Francis said that sounded like a great plan. He said he’d gather up his family and be ready to return to Sierra Leone in the morning. Francis had no intention of returning to Sierra Leone with this rebel leader responsible for killing and maiming countless innocent villagers during the war. That night, Francis gathered his family and fled further into Guinea.

They spent 5 years in Guinea. When I was working with Francis on his farm in 2013 planting rice, he said “you know Mark, we didn’t struggle in Guinea. We did just what we do here. We asked the local chief for a piece of land and farmed it. In fact, Guineans don’t farm by hand like we do. They farm with draft animals. When they saw the productive gardens we grew by hand, they asked us to stay and be extension agents for them”. That was a big compliment to Francis, as extension agents were usually college-educated. Francis had left school at an early age when his father died to provide for his family and was illiterate. Even in Guinea. In a land of a different language. With nothing but the set of clothes he was wearing and a cutlass, Francis made friends, gained the respect of his community, and lived pretty well.

Francis and family eventually found their way to Guinea’s capital, Conakry, then down the coast on what was likely his first boat ride to Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown. Over the next several years, he and his family found their way back up the country and back to their village. What they found was the scorched earth the rebels had left in their wake. The village was no longer there. The rebels had burned it to the ground, and the bush had taken over. Francis had to live in Koidu, the capital city of the province of Kono, until he and his fellow villagers could rebuild their village. Over the course of the next 10 years, the village was slowly rebuilt. Francis was so proud of his two wives, Femusu and Manyeneh, who made friends with a woman from the Fula tribe (the traders of West Africa). The Fula woman set them up with small amounts of goods to trade in the Koidu market. As the Fula woman saw that Femusu and Manyeneh were honest and hard working, she gradually increased their inventories for sale and the two of them did their part to provide for the family. In the village, everyone worked on the farm. Now in Koidu, there was only small plots of land to make gardens, and so learning the market business was how they survived. Meanwhile, Francis grew whatever he could in a garden, took jobs in the diamond field or whereever he could, and would return the 20 miles to Kangahun as he could to grow crops and beat back the bush that had grown for over a decade around his coffee, cacao and oil palm trees. All by hand. By the time I returned there in 2013, Francis, Femusu and Manyeneh had been back in Kangahun fulltime for 2 years. He was working a large plot of land in the rain forest raising rice, and living in rooms on loan from a village brother. Solomon had developed adult-onset epilepsy at some point, and now had to live in Koidu to be near what rudimentary medical care was available. Not only did epilepsy cause him to live a life he did not know – in the city, away from his life as a farmer- it also led to his being somewhat of an outcast. As someone “possessed” from the seizures. His wife left him. Some of his children were farmed out to other family. When I got there in 2013, Solomon looked a bit gaunt. He was still the same person who had been my best friend in the village, but the epilepsy had certainly taken its toll. When we would eat, Solomon would eat like a starved man. I asked if he ate regularly, and he said yes. Although there might be a day or two when he didn’t eat, he generally ate regularly. He was at the mercy of his extended family, and they, like him struggled to get by in the city. Solomon is not one to ask anyone for anything. If there wasn’t food for a day or two, he wasn’t going begging for it. We ate and ate during my week long stay. Damn, it was good to eat rice and sauce again. Solomon never had a seizure while I was there. When he and I went to the village, he worked and worked helping Francis and his nephews plant rice on Francis’s farm. Happy to be back doing what he loved doing, which was being a farmer. I would make sure Solomon would never be without food again by sending him money monthly when I returned home. His seizures, however, did return. Could be he was spending all the money on his children. Or could be that’s just how epilepsy works.

Francis’s oldest son Alieu,, was only a year when I left in 1988 and I thought he might not make it because he was so sickly. He was now a strapping young man of 25, living in Koidu and working as a motorcycle taxi driver. I think he finished high school as far as he could but could not continue his education in order to help his father and their family. Cheap motorcycles from India had replaced the small pick-up taxis used for transport when I was first there. The motorcycles were more suited to the brutal roads of Kono District. Alieu explained he drove for the owner of the bike, and paid the owner the equivalent of $7 dollars US a day Monday through Sat for use of the bike, and on Sunday he got everything he earned. Alieu paid for the fuel. We discussed the cost of a new bike ($1,200) and going into business for himself. We decided I would loan him the money and he’d pay me back in a year and then use the money he repaid for his father to build a house. I would ultimately be repaid by having a house to stay in whenever I returned to Kangahun. Alieu repaid the loan in 6 months. Francis had a new house less than 6 months after, built with supplies carried as needed on Alieu’s motorcycle from Koidu. Likewise, Solomon, still living in Koidu so he could be near medical treatment for his epilepsy, had a free ride whenever he needed it. Solomon’s wife would return to him later that month. The future was starting to take shape for the families after 25 years of war and rebuilding.

Francis and Solomon are once in a lifetime friends you feel more and more privleged to know as you grow older. They were my my keepers in the village. The Peace Corps shapes everyone who serves. For me, it’s been the cornerstone of my life, largely determined what I believe in and how I see the world. I left Sierra Leone with my two Peace Corps friend travelers Jeff and Jim in July 2013. They had similar experiences visiting their families 25 years after last seeing them.

A few months later, the first cases of ebola surfaced in Guinea – not far, actually, as the crow flies from Kangahun, but the distance was by bush roads and therefore not subject to extensive travel. The main roads from the Guinea outbreak went south to Liberia, then west through Sierra Leone. Our village of Kangahun, isolated from the main corridors, had been isolated from the ebola epidemic to the south in Kailahun and Kenema areas. Although four from Kangahun had died from the virus, all were living in Freetown when they contracted it.

During the first week of December, Solomon was tending to his garden in Koidu when he had an epileptic seizure. People who did not know him contacted the ebola response team, fearing Solomon had been taken down by the virus. The team responded, put him in an ambulance that had carried other ebola patients, and carried him to an ebola ward of potential ebola patients. His blood was drawn and sent to Kenema for testing. He waited several days in the ward and the result came back negative and he was released. His family decided to send him to Kangahun as he had not been in good health before his recent seizure and they thought it best he be cared for in his village.

Solomon arrived in the village about Dec. 11. He stayed with his younger brother Tamba Saidu. When Solomon was born, Solomon’s father gave him to Pa Saidu to raise as was custom to join families in Kono. Solomon had “step” siblings born of Pa Saidu and his wife Mary. The oldest was Finda, who was a teenager and cooked for me when I lived there. Her brother Tamba was a few years younger. Eia was Tamba’s younger brother.

Tamba was now the caretaker of the Saidu family and tending to the family farm. Mary Saidu had lost her husband to old age years ago, and Finda died of illness in about 2014. I spent time with Mary on my recent trip there. Mary was of the Temne tribe in northern Sierra Leone and somehow married a Kono man. I gave her a fish pin on one of my first days in town in 2013, and she wore it everyday I was there. I sent her fish from the market woman, too, for her dinner. Mary brought food to Solomon everyday.

On December, I received a text from Alieu. Solomon had suddenly died in Kangahun. I feared he had contracted ebola from the ambulance or hospital ward when taken in after his epileptic seizure. Upon his death he was tested again and the test came back negative, if I understood the text communications correctly. As his elder brother, Francis saw to his burial. Solomon was buried in sight of my former hut and across the street from Solomon’s childhood home. Both buildings were long since destroyed by the rebels during the war.

I still had my suspicions about ebola causing Solomon’s death. I looked up the incidence of death due to epilepsy and found that although it’s not common, it’s not altogether uncommon either. Perhaps he did die from complications from his epilepsy. A negative test is a negative test, right? I hoped for his sake he’d died with little pain. He’s seen enough already.

On Christmas Day, I began receiving texts from Alieu that Francis had taken ill. Francis was transported from Kangahun to Koidu, over the terrible road. He might have gone the whole way clinging to his son on the back of the motorcycle. Francis had his blood drawn at the Koidu hospital, and the sample was sent to Kenema, some 5 hours drive south, for ebola testing. The next day, his condition worsened and he was transported to a treatment center in Kenema. Upon reaching Kenema, he was directed west to Bo about an hour away. I don’t know why. Perhaps the Kenema center was full. Perhaps Bo had better facilities for advanced care. Alieu sent a text saying he’d lost his uncle (Solomon) and if his dad died, what was he going to do. That was the last communication I heard from him that day.

On December 28, I got a call from Darlington in Washington, DC. Darlington was a young boy in Kangahun when I lived there, and his father was an old blind Pa who made hand made hammocks. The Pa’s children would gather grass for him, which he rolled across his leg and wove into long lengths of rope. The rope was dyed, attached to wood frames at each end, and crafted into beautiful hammocks. I had an endless list of hammock requests from Peace Corps friends to buy them. Darlington somehow got out of Sierra Leone during the war and has been in the states ever since.

Darlington asked if I’d heard about Francis, and I said I was receiving updates via text. Darlington said Francis had died. As had Tamba Saidu. Three brothers, the keepers of their extended families, gone just that fast. I hoped somehow Darlington had received the wrong information. Not long after Darlington’s call I received a text from Alieu confirming his dad was gone. He’d seen both his uncle and father pass away and was understandably at a loss for what to do. I sent some money for his current arrangements and said we were here to help as needed.

Christian is a Kangahun brother who lives in Koidu and took care of Solomon for many years. He sent an email telling of the situation and that we must band together for the families. He said Solomon had six children and Francis thirteen. Some are grown and some are still school-age. So we wait for the families to grieve and then decide what to do. Where will the young children go? What will they need for support for living expenses. And school fees. School is not free in Sierra Leone. Education for his children was important for Francis.

After visiting there in 2013, I planned to bring Francis, Femusu, Manyeneh, and Solomon to Alaska. Not to move here. Just to visit. People who in a day when life shuts down for when the internet or computer network shuts down, can still live by their own wits, by their own hand, off the land. People who can draw their ancestry back hundreds or thousands of years on the land they live. People whose existence isn’t dictated by the stock market or joy determined by the winner of American Idol. They had their culture. They took pride in being farmers. They paid tribute to their elders now deceased. They loved their children and grandchildren.

It’s hard to fathom people who were so independent. Who had endured so much. Being taken by a microscopic virus. Letters written to my congressmen and congresswomen gained return form letters saying how hard they were working to protect Alaskans from ebola. They had no concern for those dying from ebola. These were not their constituents.

So I sit here in our first world half way across the globe with plenty of money. A hospital nearby. Friends who would do anything for me. I couldn’t get to my village now if I wanted to. They are under quarantine. Francis’s eldest son Alieu and I are in contact most days by cell phone text. “What am I going to do” he asks. “I’ve lost my uncle and my father”. I have no good answer for him.

I send some money to Alieu for now, knowing he was with his father all the way to Bo and may now be infected, too. Along with his mothers and others back in the village. I am angry that the US and the western powers ignored the outbreak for a year before taking any meaningful action, well after it was too late. But then again, maybe money could not have fixed anything. You can’t bring a country without health care to a country with health care with money alone. It takes personnel. Infrastructure. Expertise. Education. Money alone can’t make these things happen. All of them take time to develop.

Francis Kamara is a man I look up to more than anyone I have ever met. He kept his extended family alive for 2 decades of war and rebuilding. He cared for his brother. And that care lead to his infection and undeserved death. Like 8,000 of his West African compatriots.

So now I wait for the family there to grieve. To remember Solomon, Francis and Tamba. They will also be watching each other for signs of Ebola. Like Francis, his wives and children may have been subject to infection. And the same for Tamba’s family.