In 1991, Charles Taylor’s Liberian rebels crossed the Mao River and arrived at remote villages that dot the Sierra Leonean border at the start of a devastating civil war in the tiny West African country.
Taylor – who in 2012 was convicted of crimes against humanity – was intent on reaching the diamond mines in Sierra Leone’s Eastern Province to finance a war to overthrow the government. The decade-long war was a grotesque affair characterized by children drugged and forced to participate as soldiers and combatants who chopped off the limbs of civilians.
Today, villagers who live in Sierra Leone’s Eastern Province face another deadly threat: the frightening approach of the Ebola virus that has already killed more than 500 in the country, according to the World Health Organization.
Triangle nonprofit Africa Yes! will host a gathering in Durham on Saturday to help raise awareness and money for supplies needed to help Sierra Leoneans in more than 19 villages prevent an outbreak of the Ebola virus.
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Braima Moiwai, a Durham public schools artist and storyteller and co-founder of Africa Yes!, grew up in the Eastern Province village of Bunumbu.
Moiwai moved to Durham in the early 1980s. He returned to his homeland in 2002, one year after the civil war ended, and has returned each year since to help organize a farming cooperative and bring much-needed school supplies. He was astonished by what he saw, or did not see, in Bununbu when he first returned.
“The images I had of my village, those images were erased,” he said. “It was like the whole village was a forest. You could not even remember where your house was.”
Moiwai looks at the spread of Ebola as a different kind of warfare being waged against his homeland.
“Ebola took my people by the biggest surprise,” he said this week. “It’s another form of war, and you don’t even see the enemy.”
Durham baker Steve Cameron’s stint in Sierra Leone as a Peace Corps volunteer ended more than 20 years ago. But in 2008, seven years after the war ended, Cameron joined with Moiwai and several others to start Africa Yes!, which has partnered with the residents of Gbeworbu (BEH-wuh-boo) and surrounding villages to help rebuild after the war.
Cameron said Saturday’s gathering at the Palace International on Broad Street has two purposes: to update people on progress in the villages over the last six months and provide information about the threat of the Ebola virus in the region.
Cameron said the villagers need protective gear, including latex gloves and gowns, chlorine disinfectant and hydration salts.
“Someone suspected of having Ebola will have two major symptoms besides fever – vomiting and diarrhea,” said Cameron, who explained that it is critical to keep someone suffering from the disease hydrated until they can be treated at a clinic or hospital.
“If the patient is hydrated then they’re strong enough to hold on until their immune system kicks in and knocks (the disease) out,” he said. “If the immune system is weakened, the infection overtakes them and kills them.”
Sierra Leone is a country roughly half the size of North Carolina with about 6 million residents. Gbeworbu and the surrounding villages where Africa Yes! has focused its humanitarian efforts lie in the remote eastern hills near the Liberian border.
Many of the villages are nestled in rain forests or former rain forests depleted by agriculture. The people are largely subsistence farmers whose staple crop is rice. Generators provide electricity for some, but most use kerosene lamps fashioned from tin cans at night. There is no indoor plumbing; villagers rely on well water. Along with providing materials to build 100 homes in the region, Africa Yes! has also helped residents construct latrines.
The virus is arriving the same route from Liberia that Taylor’s rebels took when they crossed the Moa River more than 20 years ago.
Many of the sick are taken to Kailahun, a town in the north where Doctors Without Borders has set up an outdoor clinic to treat Ebola patients. They are then transported to a government hospital in Kenema, where they wait to be tested for the disease.
“It is very overcrowded,” Moiwai said. “A lot of the people contract the disease while waiting to be tested.”
Cameron said villagers taking the sick from Kailahun to the hospital in Kenema must travel a long rural road filled with potholes and rocks. He says that Gbeworbu is located on the road and that its remoteness may be a blessing.
“If it was easier to travel, the virus could spread more quickly,” he said.
Cameron said villagers in Gbeworbu have responded to the virus in much the same way they did the civil war. Soon after the outbreak, residents of Gbeworbu organized into teams and visited all the villages in the region. They took with them a handbook about how to prevent the disease that was given to them by Africa Yes!, along with protective gear, chlorine beach and the oral hydration solution to administer to those suspected of contracting the virus.
A senior health official in Sierra Leone on Thursday announced that the country will impose a three-day lockdown next week, when people will be confined to their homes to allow health workers to isolate new cases of the disease.
Ebola cases have been reported as close as 3 miles from Bunumbu, but none have been reported yet in Gbeworbu and Bunumbu where Africa Yes! volunteers are working, Cameron and Moiwai said.
“They have attacked the problem with the same attitude they have attacked other problems after the war,” Cameron said.