Op-Ed

Ebola stalking Durham man’s war-surviving family

A child who survived Ebola is fed by another survivor near Freetown, Sierra Leone
A child who survived Ebola is fed by another survivor near Freetown, Sierra Leone AFP/Getty Images

It’s nerve-wracking to think of my homeland Sierra Leone and the families being wiped out by this strange and deadly Ebola virus. The horror stories and images are heart-wrenching, and the paranoia it’s causing everywhere makes me afraid to reveal my West African identity after 28 years living in the Triangle. For the past seven months, Ebola has been an agony for so many West Africans living in the Triangle. To us the news is all too real.

My story is a common one.

This killer virus stalks the Kailahun District where I grew up. And each day, I worry whether my family will be next.

Each night before my older brother, Gbewah, goes to bed in our family home in Bunumbu, he calls me and tells me how everyone in the village is doing. So far, Bunumbu, with its fledging coffee and cocoa farms, is Ebola free.

Still, Gbewah and the residents of Bunumbu have not been unscathed. My brother has described how people in neighboring Ebola-affected villages are having seizures, and vomiting and excreting blood – before dying. His accounts pierce my heart. Each night I sternly remind him to keep our family members at home, not to leave the village and to invite no one to the house.

A few days ago, Gbewah cried, “We cannot lose any more family!” while recalling the fate of our parents and 18 siblings. They died during the “blood diamond” war between 1991 and 2002. “Ebola is here to wipe us all out!” he said, the raw memories of the civil war that ended 10 years ago are closing in on him again. With the number of people stricken with the disease rising daily – over 5,000 diagnosed cases in Sierra Leone – it’s hard to escape the comparison.

All across the country, residents in many villages and towns are living in total isolation, avoiding business activities and normal social activities with their families and friends. All travel now requires a police pass.

In areas where residents are not willing to do this on their own or where people remain unconvinced that Ebola is real, the national and local governments have imposed “Ebola laws.” These new laws clarify how people should conduct themselves. For example, residents must report any sick person or risk a fine equal to $105 or six months in jail.

Gbewah said the government could have avoided the passage of these laws if the Sierra Leonean borders had been closed to Guinea when the disease was first reported in March.

Our rice-farming region in West Africa has a deep connection with the history of the Southeastern coastal region of the United States and North Carolina. Many Sierra Leonean people were enslaved in the Carolinas and Georgia and marketed on the auction block as rice experts. The legendary Joseph Cinque (Sengbe Pieh), whose slave ship mutiny was made famous by Stephen Spielberg in the film “The Amistad,” is my kinsman.

Since the civil war also known as the blood diamond war ended in 2004, I have visited Sierra Leone each year for family reunions and as an aid worker to help my people rebuild their homes and lives. But with Ebola, there’s no telling when I will be permitted to return home again.

In May, I returned from a visit two weeks before the first reported cases of Ebola were made in Kailahun and Kenema districts. Not far from this area, I had visited Bunumbu, where my four war-survivor siblings and 36 orphaned nieces and nephews still live. As an aid worker, I visited the villages of Tokpombu and Gbeworbu to check on the rebuilding projects funded by “Africa Yes!.”

It was the last month of the dry season, the rains were beginning and families were gearing up for planting season. Ebola was not even a remote threat.

Recently during one of our nightly calls, Gbewah reminded me of something my grandmother, a story teller, often told us: “The world is connected and whole like a spider web. If one strand in the web breaks, it affects the entire web.”

Ebola is that one strand.

Braima Moiwai is a professional teacher and artist in Durham.

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