Tuesday, May 5, 2015

In Liberia, helping vulnerable people fight Ebola

By Nyamah Dunbar*
Tienii is a small community (pop. about 4,100) in Liberia, a short walk from Bo Waterside, at the border with neighboring Sierra Leone. The average family size, due to polygamy, ranges between 16 and 25 persons. The vast majority of residents, about 95 percent, are Muslims.Tienii was selected within the fourth Liberian county to benefit from the Ebola Response project of the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), targeting the elderly and persons living with disabilities in Liberia.

Clarence D. Fahnbulleh, 68, retired district commissioner, is a lifelong resident of Tienii. He shared the horror of what the onset of Ebola meant for his tiny community, but also praised the quick responses and efforts of residents to confront the virus. “A stranger came to visit a family in early March 2014. He complained of being sick. As the news of Ebola was already on the rise, we quarantined him in the empty school house. He died two days later, and soon, so did the eight individuals in the household he visited,” recalls Mr. Fahnbulleh. The community, already on high alert due to its proximity to the border and the easy flow of people across it, increased its vigilance.

Villagers pick up supplies during the height of the Ebola pandemic, now in steep decline.
Photo: Rev. Jerry Kandea

The response by the community and nongovernmental development agencies was rapid. People were equipped with the necessary health messaging and provided with basic sanitation skills and supplies. However, a key component remained lacking.

“When someone is hungry, they can’t really listen [to a health message],” said Mr. Fahbulleh. “People had stopped going to their farms because gatherings were prohibited due to the onset of Ebola.” Because this is a predominantly farming community, it significantly impacted hunger in the area. Although an earlier food ration had been delivered to certain individuals in the village at the onset of the crisis, nearly half the village did not benefit.

Mr. Fahnbulleh and other residents shared that UMCOR was the first and only agency to focus on groups that frequently are overlooked: the elderly and persons living with disabilities. Musu Gaya, 89, recalls that, “The day the UMCOR food ration arrived, I had no food left in my house, and there are eight persons that must be fed. UMCOR is the only group that has ever given me my own bag of rice and food supplies, and I want to thank them.”

The Ebola response to the elderly and persons living with disabilities was an initiative of the Ministries to the Aged and the Hope for the Deaf at the Liberia Annual Conference. Rev. Anna Kpaan, who heads the work with the elderly, noted, “We may not realize it, but this distribution, in a predominantly Muslim area, is the strongest testament of Christ’s love and the teachings of Jesus Christ.”

Residents received a 50 pound bag of rice, fish, beans and seasoning supplies, along with soap and bleach for their sanitation kits. Manbu Freeman, 80, who usually relies on his adult children in Monrovia, the capital, for his sustenance, applauded the distribution efforts. “I urge UMCOR and the church to continue to keep the disabled community at heart—particularly the elderly who suffer from disability issues,” he said.

Kula Sherif, 85, who also shared his rations with his household of 13 persons, praised the distribution process for its fairness. “At times, during other distributions, people register, but do not receive, or people receive rations by paying bribes to the distributors, or because they are family or friends. But with this distribution, all of us who were registered received the promised allotment of rations,” he said.

As the Ebola crisis in Liberia continues to diminish, the people of Tienii are proud that they were able to contain the virus from spreading beyond the initial contact family. They remain vigilant that their personal efforts, combined with those of partners such as UMCOR and The United Methodist Church, will reinforce their ability to overcome any challenge.

*Nyamah Dunbar is a consultant supporting UMCOR’s work to confront Ebola in Liberia.