Regional Leader's Trip to Sierra Leone: Reflections on Ebola

I’m just returning from a visit in Sierra Leone, visiting our team there working on the Ebola response. I salute their courage, engagement, commitment and perseverance – their contribution to gaining control over Ebola is impressive and highly praised by all actors, be it communities, donors or government!

But Ebola has significantly increased the level of vulnerability of children! It is all the more amazing to see that some things done prior to Ebola have been maintained during the crisis and have made a big difference in limiting the shock Ebola brought. I’m sharing some of these seemingly small things, because we often underestimate them, whilst it is exactly these small things that make the greatest difference in strengthening the resilience of children and their caretakers. I trust that this will encourage you to consider these ‘small’ things as immensely important in your work!

Hand washing:

The number one protection against Ebola is washing hands regularly. Some additional measures are put in place to supportingt it, but hand washing is the most important one. Now hand washing is one of these small things we parents try to teach our kids until it becomes a habit. And promoting hand washing is the single most effective thing one do to cut down numbers of infectious diseases, cases of diarrhea and other things. How much of your time, effort and money do you invest to teach children this essential life skill?

Children’s groups:

Due to the Ebola crisis, all schools in Sierra Leone have been closed. Children who had been part of children’s groups had a solid social network to support them during the crisis. Being able to play & share with friends, having learnt that each child is loved and known by God, having acquired understanding of how to protect themselves and others was a big help to them to better cope with the fear, the boredom, the pain and danger of this experience. Do you make sure all children under your area of responsibility have adequate support through adults and peers by facilitating children’s groups they can attend? Do your best staff/partners work directly with children and does your financial report show that you are giving this the appropriate priority?

Engaging traditional / religious leaders:

Have you understood the role of religious leaders as ‘door keepers’ in your society? Ddo your technical approaches adequately reflect their role in achieving transformation?

Caring for the sick and burying the dead are among the most critical situations in which religious leaders are called upon. During the Ebola crisis, some traditional habits proved to be highly dangerous, but which the prevention messages (with a focus on clinical aspects) were not addressing. But where World Vision engaged with religious and traditional leaders, respecting their role in society, training them and putting them to actually lead the change, resistance melted away, deeply rooted cultural habits were able to be changed and lives were saved.

Have you understood the role of religious leaders as ‘door keepers’ in your society? Ddo your technical approaches adequately reflect their role in achieving transformation?

Relationships:

In our traditional ADP areas, World Vision Sierra Leone was able to turn infection rates around in record time, because the communities knew and trusted WV. WV was seen as one of them, not as a foreigner coming in to tell them what to do. Messages of necessary behavior change were readily accepted and enforced by local leadership.

Do you and your teams take the necessary time to establish and maintain good relationships with the communities you’re working with? Do they know your name or do they just know the look of the dust behind WV’s big cars speeding through their village?

Savings groups:

Where families were in distress, the social fund came in to support them! And while everybody wonders where families will get the funds from to equip their children once school opens again, members of SGs just smile, as their funds are already secured by their own savings!

Ebola significantly impacted the economic life in Sierra Leone: closed boarders stopped international trade, quarantined villages/households were unable to sell/buy things from outside, weekly markets were banned, bread winners died etc. And yet savings groups (SG) in WV SL were thriving despite the crisis! In the height of the epidemic, numerous requests for new savings groups were brought to WV! Women, men, even children (see picture) organized themselves in savings groups. Many mothers were able to buy and resell firewood or similar things through a loan from the SG and make ends meet through it. While the social tissue of communities was seriously damaged by Ebola, SGs maintained the cohesion of its members. Where families were in distress, the social fund came in to support them! And while everybody wonders where families will get the funds from to equip their children once school opens again, members of SGs just smile, as their funds are already secured by their own savings!

Do you and your programs appropriate understand the significant role which SGs play to strengthen the resilience of households? Do you make sure that the children ‘under your care’ are less vulnerable in times of shocks because they and their care givers are members of savings groups?

Remember:

Don’t underestimate the huge difference small things can make if you scale them up to benefit all children!

Esther Lehmann-Sow, Regional Leader World Vision West Africa