Ebola Frontline: Sierra Leone’s Ebola Epicenter is On Lockdown

Ebola Frontline: In Sierra Leone, Villagers Starting to Believe Ebola Is Real

Original article by Chad McCordic appeared on Newsweek.com. Reposted with permission from Newsweek.

Newsweek 1

Health workers carry the body of an Ebola virus victim in Kenema, Sierra Leone, June 25, 2014. Umaru Fofana/Reuters

There was a critical moment when I realized this current Ebola outbreak, already out of control, was going to get much worse. It was while I was waiting in line to buy minutes for my pre-paid cell phone in Kenema, the third largest city in Sierra Leone.

A 4-wheel-drive ambulance carrying Ebola victims from the countryside screamed by on the way to Kenema Government Hospital and an odd scene unfolded around me: despite the dying victims inside that car, people were giggling. I asked what was so funny.

“There is no Ebola. It’s a scam by the government to get more foreign aid money,” one man explained. “It’s one family that was cursed. A snake bit them all as they slept.”

I began arguing loudly. A small crowd gathered, giggling at the scrappy little white man defending what they believed to be a made up disease.

“I won’t believe Ebola until I see a victim with my own eyes,” another chimed in. I tried to explain that if that happened, it would already be too late for them. In Africa, friendly arguing is an art, so we all left on good terms, but I was shaken by how unperturbed they were.

In the villages in eastern Sierra Leone where we work (an area with a population of about 7,000 people) we estimated that only 20 percent of local people believed that Ebola was real.

The only way to protect yourself from Ebola is to prevent contact with it. But if 80 percent of your neighbors didn’t believe Ebola existed, how would you protect yourself? My coworkers and I cooked up a quick plan: we hired town criers to shout daily sensitization messages on megaphones and established an informal information hotline for the villagers to call. Hopefully, this would start to change minds.

A few weeks later, there were confirmed cases in Kenema and panic started to take hold. There were riots at the hospital and infected bodies were dumped on the main street. We left for the capitol, hoping the situation would settle.  It never did.

In the villages, though, the thinking on Ebola shifted. For example, when a man recently fell ill with a fever, the patient was isolated. The village called the local clinic and authorities tested him (he tested negative). A month later, these villages remain Ebola-free despite cases within walking distance.  The relationships we built made all the difference: the villagers may not have trusted modern science or the government, but they trusted us.

Chad McCordic is a Community Projects Manager with Minneapolis, Minnesota-based non-profit OneVillage Partners.

OneVillage Partners Sierra Leone Staff speak on Sierra Leone and the Ebola Virus Outbreak

OneVillage Partners (OVP) Sierra Leone In-Country Director Jennifer Artibello and Community Projects Manager, Chad McCordic attended a number of community discussions while in Minneapolis at the National OneVillage Partners offices. Their firsthand experiences working in rural Sierra Leone as the world’s largest outbreak of the deadly Ebola Virus was taking hold mere miles away, were very insightful.

Dispelling the myths and informing the villagers of life-saving preventative measures took precedence over continuing our program expansion efforts (well-underway prior to the Ebla outbreak) in our three new villages of Grima, Gbeika and Mamboma. Fortunately, OVP has well-established relationships in the villages of Jokibu, Pujehun, and Foindu, and has made significant headway building the trusting relationships in the three new villages. “This is what has made the difference – other government groups and organizations have said the same things we are saying, but the villagers believe us because we have been there for them over time”, said Chad McCordic. This enables OVP to overcome much of the misinformation and cultural norms which often form obstacles from Ebola Virus prevention. “The villagers trust us and because we at OVP have taken it seriously, they do too.” The villages we work in are now implementing the precautions to prevent the spread of the disease. So far, the villages we work in are safe, while unfortunately, the Ebola Virus has spread to many of the nearby villages.

While in the Twin Cities, Jennifer and Chad have been hard at work informing local staff and friends of OVP with the latest information. They have been interviewed by Esme Murphy on WCCO Sunday Morning as well as other local outlets. In addition, they have spoken at OneVillage Partner community events including a “meet and greet” at local Spill the Wine restaurant in Uptown, Minneapolis. We wish to thank everyone who came out to one of our events to find out what OneVillage Partners is doing on the front lines of this tragic and deadly virus.

Spill the Wine

Chad McCordic, OVP Community Projects Manager, discussing the current situation in Sierra Leone at the OneVillage Partner sponsored event at Spill the Wine in Minneapolis.

Spill the Wine 2

In-Country Sierra Leone Director, Jennifer Artibello discusses OVP’s prevention strategies and how our current development model, which empowers rural Sierra Leoneans to determine their own needs, has really helped us relay vital precaution and prevention education during the current Ebola Virus crisis.

Voices from Sierra Leone: Jennifer Artibello, Country Director

JenIn the villages of Sierra Leone, the outbreak of the Ebola Virus is affecting us deeply. In our time here, we have developed such great relationships with the communities and villages we‘ve worked with for so many years—and in the three new villages we’ve just begun our work with. Through our strong relationships we have been able to build trust for OneVillage Partners.

Due to the trust in our presence here, OVP has been able to more easily distribute needed supplies to prevent the Ebola virus from spreading. We’re also working to spread important information and messaging to reinforce preventative measures throughout the villages and families to combat this deadly virus.

Although these messages are the same ones that the villagers receive from other organizations, local newspapers, and government entities, the villagers do not always know who or what to believe. However, they do listen to what OneVillage Partners has to say since we have an extremely good relationship and a history of being there for them through the growth and improvements to their villages

From the things we are doing in their communities, they know that we are continuing to think of them and will work with them during this challenging time. A large part of what we are trying to do in our everyday programming is to help individuals and communities look at their lives and determine how they can take steps to improve their own living situations and that of their communities.

Once the Ebola Virus outbreak is over, OVP will continue to work with our villages to build-up their critical thinking skills so that they can tell the difference between facts, rumors and reality, no matter where the information is coming from.

By Jennifer Artibello

Health Ministers Conclude Emergency Summit on Ebola

On Wednesday, July 2 Health Ministers of eleven African Nations met with health experts, World Health Organization officials, Aid Organizations and survivors of the Ebola Virus for a two day summit on containment and crisis strategies.

The Health Ministers agreed on priority actions to end the Ebola Outbreak in West Africa

Blog 2The Emergency Ministerial meeting on Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) ended with the ministers agreeing on specific priority actions to end the Ebola outbreak. The scale of the outbreak is unprecedented, with over 750 of known reports and 4445 deaths since March of 2014.

At the end of the two-day meeting, they agreed that the current situation poses a serious threat to all countries in the region and beyond, and called for immediate action. This coordinated action and response will involve all stakeholders, national leadership, enhanced cross-border collaboration and community participation. They stressed that there is a direct threat to adverse social and economic impact of the outbreak to West Africa.

The adopted inter-country strategy includes addressing a number of gaps and challenges to successful coordination which include: financing, communication, cross-border collaboration, logistics, case management, infection control, surveillance, contact tracing, community participation and research.

To meet these needs the World Health Organization (WHO) will establish a Sub-Regional Control center in Guinea to act as the coordinating arm to consolidate and harmonize support for all major partners in West Africa. They will assist in technical support and resource mobilization. The ministers also stressed the importance of continued research on the Ebola Virus.

blog 3

The Common Strategy adopted highlights:

  • National intra-sectorial meetings involving key government ministries, national technical committees and other stakeholders to design a plan for the immediate implementation of strategy;
  • Improve awareness and understanding of the Ebola Virus through community organizing of religious and political leaders;
  • Strengthen surveillance, case finding and reporting of contact tracing;
  • Deploy additional resources to key “hot-spots”;
  • Identify and commit additional domestic financial resources;
  • Organize cross-border consultations to exchange and facilitate communications and information;
  • Share experiences with countries that have previously managed Ebola outbreaks.

Latest News on Ebola Outbreak

A US citizen is being tested for the Ebola virus in Ghana, which has had no confirmed cases of the virus in the current West African outbreak.

The man has been quarantined at the private Nyaho Clinic in the capital, Accra, health officials say. The man was believed to have visited Guinea and Sierra Leone in recent weeks. Staff at the clinic had also been quarantined and provided with protective clothing.

Ebola’s Surge in Sierra Leone Requires Emergency Action for OneVillage Partners

As hopes of containing the Ebola Virus are fading, OneVillage Partners (OVP) is responding to the emerging crisis with the intent to keep staff safe, and to do whatever we can to support the villages by offering preventative measures to maintain their health and safety.

In the last month there have been over 100 cases documented in the remote eastern villages of Sierra Leone and nearly 759 documented cases in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone with over 467 fatalities. The first recorded Ebola Virus cases have now migrated to the region containing the villages where we work. OneVillage Partners has made some tough decisions as we follow the news closely concerning the world’s largest outbreak of the Ebola Virus since it was first discovered in 1976.

Many more cases are suspected.  Also concerning are reports of distrust and panic by the general populace. We have confirmed reports of rocks being thrown at public health workers conducting Ebola sensitization and rioting in front of the main hospital in Kenema (where our bank is located).  In the last week in Bunumbu, the location of our head office, angry community members attacked an ambulance, removing three potentially infected people from its enclosures. The first cases in the capital of Freetown were also reported last week. Doctors without Borders has called the situation “out of control.” Several organizations have pulled out of Sierra Leone, and nearly all non-health related organizations have pulled all non-essential staff from Kailahun District (where we operate).

Tough Choices for OVP and our response to the Ebola Virus

Ebola Blog 1In late May OneVillage Partners postponed the planned trip for Blake High School students to Sierra Leone. The students had been researching their trip for the past 6 months, and were ready to leave in one week before our unfortunate but wise decision. As the virus spread, we decided to return our summer interns from Amherst College to the states just 9 days after their arrival in Sierra Leone. This decision was made for a few reasons: the risk of having to use public transportation where the virus is known to spread, and the risk in the villages themselves, where residents do not habitually seek medical assistance if they are sick. In fact, one of the reasons the Ebola Virus spreads is that the villagers are distrustful of isolation in medical facilities – it goes against their cultural beliefs of having family members offer primary medical care.

Sadly, we recently made the difficult decision to send our Sierra Leone staff back to their home villages where they wanted to be with family, and pulled the rest of the ex-pat (non-Sierra Leonean) staff to Freetown (west Coast Sierra Leone) due to 4 new cases of the Ebola Virus in Kenema where they lived. Today we heard of the first documented case in Freetown (capital and largest city in Sierra Leone) and made the toughest choice – to send our remaining staff back to their respective home countries. They depart next week. All staff will be on either a small stipend or pay for the next few months, and will hopefully be reinstated once the crisis is over. We realize this could take at the earliest three months and may be up to 6 months or more.

In the meantime, OneVillage Partners is developing Emergency Intervention Plans to prevent the spread of this deadly disease to the villages where we work. OVP has aided in the dissemination of information on Ebola and preventative measures that people in our villages can take. We will stay in close communication through our established reliable networks to monitor the risk(s) of returning staff.

We are in process of raising $25,000 to apply towards the current crisis and toward regrouping once we determine the risks to staff are no longer present.

Because the villagers have a trusting relationship with us they now believe the Ebola Virus is true and are reaching-out to help themselves in establishing routine preventative measures in their respective villages. OVP’s quick response to the crisis and our dissemination of information has been praised by local officials and village chiefs. We have been instrumental in dispelling the myths and rumors around the virus, in addition to the sanitation supplies to prevent the spread of the disease. The distrust of government and health care systems is almost as big of an issue as the virus itself. This is where OVP can make a huge impact.

Ebola Virus Disease – EBV – (Ebola hemorrhagic fever)

History: The Ebola Virus first made its way into our consciousness in 1976 as outbreaks occurred in the Congo Basin. The fatal virus has never spread outside these remote areas until now. Why is this significant? Because Western Africa, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia are countries with more mobility across borders, which makes containment much more difficult. Since February when the first Ebola Virus cases were documented in Guinea, many felt that the protocol for isolation and containment would allow for the virus to “burn out” as it always had within a few months. This did not happen. The virus spread out of Guinea and into Sierra Leone and Liberia. Many believe the first entry into Sierra Leone happened when a corpse was transferred back home to a village for burial. Traditional burial customs of washing the body by hand risks the transmission of the disease to family members. In addition, any healthcare workers and traditional healers who do not follow strict procedures or are unfamiliar that they were dealing with the Ebola Virus are often the most at risk.

As people get the virus, which is often undiagnosed initially, they tend to hide it due to the stigma and the fact that those they see who go to medical isolation centers often to not come back. There is great fear and a refusal to admit illness. Ebola strikes fear in people because the virus is so deadly and there is no cure. The case fatality rate is as high as 90%.

The Ebola Virus got its name from one of the first outbreaks of the virus in a small village along the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Ebola Transmission: Ebola is a severe acute illness often characterized by a sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. The incubation period can be from 2-21 days before vomiting, diarrhea, and even internal and external bleeding occur. Ebola is transmitted in humans through close contact with blood, body secretions, organs, or other body fluids of infected people or animals. The virus is felt to originate in fruit bats as the natural hosts. Before now, it was only seen in remote villages in Central Africa near tropical rainforests.

Ebola Treatment: with no cure, the only treatment is to rehydrate the patient orally and intravenously. These supportive measure if started early can lead to recovery.

Ebola Blog 2Ebola Blog 3

Growing Concern: With the mobility and the potential for those to flee their villages to larger population centers, there is a potential that the Ebola Virus may continue to spread outside of the region.

Linkages for more information on Ebola and Sierra Leone:





An Intern’s Adventures in Sierra Leone: A Wedding and a Funeral

As her time in Sierra Leone comes to a close, Alissa encounters a wedding and a funeral that perfectly sum up the nature of life and change in Foindu.

While staying in Foindu, I am constantly reminded that life is continuing as usual, even though living in the village occasionally makes me feel like the world has been paused. Change somehow always finds a way to creep in.

A few days ago, I woke up to the news that Regina’s uncle had died. She took me to her late uncle’s house, where family and friends had gathered. We sat there for a while. Everyone was speaking in Mende, and didn’t look particularly sad. Many of them were talking about random things and laughing. It looked like a casual family gathering, except for three women (the man’s daughters) sitting in a row apart from the group relatively silently. Eventually, two women brought large pots and started two fires, cooking rice in one of the pots and cutting up leaves to make a sauce in the second. I went back to my house so the family wouldn’t feel the need to feed me. Later that afternoon, I heard a woman singing and crying near the house. I went to the street and saw a group of people walking towards the town, one of which was Regina.  A few minutes later I saw a coffin being carried up the road.

That night, Regina explained the Muslim death rituals in her community. When someone dies, the family gathers to sympathize with each other and puts together money to host a meal while friends stop by to share their sympathies. Poor families just make rice and a soup, but some rich families can afford a sheep, goat, or even a cow to put in the sauce.  After the feast is cooked and served to the sympathizers, the family goes to the mosque and prays over the body. The body is then carried in the town coffin to the cemetery, which is near my house on the outskirts of town. There, the men dig a hole and the people pray and sing before burying the body and bringing the town coffin back to the mosque, marking the grave with flowers that they plant. Regina said that 3 days after the death, they would have an offering of rice and another feast, and then on top of that, the family would host two more feasts: one 7 days after the person’s death and one 40 days after the person’s death. She said that this is very expensive for the family, so they have to take out loans from friends and all pitch in to help pay for the feasts.

On Saturday, three days after her uncle’s death, I was awoken at 4 a.m. by the sound of movement in the room next door. When I got out of bed, I found Regina toiling over two large pots, one full of rice and one full of a sauce that she was preparing for the feast. When the food was prepared, family members stopped by with various containers, taking the feast to the family.

Later in the day, my fellow intern Aaron and I walked into town to get water, where we happened on a marriage in progress. Our friend Saidu, a teacher at one of the primary schools in Foindu, explained that is was a Muslim marriage, one of the three kinds of marriage common in town (the others are Christian and Traditional).

He explained that all we had missed in the ceremony up to that point were the introductions as the groom’s family came to the bride’s family. We were able to watch as the groom’s family asked for the bride to be sent out. According to tradition, the bride’s family sent out a woman wearing a shroud that covered her face. The bride’s family asked “Is this who you wish to marry?” and the husband’s family replied “This is not the woman.” The bride’s family sent out three to four different women (traditionally the bride’s sisters or cousins) before sending out the bride. With each wrong bride, the bride’s family asked the groom’s family for transportation money to go and find the right bride, which the groom’s family happily hands over. When the bride is brought out and the groom’s family says “This is the woman,” there is singing and rejoicing. The bride, wearing a white shroud, then sits on a mat placed on the floor in front of the groom’s family.

The groom’s family then gives the woman a package of kola nuts, wrapped up in large green leaves tied with a thin string. This package represents their love for her. The bride then slowly unwraps the string around the package, being very careful because if the string breaks, the marriage will be off. As she unwraps it, she stops at certain intervals, when the groom’s family will give the bride’s family more money, before she can continue with the unwrapping. Once it is unwrapped, the wife begins to eat the nuts. Typically, the husband would join her on the mat and they would feed each other some nuts to symbolize their love.  At that point, they would be married.

However, since it is currently Ramadan and the groom was fasting, the bride (now a wife) just ate some of the nuts by herself. The wife then takes the remaining nuts and divides them into two parts. One half she hands to her mother, who distributes it to his family. The other half she hands to her father, who distributes it to his family members. I was given one nut and became “part of the marriage.” The nut was very bitter and turned orange where I bit into it. A prayer was then said, with everyone covering their faces with their hands at particular points. This was promptly followed by the new wife receiving a lecture from the elders about the importance of obeying her new husband.

The wife’s family then went into the house and selected two people, one man and one woman, to present to the husband’s family as the caretakers of the marriage. The caretakers are someone the couple can go to if an issue comes up while they are married that must be resolved by an outside party. In this case, they selected the wife’s mother and her elder brother. The husband’s family then gave the wife’s family money to show they approved of the choices. The husband then selected one man and one woman from his side of the family to act as caretakers of the marriage as well. The husband’s family then gave the wife’s family more money so that they could take her to her new home. They also gave the wife’s family food that had been prepared by the husband’s family earlier in the day. Everyone who wasn’t fasting took part in the feast. The imam then blessed the marriage and the ceremony was over. The families celebrated with dance and song for the rest of the day.

And thus life goes on in the village of Foindu; there are births and deaths, marriage and heartache. I feel very privileged to have had the chance to witness it, and occasionally be a part of it. As my time comes to a close in Foindu, I am finding a great appreciation for the people here; their culture, their resourcefulness, their openness, their willingness to help each other and look out for each other, the simplicity of their lives and relationships, and their appreciation for those in their community. I feel honored to have been able to have been a part of their lives for the last two months, and I know that the experiences I have had here and the people I’ve met will have a lasting impact on my life.

Thank you OVP,


Me and Iye Brima

An Intern’s Adventures in Sierra Leone: Part 6

After a brief interruption, Alissa continues to share her experiences in Sierra Leone. In this installment, she spends a late morning and afternoon trying her hand as a basket weaver, playing village games, trying not to worry about children’s cooking habits, catching fireflies, and falling asleep to Madonna.

Hi OVP Supporters! Here is part two of my “day in Pujehun.”

After reading for an hour or so, I decided to take a walk through the town to visit people who stayed behind for the day (mostly old women and children too young to go to school). I passed the blacksmith tent, a zinc covered structure with a wheel to stoke large flames, where men sit pounding metal taken from worn down signs. I then passed the town basket weaver, one of my favorite old men in the village who has a kind smile and rocks a bright pink shirt. He called me over and motioned for me to try weaving the basket, showing me how. It was surprisingly simple, and I found it calming. He said I did a good job, and didn’t immediately undo anything I had done, so I’m going to assume I did alright.

Sierra Leone Plymouth Partnership May 2007 TH photos 355Walking through the village, I pass tons of goats, chickens, roosters and ducks. There are also a few dogs and cats that roam freely. I think the birds are the worst. My fellow intern Aaron often remarks, “They are just rats with feathers.” They never leave you alone, especially during meals, constantly searching for a bite to eat, and trying to get into the pots and plates for rice. One chicken even ran through my shower the other morning, giving me quite a start. All the animals are missing some feathers or have scars and patches of fur missing. Some are even missing entire limbs (not exactly adorable). The birds are all marked with a piece of cloth tied on their wings, signaling what family owns each bird. As for wild animals, there aren’t many that come into the town, with the exception of lizards, which mostly appear at night. There is a corner of my room that I call “lizard haven.” Every night when I walk into the room, I hear a lizard dart into that corner.

Around 11, the children flood back into town on break from lunch, knocking down fresh mangoes from the trees that grow in one corner of the village, or cutting up fresh pineapple. They always give me a piece, which is absolutely delicious. All the fruit here is delicious, because it is given time to ripen, and grown truly organically. The pineapple is my favorite.  It is sweet, refreshing, and lacking the sour flavor I associate with pineapples in the U.S.

The village then quiets down for two hours as the children return to school. But by 2 o’clock school has let out and the children rush back into town, bringing their laughter and madness. Many change out of their uniforms and head into the bush to work on their families’ farms, but others stay behind. It isn’t long till they’re crowded around my porch, drawing me into their favorite games.

The children here are extremely resourceful, using everything at their disposal to make games to entertain themselves in this land without electricity. My favorite game is a mix between monkey in the middle and dodgeball. This game involves running back and forth between two throwers on each side, trying not to get hit with the ball and earning points if you catch the ball. This also frees any teammates from jail. The two teams switch rolls when all the people on one team are out. Often times, kids don’t have a ball to use, so they make them out of trash, wrapping pieces of plastic around an object and tying it until it reaches the desired width and weight. There is also another version of this game where everyone piles their shoes in the middle and runs back and forth between two throwers trying not to get hit, all while lining up the pairs of shoes, then picking them up pair by pair to get points.

Picture7There are also some smaller group games, such as a rock game. Players have a bunch of small stones which they spread out. The player then picks up one and throws it in the air, picks up another rock without moving any of the other stones, and catches the thrown stone before it hits the ground. As the game progresses, players move on to picking up two rocks with each throw, then three, then four. The children can play against each other by trying to be the first person to accomplish the feat.

There is also a game that can be played 1 vs. 1 or team versus team that involves putting a foot in on a clap command done in a specific rhythm. Points are gained if you put in the opposite foot from your opponent (if you put in the same foot twice in a row it becomes the other persons turn to try and get points). Children also just amuse themselves through playing with trash they find lying around, pushing circular iron wheels through town with a stick, or examining boxes they find lying around.

By 4:00, women begin returning from the bush in order to start cooking dinner, though some prefer to prepare it while in the bush. Most wear only bras, and many are topless, which here is completely accepted. However, women are prohibited culturally from wearing anything above their knees. It takes almost no time to become desensitized to this. If anything, it will be weird to wear shorts above the knee at home and to not see women letting their breasts hang out.

I move down a few houses to where our cook begins preparing her fire. The people here are experts when it comes to fire. They can create large flames out of what look like very old coals and control them expertly, knowing their temperature and what food needs what temperature/ fire size. I find it very impressive. The children also begin helping to cook, cutting up vegetables and cleaning them as well as cleaning the dishes. The children here do more chores than any westernized children at far younger ages. It is not uncommon for me to see a two year old expertly yield a large knife to peel an onion.  I always find it a bit unnerving to see these young children carry around knives, but they have grown up with this as the norm.

12. Fruit is harvestedKids here tend to play with dangerous objects or use them shockingly casually. As dinner is being prepared, some children (with ages ranging from 2-5) lit a fire using the basket weaver’s shavings and unneeded wood, and amused themselves with that (“Don’t play with fire!” My western mind shouted). There was also a surreal moment when I sat down for dinner once and a very little girl (2 years old at most) came up holding a stuffed bunny. Her brother came up next to her (a 4 year old), casually holding a machete (“Don’t play with sharp objects!” My western mind shouted). That’s just how it goes here in Sierra Leone, the land where 2 year olds expertly yield knives and machetes.  It is certainly not PC by American standards.

Finally dinner is ready, it is a meal comprised of rice on top of which some vegetable and palm oil mix is added (called “soup” here, but it is not a liquid), that occasionally has fish or beans mixed in for protein. Some meal options include potato leaf, “abi” stew, gran gran, cassava leaf or groundnut soup.

After dinner, I join my host father on the porch, where he plays the radio every evening while relaxing in his favorite chair in front of his small store. The nights here are my favorite time. There are no lights and a wide sky, so the night is filled with stars we never get to see in the U.S. Tonight I saw a light moving in the sky. My first thought was “Oh, a shooting star!” Then I realized it was just an airplane. Isn’t it nice that I am in a place where my first thought is shooting star instead of plane?

The moon then began to rise, tonight extremely bright (a full moon), climbing impossibly quickly into the night sky. Children begin running around, able to see very clearly because the moon is so bright. In the grasses in front of my house I can see a kind of firefly. One of the boys I have befriended named Kareem (he is my host father Lehai’s apprentice and one of the kids I read with at night ) said that in Mende they are called “toe-bi-bey” and explained that they are little stars. I told him that we call them fireflies in America and that little kids catch them and make lanterns out of them. He really liked that and went out and caught a few. They are much smaller than what we have in America, and faster, so it took a while to catch them (I helped). We then let them go. It was a really sweet moment and was comforting for me to have that similarity to home.

I head to bed around 9 p.m., but everyone stays up far later, listening to the radio which plays Nigerian music most nights, and sometimes has an American music night. This night I fall asleep to the sounds of Michael Jackson and Madonna. I don’t know how they have the energy they do to do all that they do every day, going to bed after 11 p.m. every evening and waking up before 6 a.m. every morning!

Goodnight everyone!

Till next time,


An Intern’s Adventures in Sierra Leone: Part 5

In this installment of our blog, our wonderful intern shares one of her mornings in Sierra Leone with us.


This week I thought it would be best to share a picture of a typical day of my life in the villages, and my random observations (though I must admit that this “day” is actually comprised of my activities and observations over several days). I’ve had to split this post into two parts, so this week you will only hear about my mornings.

Each morning I wake up at 5:40 to the sound of the mosque bells and the roosters’ crows. I start a short run by 6 a.m., just as the town is beginning to wake up. After I return and take a quick shower, I head to the village market. Passing through the town, I am constantly followed by cries of “Alice!” which is the name I go by here (Alissa is too foreign for them to pronounce correctly). They are always happy to see me (Pujehun can be a bit like “Cheers,” “where everybody knows your name/and they’re always glad you came), and are pleased when I say hello in the very limited Mende I’ve picked up.

A typical conversation:

Villager: Bissie (Hello)

Me: Bissie (Hello)

Villager: Kahunyena (How is your body today) (or Beeyaee (How was your sleep))?

Me: Kayan Gwoma (Good, praise be to god). O biya bey (How about you)?

Villager: Kayan Gwoma.

This is followed by more words in Mende, which results in a completely blank stare from me, which in turn results in them laughing good naturedly at me and my lack of knowledge before sending me on my way.

A woman carries tangerines.

A woman carries tangerines.

When I arrive at the market I am met with hellos from the women there, who now know me well, as they walk by carrying their wares on top of their heads before setting them down on the market tables. In Sierra Leone everyone (especially women and children) carry things on their heads, placing a rolled cloth on top of their heads to balance the object on. I’ve seen some insane things carried that way, from large buckets and basins of water (they don’t spill a drop) to egg cartons piled high with eggs (I think they were boiled) to a log carried from deep in the bush (this man had made his balancing circle out of leaves).

At the market, I debate between rice “pop”, a purple-ish sweet, warm liquid made of rice, lime and sugar that is eaten with chunks of bread (this is my personal favorite food in the market), fried sweet bread (most of the food you can buy here is fried), fried meat pie (a little bit of spicy meat and veggies — I’m trying to increase my spice tolerance), fried dough balls (served with a spicy sauce drizzled on top), cassava balls (served with the option of salt or a spicy broth) and more. I really enjoy trying different meals and getting to know these talkative, lively women.  After I have finished chowing down, I head back to my porch, stepping under the awning just as it begins to rain (it is rainy season right now and the weather is living up to the title).

Under the porch, my host siblings are crowded around a bowl filled with rice and leaf “soup”. This communal bowl is how all children in the village eat. I was told by a villager, “If they eat together they will love each other.” The children eat with their hands, taking a little of the soup and mixing it with the rice, forming it into small balls in their hands and eating it. Looking out at other porches, I see similar scenes playing out. Though this is not the case with my host siblings, I notice most children here have very large bellies (but no fat in other areas) with large bulges, far larger than typical belly buttons should be. When I posed this question to my mom, a physician back in America she sent back this reply:

“The children with the swollen bellies, from what you have told us, almost certainly have a form of malnutrition called kwashiorkor. This is characterized by adequate caloric intake, but a deficiency in protein. Children are especially vulnerable to this as their growing bodies require protein for growth. Because of the lack of protein, fluid leaks out of vessels into tissues and what are called “third spaces” in the body of which the space in the belly between the intestines and the belly wall is one. This fluid, called ascities, builds up causing the belly to swell and the belly button to protrude out. This fluid build-up can also happen with liver failure, heart failure and certain cancers which are the usual causes in the first world. Kwashiorkor is common in Africa as meat is just too expensive for many people to have adequate amounts of protein in their diet.”

A bowl of the little fish villagers eat.

A bowl of the little fish villagers eat.

It makes sense from what I’ve observed. Most people here can’t afford any protein, and when they can, its tiny fish that they catch nearby. Also, even if a family gets fish, it tends to be the adults who get to eat it as they have been working on the farms all day.

Time in the town slows due to the heavy rain. Everyone is trapped on their porch, wrapped up in sweatshirts, fleeces, and pants, shaking from cold when it is only 60 degrees outside. I, however, love when it rains here. It’s a comfortable temperature to me!

My host mother spends the morning braiding my sibling’s hair, as well as the hair of a few of her friends who brave the rain to get to our porch. The calls from the village women to braid my hair have been steadily increasing as the days have gone on, up to 2-3 times a day. I’m going to have to give in one of these days. They especially like my hair when it is wet (they keep touching it and asking to braid it). I am also told on a daily basis that my skin is very white, as if I needed a reminder!

Village women braid their friend's hair.

Village women braid their friend’s hair.

The women share a small handheld mirror, one of the few in the village, staring into it intensely. Most people here almost never see their face, myself included. I haven’t seen my face since I arrived in the villages, an odd but liberating experience. This is why both kids and adults love having their picture taken. Since they so rarely see themselves, a picture means all that much more to them, producing smiles, laughter and cries of joy.

One of my neighbors, a teenage girl, runs over with a few limes and mashed up green leaves in her hand. She showed me how she uses this as a kind of homemade nail polish. She lays out the mashed up leaves on a plastic bag and squeezes the limes onto it, mixing them up with her hands. She then puts a little of the leaf mix onto each of her toes, cutting another plastic bag into strips and tying the leaves to her toes using the plastic. She asked if I wanted to try it, but since I didn’t know how long they had to stay on I told her I would do it next time. She came back later in afternoon to show off her nails, which were now stained orange.

Eventually the rain lets up and the children change into their uniforms and head to school. The adults also pack up and most of them head off to their farms in the bush. After being surrounded by people all morning, I am left in relative tranquility; the only sounds are distant yells of children at the school. I get comfortable in my chair and open up my book to get in some reading while I can.

Part 2 is coming soon!

Till next time,





An Intern’s Adventures in Sierra Leone: Part 4

Alissa continues her exploration of life in rural Sierra Leone by spending the day at a Primary School.

Hello again OVP faithful!

After a week of my tutoring sessions, I had a chance to sit down in the classroom of the class 4 teacher at the primary school in Pujehun. The school starts at 8:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, with an hour break at 11 a.m. Classes end for the day at 2 p.m.  so students can leave to help their families with farm work. I found that all the lessons were in English in Class 4, even though I know from experience that most of the students don’t really understand English. All the students wear uniforms, the girls blue dresses, the boys a blue shirt and khakis, but many of the children’s uniforms are clearly hand-me-downs from older siblings.

Students stand in class lines.

Students stand in class lines.

The day started with students lining up in class lines, singing the school song and listening to morning announcements (this day the main announcement was a warning of the impending examinations, which will determine who is allowed to move up to the next class). The students then filed into classrooms where they sit three to a bench with short tables in front of them; though in my classroom there are not enough benches for everyone. Three students sit on the desks or in broken chairs.

The teacher started the day with English reading. However, there were only three copies of the book for the entire class, so 10-13 kids had to crowd around 1 book.  The teacher then read sentences aloud and had the groups repeat them.  However, many students did not have the chance to look at the book to follow along because they couldn’t see, while others struggled to read upside down. It was frustrating, especially because the teacher was clearly trying to do his best with what he had, taking time to ask the class questions about the reading and explain words, quizzing the kids on what word was which, and having them spell them aloud in order to keep them following along. However, it was clear that most of the students were just learning through memorization. This explained a lot of my struggles with my evening tutoring kids, who often shouted out words that start with the same letter as the word on the page, but are unrelated. They had simply learned by memorization. Sounding words out and thinking critically about letters is not an option when you can barely see the book you are supposed to be reading.

After reading, the teacher went to the black board to start a math lesson, teaching simple addition and subtraction. The students

Older students add fractions.

Older students add fractions.

seemed to have an easier time with this, though many needed to use their fingers to count or draw and take away/add lines and count them to solve the problems. When the children knew the answers they would raise their hands, occasionally snapping or shouting out yes enthusiastically to try and get the teacher to call on them. When called upon, they stood up to answer the questions. Anytime a very tough question was asked and many students got the answer wrong, a correct answer warranted four claps from the class. However, I noticed many students weren’t writing anything down. It became clear that they didn’t have notebooks or even paper to write on (many wrote on scraps of paper if they wrote on anything at all). When the teacher put problems on the board that he said would be due tomorrow, many students ran out of the room, returning a few minutes later to write the questions down.

The teacher explained to me that it takes a long time for anything to get written down because most students don’t have paper or pens, and when the students ran out of the room they were getting pens from friends or siblings in other classes. The students have to share these materials because their families can’t afford them. It was also clear that most of the workbooks were old, torn, stained and drawn on hand-me-downs, which was an additional challenge in the classroom, and another learning material lacking at the school. The class then broke for lunch.

After eating, I was literally thrown into teaching without any guidance. The teacher had to leave for a meeting and thrust a piece of chalk in my hand. I had just become a substitute teacher. The absence of teachers was worse for other classes, forcing the headmaster to walk between three classrooms, trying to control students. He teaches Class 2. The teachers for Class 1 and 3 also had to attend the meeting, but they didn’t have anyone to replace them.

I decided to build on what the students were being taught before. I started with addition and subtraction, showing the students how to use columns to keep everything straight, which actually went very well. I should mention that these children are the equivalent of 4th graders, and I was shocked they didn’t know addition/subtraction.  I normally think of math as fairly universal, but the students were learning lessons I did in first grade. I had the children come to the board to solve problems, since they didn’t have spare materials to use.

Older students sit in their classroom.

Older students sit in their classroom.

It got much harder when I tried to teach English using the only 3 books. I tried to have each of the groups read a sentence out loud, but that only kept one group occupied at a time, and most kids still couldn’t see the book, much less read it. It really gave me an appreciation of what the students/teachers here mean when they complain about a lack of materials. In America, we don’t really appreciate having pens and papers and books to read (any books at all). It’s no wonder they need help reading on my porch every night. It’s probably some of the most individual attention they get when it comes to their schooling.

I have found that students here can recite entire books and lessons from a day of schooling. Rather than teaching students to think critically and problem solve, schools here run by a memorization method. This kind of learning is challenging for tutors to break students of, and makes it much harder for individuals to find new ways to solve problems, since they are not given tools to figure out difficult problems on their own. Though this is clearly not beneficial, my experiences at the school and on my porch have given me a better understanding of why it happens. In rural communities where students don’t have access to resources, classes are too large for individual attention, and teachers aren’t paid by the government so they need to go to their farms every afternoon, it seems inevitable that children are forced to learn through memorization. There just isn’t enough time or resources to teach them any other way.

The inevitability of their situation, and the lack of any easy or immediate fix, is a serious challenge. I believe in these kids, and have now spent many nights with them. I have seen their thirst, their drive, their creativity, and their resourcefulness. All I can do is have faith that these kids are the future and that as education becomes more valued in these rural communities, change will come.

Till next time,