On Monday 7th November, Sierra Leoneans will stand silent for three minutes. They will be commemorating the first anniversary of the declaration of the end of Ebola in Sierra Leone.
In it’s extreme simplicity, those three minutes will nevertheless create the space for a moment of reflection and introspection that will be both collective and uniquely personal to each participant. One group, for whom the commemoration will be particularly poignant, but who undoubtedly won’t manage to remain silent are the 50 tiny children who lost their parents during the Ebola outbreak and are now being cared for by SLWT, a Sierra Leonean run charity.
SLWT (formerly the Sierra Leone War Trust) was set up by a group of UK-based Sierra Leoneans, in response to atrocities committed against children during the country's 10-year civil war. With the end of the war in 2004, the charity shifted its focus to disadvantaged children. Seventeen years on and SLWT is now providing financial, educational and nutritional support to 50 children, five years and under, who were orphaned as a result of the Ebola crisis.
The children live with caregivers (older siblings, aunts and uncles, grandmothers, even family friends). Each of them has a unique story but all are in desperate need of help. Little Osman, his brother Ishmael and sisters Haja and Mariama, are now looked after by Fatmata Kamara, their late father's sister. Fatmata also lost her husband to Ebola and has four children of her own.
Mariama Macauley lost her parents and is now cared for by her older sister Doris who is only 19 years old. Mamadari Turay and her cousins Alima and Mariama lost their parents and now live with their Aunt Mabinty. Mabinity was married and has three children of her own, but her husband took their children and left when she decided to take in her orphaned nieces
At the height of the epidemic and in its immediate aftermath, children like these dominated media coverage and international charitable appeals. Twelve months later and the legacies of the Ebola epidemic, however young and vulnerable, don’t command the same urgency and involvement as the epidemic itself did.
Charitable giving is a complicated process. No one needs to explain that to Sierra Leonean born Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr OBE. SLWT has raised over one million dollars in its 17 years of existence, and as the chair and co-founder of the charity, Yvonne knows how hard that has been. “We organise an annual 5km run in the UK, hold jazz nights, appear in the media, and organise art exhibitions,” she says. “We then work with existing organisations here so we keep overheads to the minimum and as much as possible goes to the beneficiaries.”
On Sunday 6th November, the day before the end of Ebola commemoration, she is launching SLWT’s Hope for Tomorrow appeal with a 5K run. The appeal is to raise funds to provide long-term support for the 50 orphaned children.
SLWT was involved in the Ebola response from the start. Ebola is spread through contact with bodily fluids and, at the beginning of the outbreak, protective equipment was in short-supply. “We provided personal protective equipment to doctors and hand-washing facilities to densely populated urban communities,” Yvonne explains. “We also worked with the local “okada riders” – who operate motorbike taxis – and supplied them with plastic raincoats – a really simple solution to protect them and their passengers from infection.”
When the UK Government began to recruit NHS Healthcare workers to join the fight in Sierra Leone, SLWT organised a major media campaign, roadshows across the country and delivered cultural awareness training to the NHS volunteers prior to their deployment.
Nevertheless, Yvonne felt she could be a sight more useful in Sierra Leone than 7,000km away, and saying a temporary goodbye to her husband and children, hopped on a plane to Sierra Leone. Once there, she took on the role as Director of Planning with the National Ebola Response Centre in Sierra Leone, bringing the skills she had honed at the top of the private sector into what was then an uncoordinated and inefficient humanitarian relief effort. She is now team leader for the President’s Recovery Priorities – Sierra Leone’s socio-economic recovery effort.
When, on 22nd April this year, she received an OBE from the Duke of Cambridge for her contributions to bring the disease to an end, there would have been no one to say it wasn’t thoroughly well deserved.
As a very small charity staffed and run entirely by volunteers, SLWT’s sustained 17-year record of delivery in Sierra Leone is commendable by any yardstick; but what makes it truly remarkable is that it is entirely diasporan (people who have ties to some part of Africa through birth or family, but who don’t live there).
I am also a diasporan, and not so long ago, Dotun Adebayo, BBC radio presenter, friend and fellow disasporan asked me why I chose to slog it out in Sierra Leone when my skills’ set would surely stand me in equal if not better stead in the UK.
His ties are to Nigeria. He was born there, speaks his language - Igbo - ish and has a large and close-knit family in the country. My relationship with Sierra Leone, is not as auspicious. I wasn’t born or educated there. My Sierra Leonean father was executed when I was a child by the then government and my mother is Scottish. And yet, it was me, with my looser ties who felt more bound. I said it was a curious but compelling mix of economics, emotion and obligation.
Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr explains it infinitely better when she says of herself: “For as long as I can remember my heart has been for Sierra Leone. I don’t know why, but for some reason I’ve always had Sierra Leone in my heart.”