A bittersweet end to Ebola

"On the spot where it's rumoured African American slaves threw off their shackles to found their own country, the people of Freetown had gathered on this sweltering November night to relinquish themselves from another oppressor."

As the final hours drew near, the tension began to slip away. Chatter and laughter bubbled up from the crowd gathered around the Cotton Tree, Freetown’s historic landmark. The setting was perfect.

On the spot where it's rumoured African American slaves threw off their shackles to found their own country, the people of Freetown had gathered on this sweltering November night to relinquish themselves from another oppressor.

Freetown celebrates and reflects as #Ebola comes to an end in #SierraLeone

— Nick Owen (@nickoowen) November 6, 2015

I’d been in the country for just over a week, helping the busy MSF teams deal with journalists and camera crews who had flocked to Sierra Leone. As well as interviewing politicians and survivors of the virus, many also wanted to hear about MSF’s response to the outbreak and our plans for the future in the country.  

We’ve been working in Sierra Leone for over 20 years; we were there through the country’s disastrous decade-long civil war and from the moment Ebola crossed over the border from neighbouring Guinea in May last year.

Today, as our Ebola centres close down, our attention is turned towards the survivors of the disease – a stigmatised group of around 4,000 people in Sierra Leone.

Many are still, in some way, battling Ebola. Some survivors have to cope with joint pains, chronic fatigue, hearing difficulties and eye complications; complications which could lead to blindness without prompt access to specialised care.

The experience of being infected with Ebola and spending time in an Ebola management centre, as well as all the fear surrounding the virus, can lead to severe depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and mental health problems, including persistent nightmares and flashbacks.

And now, after their unimaginable ordeals – seeing loved ones slip away without saying goodbye, being holed up for weeks in tents surrounded by people wearing terrifying ‘space suits’ – some are being denied access to healthcare simply because they bravely managed to beat the disease.

As we’ve seen with other infectious diseases like HIV, stigma can be just as damaging as the virus itself.

To counter this, MSF is running survivor clinics in Freetown and outreach teams in the provinces to make sure these survivors are getting the free healthcare they so deserve.  

Anyway, back to the Cotton Tree.

As the final dancers following the military brass band wended their way through the crowd, it surprised me that more people were not doing the same. Surely, this was a time to celebrate?  

Names of #SierraLeone health care workers who died in the fight against #Ebola being called out. Very sombre. — Umaru Fofana (@UmaruFofana) November 6, 2015

Around 10 pm, the speeches on the makeshift stage began and it became very clear, very quickly, that this wasn’t a time for expressions of jubilation.

This gathering wasn’t for those who had made their way through the horror, but for those that hadn’t. It was for the 221 Sierra Leonean healthcare workers who had died trying to bring their countrymen and women back from the brink, five of whom worked with MSF.

It was a time for reflection and the deepest expressions of gratitude possible. It would make the events of the following evening all the more shocking and incomprehensible.  

Saturday, 7 November

Waking up to zero #Ebola in #SierraLeone. It's official, the outbreak is over. — Nick Owen (@nickoowen) November 7, 2015

Waking up on the 7th of November felt different to the preceding days. The muezzin call somehow sounded more lyrical, the laughter of children somehow more audible. I spent the day wandering through Freetown, through the thronging markets and down to Lumley Beach in the hope of hearing Freetowners' thoughts on the news that Sierra Leone was finally free of Ebola.

I met Muhammad and John, two young brothers who were orphaned by Ebola. They had lost their father prior to the outbreak but their mother died last year from the virus.

They now live with their grandmother, but she has little money for food and certainly none for school.

They told me that they were glad that the disease that had taken their mother from them was finally gone, but they were unsure of the country that was left to them.   

Brothers Muhammed & John were orphaned by #Ebola. They're elated the outbreak is over but worried about the future. — Nick Owen (@nickoowen) November 7, 2015

Later that day, MSF’s teams across Freetown gathered at one of the MSF offices for a special ceremony. We were there to remember those we had lost over the last 17 months, our patients, our five Sierra Leonean colleagues and those that had lost family members.

Speeches were given and prayers were made – both Christian and Muslim, the words of which every Sierra Leonean member of staff knew, irrespective of their own religion. And then the dancing began.

As soon as Jacob, one of the MSF head of missions, reminded everyone that after almost a year-and-a-half we were now allowed to shake each other’s hands, to hug each other, and to just be ourselves, the atmosphere changed completely.

The MSF team celebrate the end of Ebola at MSF Spain's office in Freetown.Photo: Nick Owen/MSF

In an instant, everyone fell upon embracing the person next to them. With the broadest smiles, hands were grabbed, backs were patted, and cheeks were kissed. From the first beat emanating from the stereo, the dancing was relentless for two blissful hours.

With the rare occurrence of having all the MSF teams in one place, it seemed only right that a bit of competition should be introduced into the evening and an intersectional MSF dance-off ensued.

It was agreed that everyone was as good as each other, but I have to say the Spanish team were pretty impressive.

The party's progressed to an inter-MSF dance off. Feeling very lucky to be here at this incredible moment #zeroebola — Nick Owen (@nickoowen) November 7, 2015

When the party ended, it seemed as though the MSF Salone team could finally put the hell of Ebola behind them. This was now a time to rebuild, to refocus, and to get back to normality.

But, not 15 minutes later, their world was turned on its head once again.

As the MSF Land Cruisers began the journeys to shuttle our teams home, one of the vehicles stopped at the request of Musa, an MSF driver himself, who needed to quickly grab some credit for his phone before returning to his family.

He stepped out of the Land Cruiser and began to cross the road after a car courteously stopped, waiting for him to pass. But the taxi behind the car was not so considerate. Speeding around the waiting vehicle the taxi hit Musa, critically injuring him. He died later that night in Freetown’s Emergency hospital.  

I had the pleasure of meeting Musa a few nights before. He told me his remarkable story, of how he had worked with MSF for 18 years, through the civil war – when he piloted a supply boat – to becoming MSF’s lead driver in Freetown during the Ebola outbreak.

He told me how proud he was of his four children, one of whom had chosen to follow in his father’s footsteps working with an international NGO.

Despite it being clear that Musa was a good man, I can’t pay him a fitting tribute from that one chance encounter. So, for the purpose of this post, I asked Jose Hulsenbek, an MSF head of mission in Sierra Leone who had worked closely with Musa for years. This is what she had to say:

“Musa Kabia was a friendly and wonderful colleague, always a smile, always ready to help. A man with a big heart and an undying devotion to his children, who I had the pleasure to meet at one of our Christmas parties in Freetown several years ago. 

“I also remember Musa as a sensitive man, very careful with the patients he transported, helping them in and out of the car, buying biscuits along the way to share with everyone, playing with the children. A man who was not afraid to share his emotions, as was clear when we attended a funeral of a colleague who had died of Lassa fever, with both of us crying during the ceremony. 

“His constant thoughts for the need of others, he truly believed what the organisation was about, and he was always the person in meetings to remind his colleagues about MSF’s values. We have lost a devoted member of the MSF family.    

“I cannot imagine what this loss means for his family in so many ways, my heart goes out to them, and to all the MSFers who have had the pleasure to know this wonderful man. I am sad knowing that he will not be in Freetown anymore when I return.”

Musa was buried 48-hours later on a hill above Freetown. His was the first post-Ebola burial in the capital.

[If you would like to leave a message of condolence for Musa's family, you can do so in the comments section below]

Musa's obituary notice on the gate of MSF's office in Freetown.Photo: Nick Owen