Every Christmas and New Year, Sierra Leoneans sing a Krio song to celebrate the season:
Happy Christmas; I didn't die
Thank God for my life
Happy New Year; I didn't die
Thank God for my life
This song, which has been sung for generations, has now taken on a new significance. This Christmas, Sierra Leoneans hold their loved ones a little closer, pray a little longer. Thousands who welcomed the last New Year with us did not live to see Christmas, their lives cut short by Ebola.
Aminata Kargbo is one person who very nearly did not see Christmas. As I watched her prance around in her short shorts, seasoning chicken and chattering animatedly, I was struck by the magnitude of the disaster that had been averted; that this girl with such a warm, outgoing personality, so full of life, nearly passed on less than a month ago.
At 23 years old, she lives on her own in a small one-bedroom apartment. Her grandmother, who had raised her since she was three months old, died a year ago, and both her parents are also deceased. Aminata was once a student at the Freetown Secondary School for girls, but her education came to a halt when her father died in 2006. Her dreams of going to college and getting a job were put on hold; instead, she started competing in beauty pageants to save money to pay for her school fees.
She finally raised enough money to enroll at the Royal International High School, where she was due to take her final exams before college. Her exam fees had already been paid when the Ebola outbreak occurred, once again putting her education on hold.
Unable to attend school or pursue her previous vocation as a beauty queen due to the ban on public gatherings, she found someone to provide for her needs. Her boyfriend then was abusive, and took advantage of her because she depended solely on him for her livelihood. She decided to enroll in an IT school to become computer literate; however, she never got round to submitting her already-complete application form.
One fateful Friday she received a call telling her that her aunt who lived on the other side of town was seriously sick; she went straight to the house without delay. Her aunt had been diagnosed with malaria and typhoid at the hospital. What Aminata didn't know then was that the lady had recently lost her husband to Ebola; he had participated in the funeral of an Ebola victim, and said nothing to his family when he returned home, infecting his wife before he died.
Aminata stayed overnight, cleaning vomit, taking her aunt to the bathroom, laying her down, sitting her up, feeding her and changing her clothes. The next morning her mother called, warning her not to touch her aunt, but it was too late. Aminata vehemently denied that she had not touched the sick lady, and her mother was appeased.
Her aunt died that morning, while drinking Oral Rehydration Salts (ORS). Unable to accept the abrupt demise of her loved one, Aminata put her ear to the chest of the deceased to verify that there really was no life in the body. Once everyone was convinced that the dearly beloved had departed, the extended family was quickly convened, and Aminata's 8-months-pregnant mother also came to pay her respects. On seeing her mother, Aminata fell into her arms and gave her a tight embrace.
'I vomited until there was nothing left'
Seven days later, she started to feel sick. Her temperature went up, she started sweating profusely and became very irritable; she threw up everything she ate, and suffered from insomnia. It was like she had pins in her body; she couldn't lie down, or sit, or stand. It was painful.
"I suffered; I cried all night" Aminata recalls. "I vomited until there was nothing left in my stomach; but I was lucky, because I didn't have diarrhea." Because she lived alone and her neighbors had stopped seeing her, they assumed she was dead. They called out to her, and she answered that she was still living. By then she was vomiting blood, her eyes had turned red and her skin had blackened to charcoal.
On 15 November the Red Cross was called, and under the watchful gaze of the large crowd that had gathered, she was taken to the hospital, where she tested positive for Ebola. The next day, her pregnant mother died of Ebola. "My mother died because I touched her," she says, regretfully.
Aminata's experience in the hospital was a blur of drips and medication, but she distinctly remembers that the doctors were very nice. "They spoke encouraging things to us, cajoled us to eat."
Aminata responded to treatment, and on 29 November, was discharged, against all the odds. A combination of sheer will power, tender care and a stroke of luck enabled her to survive the deadly disease. "I went with the faith and courage that I will be healed. I said to myself I did not come here with joy, but I will leave with joy." She had not suffered from the diarrhea characteristic to Ebola; as a result she was still strong enough to physically walk to the ambulance.
The odds of walking out of a treatment center alive are greater for those who are able to walk in, as opposed to being carried. Aminata faced some stigmatisation and intense loneliness when she was discharged; she tried to give her testimony at a local church, but was turned away. Luckily a few kind people took her under their wing.
Aminata has a host of younger siblings to care for now that their parents are dead. She is determined to continue her education, to give her and her younger ones a better quality of life. She also wants to dedicate her life to taking care of orphans. "Right now I'm happy, and I thank God for my life," she says.
Aminata lost eight members of her family, but for her, being able to season chicken on Christmas day is more than enough to be thankful for.
The article was kindly facilitated by My African Passport, a consultancy that specialises in developing and supporting African businesses, projects and events. Visit the MAP website for more info.