Fatmata first heard of Ebola from a lesson at school. The whole class of 6 year olds was told of a sickness that made you so weak you could not eat or drink, and that it was creeping through Sierra Leone. It was spread through touching and kissing, especially after somebody died, when their body was being prepared to help their spirit move on.
“People cannot touch each other. You mustn’t touch your friends; you mustn’t touch your family.” she was told.
It wasn’t until the middle of November that she saw Ebola first hand. Her eldest brother, Mohammed, worked as a trader, selling phone cards and trading currency at the busy junction near their home. With Mohammed weak and aching, his mother dialed the emergency 117 number that was advertised on the radio to call if someone was sick.
An ambulance arrived and gowned men took Mohammed away. The house was sealed and a man with a gun stood at the door. At first she did not mind as food was sent to the house everyday so she was never hungry, but she was bored and unable to leave. Her mother told her it would be like this for 3 weeks.
Fatmata is one of 3 children who lived in the house with extended family. In all there is 13 in the house spanning 3 generations. Their house consists of 2 large rooms with a dirt floor. There is no plumbing or sanitation and toileting is done in a bucket and disposed of outside. They share washing and kitchen facilities on the street with several families who live nearby.
But now there was no sharing. There was no play and no school. Fatmata sat at home, listening to classes on the radio, reading stories with her grandparents, and playing with her dolls, counting the days until the man at the gate would leave and allow her to go outside again.
A week later her grandparents became unwell. First her grandmother, then the next day her grandfather started to vomit and use the toilet frequently. Fatmata sat in the other room as she heard the ambulance arrive and saw the same gowned men enter and lift her grandpa up off the floor. They steadied him as he walked and helped him into the back of the ambulance. Then she heard the door shut and the engine chug into life.
People started to disappear from the house. Her father fell sick 3 days after her grandparents, then her aunt, then her other aunt and her uncle on the same day. When, 3 weeks after Mohammed had left, the army man wasn’t at the door one morning, no-one really noticed. No-one in the street objected or told the authorities of their mistake. Her brother left the house the following day without calling the 117 number so as not to lead the quarantine officials to the house again. He knew he had to go to the Ebola Centre and he would find his own way there. 4 days ago her mother did the same.
This morning Fatmata felt unwell. She vomited the breakfast that her aunt prepared for her and told her aunt she felt tired and wanted to sleep again. Rather than allowing her to rest, the aunt put on a pair of gloves and brought her to the car.
They walked hand in hand past the plastic orange fence at the outside of the hospital. Her aunt told her that this is where her grandmother was, but she would be in another part of the hospital. She shouted over the low fences at 2 men standing a few metres away. They wore beak-shaped masks, blue gloves and goggles, and didn’t touch anyone else. One asked questions she didn’t understand, then the other asked a question in Creole. She heard her name spoken, then saw the look on the men’s faces when they heard her address
Her aunt walked away towards a tent behind her, and Fatmata was told to walk forward towards the men and stand facing sideways whilst a white plastic gun was pointed at the side of her head. It beeped and she was told to sit down again.
Then the gowned men appeared. She wondered if they knew where Mohammed and the others were. As they beckoned her towards them she heard her aunt in the tent behind her call her name. She looked back and reached out her hand, but couldn’t see anyone, so she turned to face the strange looking figures, and anxiously walked in.