It took James Keppa less than five minutes to instigate the greatest betrayal of his life.
In fact, it took only as long as it took him to utter these words: We need an ambulance. And then, quietly, the deed was done.
The next day, a Land Rover fitted with flashing blue and red lights jolted into Kpondu, Mr. Keppa’s village. Its medics knocked on the door of the local chief, Nyuma Tommy, to inform him that they had come to take his son to an Ebola treatment center.
“At that time, most people weren’t coming back from the treatment centers – they went there to die,” Mr. Tommy says. “We knew letting him go was saying goodbye.”
Sure enough, his son never returned, and at first, his father raged: at God, at the disease, and at the man – a friend – who had called for his son to be taken away.
“He was bitter, of course he was,” says Keppa, who was the village’s appointed “contact tracer,” a community health worker assigned to keep watch over suspected cases of Ebola and map out all those who had come in contact with them. “But this was our protocol – when someone shows those symptoms, the vomiting and the fever and the diarrhea, you call for the ambulance. It gives them the best chance of survival.”
Sierra Leone, one of the world's poorest countries, was startlingly unprepared for the Ebola outbreak that tore through the country last year. It had only 120 doctors for a population of 6 million people, and life expectancy hovered below 50 years. The Rhode Island-sized district where the disease first struck lacked both electricity and paved roads.
But the country is rich in a resource that may best promote recovery from an epidemic that killed nearly 4,000 people and turned whole communities against one another: forgiveness.
“It begins with honest conversation,” says Keppa. “I wanted him to know that by isolating his son, we prevented others from getting sick here. He died, but that was the last case we had in this village.”
Just over a year after their ordeal, Tommy and Keppa stand side by side as they recount the story, not betraying even a flicker of the hurt and suspicion that both men say nearly broke them after the younger Tommy’s death.
A whole lot of conversation
The men's reconciliation did not come easily. It was a bruising negotiation that sprawled across nearly a year of conversations, many of them facilitated by a local NGO called Fambul Tok, which has promoted community rebuilding in eastern Sierra Leone since the decade-long civil war that ended in 2002.
“We’ve been trying to help people speak to each other about their suffering,” says Daniel Maekundu, secretary for the local Fambul Tok branch. “This sickness brought a lot of conflicts, a lot of grudges, so now we need to make sure there are a lot of conversations.”
Indeed, in the tight-knit West African communities at the heart of the Ebola epidemic, the disease’s particular cruelty was that it thrived on their intimacy. Those most likely to contract the virus were those who cared for the sick and buried the dead. Those who ran from the disease ran from their wives and children, their parents, friends, and neighbors.
“This is a disease you’ll never get from your enemies — you only get Ebola from the ones you love,” says John Caulker, Fambul Tok’s executive director. “During the [civil] war, you knew your enemies because they came with guns. But with this war — against Ebola, I mean — the ones you came to fear the most were your loved ones.”
Still, how Mr. Caulker has responded to this war's threat was deeply shaped by the aftermath of that grueling civil conflict, which killed more than 50,000 people and displaced upwards of 1 million.
Mr. Caulker recalls watching at the time as what felt like the entire world descended in a flurry of aid pledges and development projects, promising schools and clinics, wells and seeds, roads and markets and tractors.
“There were white elephant projects everywhere — dozens, hundreds,” he says. “I saw a huge amount of wasted resources simply because no one had bothered to ask local people, 'is this what you really want?' ”
He watched, too, as efforts to punish the war’s most notorious criminals dragged on at the UN Special Court in Freetown, their promises of justice and reconciliation barely skimming the surface of the need of an entire country betrayed by itself.
So Caulker set about a more radical project — asking members of communities to stand face to face and find a way forward, without judges or video cameras or global media scrutiny. In reconciliation “bonfires” held in dozens of villages, Fambul Tok — whose name means “Family Talk” in the local Krio language — put killers in front of the relatives of those they killed. Rapists listened to their victims shakily recount their assaults. Former child soldiers broke down weeping as they explained the torturous path that had led them to torch their own homes with their families inside. Perpetrators asked for forgiveness and pledged material support to their victims.
“It was like we were bringing all our grievances to the fire and then letting them burn,” says Mariatu Koroma, a community activist.
The process stretched across years. Some ties would never be restored and some traumas never forgiven, Ms. Koroma says, but there was progress. “We were moving on with our lives.”
Then, quite suddenly, people began to get sick.
The Ebola outbreak that charged across West Africa last year is thought to have begun in a village in southern Guinea in December 2013. From there, it quickly hopped borders, showing up in Liberia in March 2014 and Sierra Leone in May, before spreading outward to Senegal, Nigeria, and even the United States.
Both Ebola and the terror it inspired are things Francis Korfeh knows well. In August, the motorbike parts salesman in the northeastern town of Koindu (see map here) went to visit his sick brother, and days later, woke up with a scalding fever. His wife also fell sick. Soon, they were both in the back of an ambulance jolting toward the nearest treatment center in the town of Kailahun — more than an hour away over roads that are little more than a jumble of sharp rocks cutting through the forest.
“We got very sick in that ambulance. I was tormented by the pain,” he says. “But mostly I was tormented by my wife’s pain. I’ll never forget it.... I could do nothing for her.”
Soon after, his wife died, then one of his sons. But that was not the end of the family’s trauma.
“When I came home, people feared me,” he says. For months, he mourned alone, shunned by family and friends too terrified that they would catch the disease to come and pay their sympathies.
To dull the blow, Mr. Korfeh says, he threw himself into another endeavor — running a local survivors group. They met weekly, and began to advocate for survivors who said they had been threatened or discriminated against, taking many of their cases to local authorities. Slowly, he says, many of those who had turned away from him began to approach him and apologize.
“Things are getting better for us now,” he says, his face still coiled in grief. “I don’t blame people for the way they acted toward me then. It was a difficult time and everyone was very afraid. I forgive it.”
Today, billboards plastered throughout major cities and towns implore Sierra Leoneans to regard survivors and first responders as heroes rather than pariahs, and local artists — including the immensely popular comedian Sara de Great and playwright Charlie Haffner — are using their popular appeal to urge reconciliation through feature films and radio dramas.
But even as local efforts forge ahead, many here say international aid groups are unintentionally sowing divides.
“When you go to a village you see Ebola survivors and orphans are being brought aid, while all around them people are starving,” says Fatim Sesay, head of a women’s cooperative outside Koindu that is supported by Fambul Tok. “This is causing huge problems because if you come in and give me a big bag of rice but don’t give one to my brother, then our family is still hungry.”
Aid groups, Caulker says, run the risk of breaking the very social ties communities should be leaning on to recover.
“I’ll say it as it is: some international organizations are promoting stigmatization — not willingly but because of their approach,” he says. “If an Ebola widow wakes up in the middle of the night, it will be her neighbors she runs to, not the aid organization that comes through once a week or once a month. If you only give aid to her, you may just break those bonds, instead of encouraging solidarity with those who have suffered.”