When Meminatu Sesay began to feel sick one day in September 2014, no one told her sister Fatmata to hold her as she cried, or to wipe the sweat from her flushed face. No one asked Fatmata to clean up after her sister, to bring her water, or to crack jokes to pass the overheated afternoons in her sister’s sweltering tin house.
No one told her to do these things because no one needed to: Meminatu was Fatmata’s sister, and it didn’t matter what the billboards or radio PSAs told her about Ebola, she wasn’t going to leave her alone.
It had been the same for Meminatu, who had cared for the girls’ aunt, a nurse. And when Fatmata felt symptoms a few days later, their mother hovered above her: praying, soothing, until she fell ill, too.
When the Ebola virus struck Sierra Leone and neighboring Guinea and Liberia beginning in early 2014, it killed ferociously – and the majority of both its victims and survivors were women.
Ebola struck Sierra Leone’s women in large part because they refused to turn away from their loved ones, says Tina Davies, formerly the coordinator for Ebola survivors at Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs.
“More women were affected than men based on women’s role in the community as caregivers,” she says. And women continue to play that role today, supporting children orphaned by Ebola and drawing on one another's strength to keep moving ahead. Although statistics are inexact, data from the Ministry of Social welfare suggests nearly 60 percent of the country’s approximately 4,000 Ebola survivors are women.
For many of them, surviving has been a burden more complex than simply recovering their physical health.
'How I know women are so strong'
Often, surviving has meant a radical restructuring of families. Like many female survivors, Meminatu lost her husband to the disease – but not because he died. In the grief of watching his own mother fall ill and pass away, he raged against his wife, kicking her out.
“He says I caused his mother to die because I was the first to get sick in the family,” she says, her voice wobbling. He banished her from the house, so she went to stay with her sister, mother, and cousins in a small home cluttered with family photographs and bright swatches of fabric. She has not seen her husband since.
“We’re all women in this family now, except for our brother,” Fatmata says. “I see how many women survived this disease – it’s how I know women are so strong.”
For other female survivors, losing spouses or parents thrust them into the role of primary breadwinner overnight. And Ms. Davies says because of Ebola’s tendency to spread within the same close-knit extended families, many female survivors found themselves becoming foster mothers for the children of relatives killed by the disease.
“It’s double compounding. They have their own children they’re looking after, their own families, and then these orphans as well,” Ms. Davies says.
For Lilian Moijeh, a close-knight female-headed family is what she lost. For months after her mother, grandmother, and sister died, she lay awake wondering if, in their last moments, she had kept them in her thoughts and prayers enough.
“For women, we’re always thinking about our families, but there was no room to think of anyone else in the treatment center,” she says. “You just have to think of surviving.”
Now, when she reflects on the towering, powerful characters who gifted her with a fierce independent streak and a belief that her work and life were no less valuable than those of the men around her, she’s grateful. She knows they would be proud that she is now back in high school, finishing the final year that was interrupted by Ebola. Their memory motivates her to plot a way to go to secretarial school next year, too.
The same goes for Geraldine Lamin. She was 16 the day nearly two years ago that she wrapped her arms around her mother’s waist and held onto her shaking body as a motorcycle bounced down their rutted dirt road toward the local hospital. Ms. Lamin’s mother didn’t come back, nor did her father.
Now 18, Lamin thinks often of her mother’s insistence that she was no different from her older brother. She would be educated, have a career. This was not negotiable.
But it has not been simple. Once middle class, the three Lamin children now scrape by on the money they earn selling cold sachets of water to their neighbors. It’s about 50,000 Leones ($8.50) per month. Like the Sesays, Lamin and her siblings now rely on a largely female network of support – in their case from their neighbors and church community.
“The women in our church, they [became] like mothers to us, they gave us someone to confide in,” Lamin says.
Lamin is finishing her final year of high school now, and says she is determined to keep studying and become a lawyer, just as she always promised her mother she would.
“She used to always tell me, you’re stronger than you think,” she says.
These days, she has occasion to believe it.
Ryan Lenora Brown’s reporting in Sierra Leone was supported by the International Reporting Project.