They survived Ebola. Now, they’re helping others do the same.

Why We Wrote This

Congo’s conflicts have left trust toward outsiders in short supply. Meanwhile, Ebola turns caring for loved ones into a risk. Yet survivors can provide both trust and touch – gifts that can deepen their own healing. 

Kudra Maliro
Regina Kavira Mbangamuke, who now works at the Ebola treatment center in Beni, Congo, where she was once a patient, often tells those she cares for, “I had this horrible thing too and look at me now. You can't give up.”

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Six weeks after Safi Kavugho Musayi was discharged from an Ebola treatment center, she received a call from a doctor. Did she want to come back, he asked, to work as a nursing assistant?

Not really, she thought. She had survived the disease, but her daughter, Charity, had not. But the salary was more money than she’d ever seen selling used clothes in a local market. And anyway, if she stayed home, she worried the darkness might swallow her whole.

Like most of the 1,000 people who have survived this outbreak in the eastern Congo, Ms. Musayi’s survival is interlaced with profound loss. But survivors, who are considered likely immune, also have an unusual ability. They don’t need to wear spacesuit-like protective gear. They can hold hands and rock babies. They can hug and clean and console. And in a place where rumors swirl about the disease, where trust in outsiders is often lacking, the hundreds of survivors now working in Ebola centers provide something else: familiarity. 

“This work helps the response, but it also helps the people doing it,” says Solange Kahambu Kamuha, a psychologist with UNICEF. “When they go home, they may be stigmatized for what they survived, but at work they are surrounded by people who understand.”

When Regina Kavira Mbangamuke’s toddler son fell sick late last year, she did what any mother would.

She pressed his feverish body to hers. She wiped away his tears and his sweat. She whispered tiny comforts in his ear. Don’t be afraid, my baby.

And when he died, she fell into a sadness so deep and physical it took a week for her to realize there might be something else wrong.

Ebola can be like that, Ms. Mbangamuke knows now. First it tries to take the people you love most in the world. And then it tries to kill you too. 

But as she tells her story to her patients at the Ebola treatment center in this city in eastern Congo, where she now works as a nursing assistant, it has a more hopeful postscript.

“I say, my brother, my sister, I had this horrible thing too, and look at me now,” she says. “You cannot give up.”

Like nearly every one of the 1,000 people who have survived Ebola in eastern Congo in the past 15 months, Ms. Mbangamuke’s survival is interlaced with profound loss.

But Ebola also affords les guéris – the cured – with an unusual opportunity. They are considered likely immune to the disease, and so also to the cruel distance it demands. They don’t need to wear the spacesuit-like protective gear that other Ebola responders don to avoid touching the sick. They can hold hands and rock babies. They can hug and clean and console. And in a place where trust in outsiders is in short supply, the hundreds of survivors who now work in the Ebola response provide something else: familiarity.

“This work helps the response, but it also helps the people doing it,” says Solange Kahambu Kamuha, a psychologist with UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, in Beni. “When they go home, they may be stigmatized for what they survived, but at work they are surrounded by people who understand.”

It’s a club, most days, Safi Kavugho Musayi would rather not be a part of. Ebola cleaved her life neatly in half. Before, her daughter Charity was alive. “When you lose a child, you cannot care about anything else,” she says.

Kudra Maliro
Dr. Maurice Kakule Mutsunga is chairman of a group of Ebola survivors in eastern Congo. He encourages fellow survivors to join the Ebola response – as health care workers, drivers, or educators – as a way to both assist their communities and ease their own trauma.

There was very little that mattered to her, in fact, the day Dr. Maurice Kakule Mutsunga called to ask if she wanted a job. Dr. Mutsunga was the chair of the local Ebola survivors organization. It was about six weeks after Ms. Musayi had been discharged from the Ebola treatment center, and he wanted to see if she wanted to be a garde-malade, a nursing assistant at the same facility.

Not really, she thought. She had been in that place the day of her daughter’s funeral, fighting Ebola inside of a plastic isolation cube. Why, now, would she want to go back?

But the salary – around $300 a month – was more money than she’d ever seen selling used clothes in a local market. And anyway, if she stayed home, she worried the darkness might swallow her whole.

“It surprised me but I’m happy every day in that place, because I get to see people survive,” she says. “You forget what has happened to you. You just feel useful.”

For the global health organizations that hire them, survivors speaking about their own experience with the disease also have a credibility that is often lacking here.

Joshua Pikwa’s job, technically speaking, is to ferry the sick to Ebola transit centers, where they can be formally tested for the virus. But in practice, it often involves recounting his own story and hoping it will puncture the fear.

On a recent morning, he stands above the bed of a thin, dazed looking man in a private clinic here. A preacher, Mr. Pikwa explained that he’d been ministering to a sick woman whose family believed she’d been possessed by demons. A few days later, he began to feel sluggish too.

Often, simply sharing his own story works. But today, the young man in bed shakes his head weakly. No, he says, he won’t go. He heard that everyone who goes into an Ebola treatment center dies.

From the outside, rumors like this can sound fanciful. The disease was invented by the rich to make money. The disease was brought in to kill the political opposition. Hospitals inject their patients with Ebola to keep the outbreak going.

But each outlandish-seeming rumor contains a kernel of truth. Many people here, from the locals renting out SUVs to Ebola responders to the U.N. employees pulling down salaries hundreds of times the average local earnings, are making money off of this outbreak.

And the country’s government did delay voting in this region in the December national elections because of the threat of Ebola, effectively cutting the region out of the process.

Al-hadji Kudra Maliro/AP
Motorcycle taxi driver Germain Kalubenge pours chlorinated water on his bike after taking someone with a suspected case of Ebola to a center in Beni, Congo, Aug. 22, 2019. Mr. Kalubenge is also an Ebola survivor, making him a welcome collaborator for health workers who have faced deep community mistrust.

Even the idea that patients are being infected in hospitals is rooted in the truth that many have gotten sick after visiting one.

Given all this, for many people here, there is simply little reason to believe that outsiders ever have their best interests at heart, says Dr. Mutsunga, the head of the survivors group. “All around, people see tanks and U.N. soldiers, and still our war doesn’t end,” he points out, referring to the decades of civil war that have roiled this part of Congo. Why should Ebola, and its new army of outsiders, be any different?

Ms. Mbangamuke sees the skepticism and to her too, it makes sense. Ebola has broken all of society’s rules.

“Here in the Congo, to take care of people is the normal thing, but in times of Ebola people cannot do the normal thing” for their own families, she says.

For her, it is still nearly impossible to make sense of a world that would take her child and spare her. The camaraderie she feels with her colleagues, their unspoken understanding, the easy laughter that passes between them as they mix sugary cups of tea in the break area, none of it gives meaning to her son’s death.

But it is a way for her to try to restore some measure of balance.

“Every old woman I see [in the treatment center], she becomes like my own mother. Every baby, it’s like my own baby.”

Kudra Maliro contributed reporting.

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