Student from Sierra Leone tells of cultural impact of Ebola


For a nation with a culture that is heavily reliant on physical contact and very close interaction, having to follow the “no touching” rule that medical personnel dealing with the Ebola outbreak are promoting is extremely difficult.


The rapidly increasing death toll in West Africa is horrendous, but the emotional effect the Ebola epidemic is having on people in the nation of Sierra Leone and on Sierra Leoneans living abroad is almost equally horrifying.

One woman, Alakeh Osei, a bank-teller in Freetown, described the nation’s capital, as a ghost-town.

“Everyone is scared to be out of their houses. No one is going to church or mosque, no one is going to work, the kids are not going to school, people are not even going to the market place. I don’t know how we are surviving. The city looks like it has been abandoned. I miss the old Freetown,” she said.

For a nation with a culture that is heavily reliant on physical contact and very close interaction, having to follow the “no touching” rule that medical personnel dealing with the Ebola outbreak are promoting is extremely difficult.

Growing up in Freetown, Sierra Leone, I was part of the close- knit culture typical of Sierra Leone and West Africa in general. I was born in the Port-Loko province of Sierra Leone towards the end of the brutal civil war in 1995. Both my parents were police officers, which made them targets for the rebels that were ravaging the country. When I was 4, my parents won an immigration lottery for two and moved to Texas without me. It was necessary that they do this because it was the only hope of getting our family out of the country in case of another civil uproar. I stayed in Sierra Leone’s capital city of Freetown with my aunt for the next nine years.

During those years that my parents were in the U.S., they took every chance to bring me over.

In 2008, I was finally awarded a visa by the United States. I moved to live with my parents that summer at the age of 13. This move was the scariest thing I have ever done in my life. I had never felt fear and excitement in such equal amounts before.

I was excited to finally meet these people that brought me into this world, but I was scared because essentially, I was flying across the globe to live with complete strangers.

For about three months, I refused to make myself at home. What I felt was true fear.

My parents had two sons in Texas before I moved there. They helped me feel more at home than anyone else could. They had been anticipating the arrival of their big sister and, when I finally arrived, they treated me like they had known me all of their lives.

I spent that summer getting adjusted to living with my new family, but I experienced the greatest shock when I finally started eighth grade that fall. It was absolutely terrible. Teachers tried to be extremely nice and considerate of my obliviousness of American culture, but their niceness and consideration quickly became insulting as they underestimated my intelligence because I was the new kid from Africa.

The kids were even worse. I was called monkey, pre-historic and uncivilized. I was asked extremely ignorant and offensive questions like whether I was getting used to wearing shoes since we don’t wear shoes in Africa. People even spread rumors that I had AIDS and was an AIDS orphan.

Besides all the cruelty of middle school children, the culture in America just seemed extremely cold to me.

People were protective of their property and their space and their time. The society seemed extremely individualistic.

Experiencing this type of culture made me yearn for the African culture I grew up in, a culture where your problem is everyone’s problem, where every woman is your mother and every man your father, where your neighbors share in the burdens of your heart, where you are never alone, because everyone is family and family is all around you.

There was never a time growing up when I was alone. There were always cousins, neighbors and friends around. Everyone was family and personal space was unheard of. This is the Sierra Leone that I know and love.

As I call family members still living in Freetown, where the virus is not yet rampant, I sense the difficulty that they feel.

My aunt tells me that it doesn’t feel like the same place. She says that people no longer share food or spend time at each other’s houses or even stand close to each other. As she tearfully described the mood of the city, I could not for the life of me picture my beautiful Sierra Leone. Seeing this country that I am madly in love with being turned into an isolated ghost town is heartbreaking.

“People are scared. They are really afraid. They are not sure what actions could put them at risk. Freetown has become Fear-town,” Osei tells me.

Though the government has put in place a lot of measures to educate its citizens about the disease, how it is contracted, preventative measures to take and the medical help available, the people of Sierra Leone believe it is insufficient.

There are about 16 to 20 different languages in Sierra Leone, but the sensitization seminars and advertisements that the government has been putting in place have mostly been in English or the main traditional language, Krio. That leaves a huge portion of Sierra Leoneans feeling uninformed.

As a result of feeling in the dark, the people have turned to isolation as a fool-proof way to stay Ebola-free.

The government implemented a three day lock-down to combat the virus. After the lock-down ended, terrified people are asking the government for a longer lockdown.

Seeing how people are willing to sacrifice such an important part of their culture to combat the virus shows how desperate they are.

“It’s very sad,” Osei says. “Ebola has turned us into prisoners in our own country.”

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