By: Moses Owen Browne, Jr.
Lydia, 16, and her young siblings, Blessing, 11, Pauline, nine, and Paul, five can only watch, as the body of their mother is taken away in a plastic sheet by masked men resembling crop-sprayers, the standard way to dispose of Ebola victims.
Forty-five year old Juana did not die peacefully. She bled and vomited her way to death with no medical assistance, as she was being cared for by her children in an isolated hut in the small city of Voijama, northern Liberia.
But the fact that Juana’s four children are now orphans cannot solely be blamed on the deadly Ebola virus that, in the words of Liberia’s Defence Minister Brownie Samukai, is ‘devouring everything in its path’.
With no father around to step into the breach, the children have no close family to take care of them.
Liberia’s social problem of broken, single-parent families has existed since the end of the civil war in 2003 – and as the new virus claims its victims, this is now resulting in hundreds of orphaned children.
A total of 11 years of war produced a generation of psychologically-scarred men who missed out on school.
Traumatised, uneducated and unemployed, rejecting commitment, marriage and family values, the younger generation of Liberian men have become notorious for leaving their girlfriends to fend for themselves when they get pregnant.
In Bomi County near Monrovia, community workers estimate that 75% of women with children are single mothers who struggle to feed and send their children to school; and there are estimates that over half of Liberian women with children are single mothers.
“The large number of single-parent families in Liberia means that as mothers are dying from Ebola, the children lose their sole care-giver, and have no-one to look after them,” explains Koala Oumarou, Country Director for Plan Liberia.
“The orphaned children have to leave school, if they were in school in the first place, to try to make a living and support themselves.”
Juana was no exception. All her children had different fathers, and all of these men had abandoned her.
“We’ve not seen anyone as a father since we were born,” says Pauline.
Lydia agrees. “We have not seen any family member before our mother died; besides our grandmother,” she adds. “We’d be happy to have any relative or family member come to assist us.”
Ebola is a frightening, virulent disease and Liberia has been brought to its knees by the deadly virus, which has now reached nine counties and killed more than 1000 people.
Yet it was containable, and had it not been for Liberia’s weak health system, it seems likely that the epidemic could have been controlled.
But 11 years since the war, the country’s infrastructure was in the process of rehabilitation.
This meant that when the outbreak began, Liberia had only one doctor to treat nearly 100,000 people in a total population of 4.4 million people.
Illiteracy levels amongst the population are high and only compounded the problem.
At first, many people did not believe the virus was real, and it has taken weeks of rigorous radio, poster and brochure campaigns to convince them that Ebola is a dangerous threat.
Oumarou says: “With weak health systems and a fast spreading virus, this outbreak is one step ahead of the under resourced response to combat it.
“To combat the outbreak, actions are needed at different levels. Preventive work through public health promotion, care and treatment units, psychological care, information dissemination and rebuilding public health systems should be top of the list.”
Juana’s mother, Sonnie, 68, has offered to take care of Lydia and her brothers and sisters. But she worries about her age, because she is too old to work.
“I will find it difficult at my age to fully cater to these children, now that I am not working again,” she explains.
“I was one of many traditional midwives who the government forcefully retired, on the grounds that we were illiterate. I am also too old to do farm work or cleaning work.”
Now the children do not know what their future holds. In the past, Blessing, Pauline and Paul attended school, but they had to drop out after two years because Juana could no longer afford the fees.
Pauline says she would still like to go to school. “I would love to be a teacher in the future like my mother once was, but with all this going on, becoming a teacher will not happen.”
Lydia was taking home economic courses at a technical vocational training centre in Lofa, where she was learning how to make clothes. Now she says she would like to try to go back to school, so that she can find a job to support her siblings and her own young baby.
“I have my own responsibilities, and now that of my little brother and sisters. I stopped school in the 2nd Grade, but I think it isn’t too late for me at age 16,” she explains.
For now, the family will depend on palm wine tapping to survive.
The children will also make palm oil and sell it on local markets so that they can buy food and pay their rent.
Tarnue Karbarr, Programme Unit Manager for Plan International in Lofa County, says support is desperately needed for the four children and the other orphans like them.
“We need some support for these children, like clothes, food and other shelter needs.
“This is the third set of children directly affected by Ebola in Voinjama and there are more and more of these stories and situations affecting the children here.”
Moses Owen Browne, Jr. is Media and Communications Coordinator of Plan International Liberia Country Office. He is also Global Youth Ambassador – A World at School United Nations Secretary General’s Global Education Initiative. Moses Browne is a well-known and household name in the Republic of Liberia, especially in the field of Communications and Advocacy for women and children, peace and security. He can be contacted Cell #: +231-886-493-370 and emails: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com