Tom Dannatt is the chief executive of Street Child, a UK charity working with children who have been orphaned or affected by Ebola. His views do not represent those of ITV News.
Since founding Street Child in 2008 I have visited Sierra Leone over 30 times, but this is my most poignant and challenging visit to date. During my trip I am spending three days working alongside our Street Child teams across the country, assisting their work with Ebola orphans and meeting some of our current beneficiaries.
This is my first trip to Sierra Leone since the Ebola crisis began and when I arrived Sunday night the stark differences were immediately apparent, everything looks different.
The plane over was full of medics rather than the miners you would typically see and when I arrived I wasn’t allowed into the airport without washing my hands with chlorine.
The road to Port Loko is full of 4x4s and the British Army presence is clear from the outset. There is a massive Ebola treatment centre on the edge of Port Loko town and a number of the hotels are full.
There really is an Ebola economy developing in the region.
Today I visited the district of Port Loko where I met a young girl called Victoria, the child of a Makeni lecturer, who has lost her father and mother.
Our social workers have been monitoring Victoria’s progress and, although she mourns the loss of her parents, which she only learnt of yesterday, the commitment of her aunty Margret to supporting her has been incredible. Victoria’s new family, her aunt and uncle, told me that they do not need or want much material help, instead asking the Street Child team to focus on the poorer families affected by the disease.
What they do need, however, is love: what we call psycho-social care, to help them come to terms with what they have lost.
Victoria’s aunt and uncle are both teachers whose knowledge of the Ebola virus and the humanitarian response which is required is hugely impressive. It is my hope that one of the couple looking after Victoria will join Street Child’s team in Port Loko and use their knowledge and position in the community to help stop the spread of Ebola.
In the afternoon I continued my journey east to Lunsar town where I witnessed more shocking scenes, but also signs of hope as a result of Street Child’s work.
I met a 17 year old girl, alone with her two siblings aged five and ten, one of whom was a former Street Child beneficiary who, until Ebola caused a state of national emergency, was enrolled in full time education. The girl is healthy but she is deeply saddened by her current situation; she has no idea how she will take care of her siblings and her only means of survival is the support which Street Child is delivering.
The children clearly need continued help from Street Child as no family member has yet come forward and offered to take the children in. Their possessions lie in a charred pile next to their house following the disinfection process, they have no mattress and are sleeping on some kind of grass compressed in a plastic bag.
Street Child is the only organisation that has visited them since they were quarantined but even our support hardly raises a smile and one can’t help but wonder if this young girl will ever smile again. It is truly heart-breaking to witness.
Lunsar has been hit extremely hard by the Ebola outbreak: I visited a village ten minutes away where 49 people died in October while further down the track another village has lost 60.
A community which I remember as being vibrant and prosperous is now a shadow of its former self, shops and markets are closed and by midday every fuel station in Lunsar is dry.
Street Child’s work is clearly making a difference; I was approached today by the step-father of an orphan in Lunsar Town, who told me that three organisations have come here and registered these children as Ebola orphans, but only Street Child has actually given them anything.
Today we have not only identified children in need of support, we have paid for the Masmira ferry to be repaired in order to allow the transportation of aid and we have also authorised the handover of a brand new secondary school for use as an Ebola care centre. It hurts not to see children studying in this school but it is powerful to see the building being used for such an important cause. There is plenty of work for us to do here and we have the capacity to do it. What we need now is the financial support to bolster our efforts.
So far on my visit I have witnessed fear and a great deal of suffering, but I have also been inspired by the personal triumphs over adversity of so many Sierra Leoneans.
I met a deputy village chief called Moses Kargbo, of Makrugbeh village, Maskmera chiefdom; Moses learnt about how to contain Ebola over the radio and when one family in his village tested positive he took immediate action, isolating the family to ensure that Ebola only affected that one household.
Sadly four people died in that house but it went no further and that household is now out of quarantine and the village is clean. This is in stark contrast to the villages we visited near Lunsar where Ebola had claimed up to 60 lives. Moses is a hero and we hired him on the spot, giving him the task of educating the surrounding villages about Ebola to ensure that there are more stories like his and fewer like those in Lunsar.
Tomorrow I will travel to Kenema and visit some of the communities worst hit by Ebola, I have braced myself for the tragedies I will witness but I go there in the knowledge that this humanitarian crisis can be overcome.
Street Child is not saving Sierra Leone; we are simply facilitating these amazing and inspirational people to save their nation.
To support children orphaned by Ebola visit www.street-child.co.uk/donate.