By Sahr Ngaujah; Edited by Leanna Cappiello
The Ebola virus has had far-reaching effects in the lives of Sierra Leoneans.
Children, especially girls, have suffered. Many became pregnant during the school closures, others have been sexually harassed by men. These girls are left even more vulnerable because they have lost one or both parents to the disease and are now finding it very difficult to survive.
“[What] little my father had, he used to send me to school,” says Salmatu. But when her father lost his job as a native herbalist when the Sierra Leone government banned the practice during the Ebola outbreak, life became difficult for the family.
Her father sent her to a friend’s house where she could remain while completing her studies. Salmatu called her father’s friend “uncle”.
Eventually, Salmatu was kicked out of school because her school fees were unpaid. “My father came all the way from my village to negotiate terms of payment, but was not successful. So, my uncle told my father he would pay,” says Salamatu.
In her own words, Salamatu tells the story of her trauma:
“One day, we were watching movie in my uncle’s parlour together with his children. We were up until 9:00 p.m. when he ordered everyone to bed. At 12: 00 a.m., I saw the lights go off in my room. But I thought one of his children had turned it off. So, I switched it on again. He switched it off again. By this time, he was already in my bed. I fought very hard. But he pushed me and I hit my head on the wall."
Salmatu fell victim to sexual assault, helpless at the hands of her aggressor.
"One of his sons heard me scream and he shouted, ‘Daddy, what are you doing? Open the door!’ But he told him he won’t come out until he finished what he was doing.
“I woke up with blood all over the bed and my clothes. I run off to one of my aunts and told her what had happened. She reported the matter to my dad. My dad came back from the village and asked him if it was he that did what he did. He accepted it was his doing and promised my dad he would marry me.
“My father asked me if I would like to marry him. The man came out and started talking to me. But I hit him with a stick on the head. Weeks later, I realized I was pregnant.”
Salmatu’s story is one of many in Sierra Leone. Ebola’s fingerprints are all over the region, but there is hope for healing.
*Name changed to protect identity