Hear Me

Only one of us had a chance—the baby or me

Adama Conteh, on life after Ebola
By Mahawa Kamara
30 July 2021
Adama Conteh, Mount Aureol

My husband was the first to show Ebola symptoms, and all our relatives had to be quarantined because we lived in zinc shelters very close. I was seven months pregnant at the time. Anyone who fell sick was taken away to the treatment centre… later we learned that my husband died.

Eventually, I got sick too. I was taken away in an ambulance alongside my sister-in-law. I could only think about the children we left at home and who would look after them. When I was admitted to the treatment centre, I was very frightened. I saw how other pregnant women were suffering and dying like flies, and I was losing hope of surviving.

We were being treated by a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) team, and they told me that I should abort my baby since only one of us had a chance: the baby or me. If I was allowed to give birth I could lose my life, and if I decided to live, my baby would need to die. It was the hardest decision of my life.

My husband was dead, my mother was dead, and my father was far away from us and not allowed to visit us. Who would take care of my child? I could not make the decision on my own, so my husband’s brother took it upon himself to sign on my behalf for the abortion to be carried out. I was given injections and so many different types of tablets. Shortly afterwards, the contractions began. I pushed for two hours as my dead baby came out.

Afterwards, I was taken to the main hall for postpartum care. Until now, no matter how hard I try, I cannot explain the pain I felt during those awful moments. I still don’t have the words to describe the suffering that I went through during the abortion. I suffered continuous pain for four days. I did not get proper attention from anyone, not even the medical staff. I felt alone and miserable. Little or no care was given to me in my room. I was there alone, yelling and wailing, rolling on the ground naked with no one to turn to. The MSF team would only assist if they saw I was bleeding. I saw hell on earth for four days and was praying for death to take me away.

Later, I learnt that out of 24 of us who were staying together before we were quarantined, only six survived. Eighteen members of the family died.

When I eventually came home, I felt isolated as the community people did let me mingle with them. Even within my household, I was stigmatised. I was not allowed to use the same toilet as my kids and the rest of the family, nor do anything in common. I was totally shunned by everyone. They thought I could still harm them. Even when I decided to do a food business, people still continued to avoid me and didn’t buy from me as they believed that I was still carrying the virus. Even my friends with whom I used to play and laugh ran away from me and my family.

Soon after my discharge, I become seriously sick again. My hands, stomach, and limbs were swollen and my body became thinner and thinner. I started feeling weaker and weaker. I was advised to go back to the hospital, but I was scared. Many survivors who got sick again after they were discharged never came home again after visiting the hospital for treatment. We heard rumours that they were drugged by medical staff for fear of them still having the virus, as a way of stopping the transmission.

Still, I saw the MSF medical team and they gave me some treatments, and I got better. At first, they wanted me to go to Connaught Hospital and be admitted, but I declined their offer for fear of being injected and dying.

Amidst the number of pregnant women who were treated by the MSF team, I was the only one who survived. Thus, I was given special interest when I became sick again. The team made special efforts and checked on me regularly. It took a while after we were declared Ebola-free before people began to interact with us, but others were still not coming close to us.

After we were declared free from Ebola, the MSF team gave us a foam mattress and Le 300,000 ($30)each. We were also given sim cards by the government and the sum of Le 265,000 ($25) every month, but just for five months. Another time, we were summoned to the national stadium and given Le 750,000 ($75) as a support package from the government. We heard that the government was going to provide us with a livelihood support package in 2016 but until now we haven’t seen anything.

Recently, the radio and TV announced that our money has come — $12.2 million — and that President Maada Bio has signed our cheques for disbursement, but until now we haven’t seen anything. Each Ebola survivor should be given not less than Le 10 million ($1,000) from that money, from what I heard. Some landlords upon hearing that news on the radio decided to raise rent money, and thieves also raided three of my friends’ houses, thinking that they had collected the money and kept it at home. I am lucky to have a good landlord, who hasn’t raised the rent.

Of course we no longer rent the entire zinc block since so many family members have died. The rest of us have rented only one single room and parlour apartment, for which I pay Le 900,000 ($90) as rent every year.

Right now, we are struggling a lot trying to survive. I am the breadwinner for five children. Two are my biological children and three are my late relatives’ children. I can’t afford to send all of the kids to school. So, we decided that two of the female children should drop out because there is no money to support them through school. Even though there is free education in Sierra Leone, we are still spending money on our children’s schools, just like before. Of all the five children, two boys and a girl are going to school.

Since I have little to no capital to do a better business, I sell Whitex soap and barrel soap on the streets of Freetown. I hawk from 6am to 5pm, and sometimes even later. I am pleading with the government to please give us our livelihood support package. I need to have startup capital for a better business that can support all the children to go to school and give them and us a better life.

Photograph by Mahawa Kamara