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Life After Death

The world is starting to forget about Ebola. The village of Barkedu can’t.

Feb. 20, 2015

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Ebola ravaged West Africa in 2014. It has been the deadliest Ebola outbreak ever.

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The 6,000-person village of Barkedu (pronounced Bah-keh-doo), Liberia, was among the hardest hit. It’s about 250 miles northeast of the capital, Monrovia, but it feels much farther away. Most of the journey is over heavily rutted dirt roads.

Over 150 people died here. Some were buried at the edge of town in hastily dug graves.

But by December, the gravesites had grown over, and all of northeast Liberia had been declared Ebola-free.

Mariam Fofana, a congresswoman who represents the area, visited Barkedu to congratulate the village for successfully eradicating Ebola.

At first glance, things were looking up. The weekly market had just reopened.

The health clinic, too.

Hunters were heading back into the forest. This hunter said he still avoids monkeys and bats, animals that are considered reservoirs for Ebola.

Large gatherings were safe again. Life seemed as if it were returning to normal.

But the more we talked to people, the more we realized the story wasn’t that simple. Ebola caused trauma and disruption that will stay with Barkedu for a long time to come.

We talked to farmers who can’t feed their families. Students who have missed school. A doctor who was nearly run out of town. And the woman who was left to care for many of the village’s Ebola orphans.

The Farmers’ Loss

Right off the main road through town, we met Haja Fofana, working in her garden.

On the surface, it was a peaceful, domestic scene — but the taro plants she was digging up looked small. When we asked, she told us they wouldn’t be fully grown for another month or two. She’s digging them up now because her family has nothing left to eat.

Haja’s husband is Sekou Sheriff. His parents were taken to an Ebola treatment center and died there. It’s more than a day’s walk away. He does not know where they were buried.

Barkedu’s First Case

What we learned after talking with dozens of people is that Haja and Sekou aren’t alone. The whole village of Barkedu is hungry and traumatized. To understand why, it helps to know how Ebola came to Barkedu in the first place and why it spread so fast.

A big part of the reason for Ebola’s spread is that Barkedu is a very tightknit community. Everyone knows everyone. If a neighbor gets sick, you help your neighbor. And if one of the most respected people in town gets sick, everyone comes to help.

Barkedu’s first Ebola case was Laiye Barwor. He was a favorite son of the village. He came from a large and important family. His father was an imam. When he got sick in early June, the whole town took notice.

But no one believed it was Ebola. Back in June, people in Barkedu knew almost nothing about the virus. It had never before struck in this part of the world. And when awareness campaigns did arrive, their message backfired.

Musa Kamara, Barkedu’s paramount chief, said people were confused.

“Ebola Is Real” (MSF/TYB Boyz)

So instead of taking Laiye Barwor, the first case, to an Ebola treatment center, his family set out to visit the traditional healers they knew and trusted in Guinea.

Laiye died during the journey.

At his funeral back in Barkedu, more than 30 people helped wash and prepare his body for burial. Barkedu’s Muslims consider this one of their most important duties.

Barkedu’s chairman Musa Sesay (center) explained …

From that one funeral, Ebola spread like wildfire through the village. Some families were nearly wiped out. Musa Kamara, the paramount chief, said even though some things are getting back to normal, what happened here cannot soon be forgotten.

Future On Hold

Though more than 150 people in Barkedu died from Ebola, about two dozen people survived the disease. We met survivor Mohamed Bility while visiting the Lofa River, which runs along Barkedu’s eastern boundary.

Mohamed is 23. When Ebola struck Barkedu, he was on break from his studies in the capital, Monrovia, and visiting his family here in town.

He and his parents became sick. Both his parents died. But after a hellish stay in an Ebola treatment center, about a half-day’s drive away, Mohamed survived.

Mohamed said he can’t return to Monrovia to resume his studies. He’s now the sole caretaker of his six younger brothers and sisters.

His siblings have missed more than seven months of school themselves. The local primary school was shut down in July. It finally reopened in February.

A Painful Truth

Like the school, Barkedu’s health clinic was shut down because of Ebola. It had no capacity to treat the disease.

Sylvester Dunber (left) is a registered nurse who’s known as the village doctor. He said the clinic never technically closed; people just didn’t want to hear what he had to tell them.

When people started getting sick and dying, he told them Ebola was real. They refused to go to the Ebola treatment center in Foya, a half-day’s drive away. His friends begged him for things they thought might help, like an intravenous drip.

He said the people of Barkedu have forgiven him for what they saw as his refusal to help. What still troubles him, though, is that he also lost friends, like the clinic’s community health volunteer.

In God’s Hands

At the other end of town, we found a neighborhood perhaps best described as ground zero for Ebola in Barkedu. This is where the family of Laiye Barwor, Barkedu’s first Ebola case, lives — or lived. Few adults survived.

Mamuedeh Kanneh is one of them. She is the only adult survivor from Laiye Barwor’s family, which included her husband and four other wives, or “mates,” as she calls them. She recalled what happened back in June.

She wonders why she survived. She thinks it must be God’s will. She became the children’s sole guardian. And because she’s the village chairwoman, people brought her more orphans to care for.

She and her children eat what they can find in the forest or earn by finding small jobs. One day it’s a bowl of groundnuts. Other days it’s a cup of rice. She and her 13 charges all live hand-to-mouth.

Her neighbor is Mabonqu Kamara. She was married to a man who studied under Laiye Barwor’s father, the imam. He also died of Ebola, leaving Mabonqu alone to care for their kids.

It took a long time for the town to accept the survivors from this small corner of the village. Fearful of catching Ebola, the children’s friends shunned them. The kids became terrified to go out in public.

Mamuedeh Kanneh is trying to build back the children’s confidence. She sends them on small errands around the village so they can see that people are no longer afraid of them.

Some of the children she took in have other family members in the village. Mamuedeh does not blame them for not coming to claim their relatives. She says people are overburdened and hungry; they will come when they are ready.

She considers herself their mother now. Even if she takes care of them for the rest of their lives, she says, she won’t mind.

She thanks God that Ebola is over. It is better now, she says. Things are improving. God is responsible for all things, she says — the future is in God’s hands.

At least 21,000 people have been infected since the Ebola outbreak began in West Africa. Well over 8,500 people have died. Officials say these numbers underestimate the true toll.

The number of family members and friends who have been affected by the disease is uncounted. The epidemic continues in other parts of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

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Our coverage of Ebola continues on Goats and Soda, NPR’s global health blog.

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Project Credits

Written and photographed by John Poole

Audio production: Sami Yenigun

Design and development: Wes Lindamood and Tyler Fisher

Translations: Mohamed Trawally

Additional photography: Tommy Trenchard

Project manager: Becky Lettenberger

Sr. Editors: Kainaz Amaria, Ben de la Cruz and Vikki Valentine

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