One year later, Ebola still haunts Sierra Leone classrooms

Students at the Sierra Leone Muslim Community School spend their lunch break talking and going over the day's assignments. (Credit: Cooper Inveen)

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone – It’s the first night of the dry season, but you wouldn’t know it from inside the cramped study room on Freetown’s eastern edge.

Twenty junior secondary students sit shoulder to shoulder, eyes fixed on their notebooks while Musa Sama tries his best to teach over the sound of heavy rain hitting the shed’s metal roof. The government had to shorten term lengths this year, and with exams coming up, Sama and his students spend weeknights in the Sierra Leone Muslim Community School’s wooden annex preparing. They don’t mind the small space; the threat of Ebola has come and gone.

A year ago the study session would have been illegal. Schools in Sierra Leone closed for nine months to curb the spread of the virus that would eventually kill more than 11,300 people. Schools reopened in April.

But as the school year continues, students, educators and policymakers continue to face the challenges left in Ebola’s wake. In a country where just 75 percent of children attended school before Ebola struck, the struggle to get kids back in the classroom has only been exacerbated by reluctant parents, dropouts and what unofficial surveys suggest to be a surge in teenage pregnancies.

“The levels of poverty within Sierra Leone are quite high and a child dropping out of school only works to increase those negative development indicators,” said Wongani Grace Nkhoma Taulo, chief of education at UNICEF Sierra Leone. “You may find the likelihood of a girl getting pregnant if she’s not in school to be much higher than if they are in school, and for any other child, the chances of being abused are higher than they would have been.”

In June, UNICEF partnered with Save the Children, World Vision and Plan International to survey 1,100 children about the effects of Ebola. Children reported perceived increases in sexual violence and teen pregnancy in every region the survey was conducted, and of the 191 kids who participated in the survey’s “Yes-No-Maybe” exercise, 91 percent said they felt more children their age were pregnant than before the outbreak.

According to the report, most girls connected the increase in teen pregnancies to children being outside the protection a school provides. Although increases in dropouts and pregnancies cannot be officially confirmed or denied until the national census is conducted later this year, Sama, a junior secondary school teacher at the Sierra Leone Muslim Community School (SLMC), had the same observations.

“Before this Ebola I personally had about 200 students,” he said. “Five of the girls got pregnant, and of the boys, about 20 of them dropped out of school. That does not happen normally. … Many parents call me to say their child is on their way to class and I will call them when they’re on their way home. By doing so, we know that we are protecting our children.”

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By the time schools reopened on April 14, students had already spent nine months out of the classroom. Sierra Leone had reported a decreasing number of cases for five consecutive weeks but not everyone was optimistic of the return to form.

“There was a lot of reluctance with the parents, but it was not much different of a case with the teachers themselves,” Taulo said. “Everyone was pessimistic about getting the children back to school, especially in the context of us still having some Ebola cases. The issue is about avoiding contact and nobody was sure to what degree you could control little children and get them to do that.”

Before the reopening, UNICEF conducted a series of text message surveys which, according to Taulo, showed 60 percent to 70 percent of young people anticipated returning to class. It was only after a nationwide media campaign and dozens of community outreach meetings that skeptics began to come around.

It was a full month after schools reopened before classrooms started to fill up again, but not everyone enrolled the previous year would return.

Adrissa Sesay is the vice principal of the Sierra Leone Muslim Community School. He says teachers and students face challenges after schools were shut down for nine months to curb the spread of Ebola. (Credit: Cooper Inveen)

Adrissa Sesay is the vice principal of the Sierra Leone Muslim Community School. He says teachers and students face challenges after schools were shut down for nine months to curb the spread of Ebola. (Credit: Cooper Inveen)

“Of 200 boys, I’d say between 20 and 30 dropped out,” said Adrissa Sessay, SLMC’s vice principal. “Others, when their parents realized their children’s academic year had been seriously shortened, they decided to wait until the next full academic year to send them back to school.”

Term lengths in Sierra Leone have been temporarily compressed in an effort to make up for lost time. Terms are now three months long instead of the usual six and the next full academic year won’t begin until September 2016.

For 18-year-old mother Gbassay “Memuna” Bangura, hope is the only chance she has of someday resuming the education Ebola derailed.

Sama described Memuna as “one of [his]brightest pupils” prior to the outbreak. With no one to finance her education after her mother succumbed to the virus in July 2014, 21 days in quarantine meant her struggle was only just beginning.

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Memuna was raped a few weeks later by a man she met at her mother’s burial service, lured to his house with promises of having her school fees paid for. Her aunt forced her onto the streets shortly after she began showing signs of pregnancy. It was around that time when she received word that her father, who had been living outside the city, had also died of Ebola.

Gbassay "Memuna" Bangura, 18, gave birth to her daughter Abi in May after losing her parents to Ebola the year before. With no one to pay for her to finish school, she now sells cakes during the day to buy food for her and her daughter. (Credit: Cooper Inveen)

Gbassay “Memuna” Bangura, 18, gave birth to her daughter Abi in May after losing her parents to Ebola the year before. With no one to pay for her to finish school, she now sells cakes during the day to buy food for her and her daughter. (Credit: Cooper Inveen)

“I slept outside on a stone every day for a month and soaked gari in water with salt to sustain my life,” she said in Krio, the most widely spoken language in Sierra Leone. “I was happy before but now I have nothing. I lost my mama, I lost my papa. Even the man who got me pregnant refuses to help take care of us. ”

Memuna was eventually taken in by a sympathetic neighbor and gave birth to her daughter Abi in May. She now spends her days selling cakes in the city, consistently struggling to make enough to pay for the next day’s meal.

High teen pregnancy rates have been a problem in Sierra Leone since long before the Ebola crisis. Although Ebola may have exacerbated the problem, Taulo said, she’s watched the government make “significant strides” in getting teen mothers back into the system. She also said that UNICEF and the U.N. Population Fund aim to complete a plan to ease teen mothers’ transitions back to school by end of the year.

Memuna is hesitant to put faith in any such program.

“I have no connections in the government or any NGO,” she said. “If you have nobody like that to advocate for you personally, they won’t take care of you.”

Vice Principal Sesay is also frustrated with how the government has handled the post-Ebola education recovery effort. Many of the supplies promised to schools arrived late or not at all, he said, and the subsidies given to SLMC’s public primary school haven’t been enough to pay teacher’s salaries. The school had to take out a loan to cover its outstanding debts.

Despite the struggle for resources, things are starting to return to normal at the Sierra Leone Muslim Community School. Sesay said exam scores have gradually recovered from the “appalling results” the school experienced in the first term back and traumatized students have readapted to their classroom roles.

Of the 20 students preparing for their exams in the school’s annex, all but one lost a family member during the Ebola crisis. But they don’t let the bad memories break their focus.

“When we came back to school we got our friends back,” said Betty Fatu Conteh, 14. “It’s easy to be happy when you have your friends with you.”

 

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About Author

Cooper Inveen

Cooper Inveen is a freelance reporter living in Freetown, Sierra Leone. A Pacific Northwest native and graduate of the University of Washington, he has been featured on Al Jazeera English, NPR's KUOW, the Seattle Globalist and others. You can reach him by email at cinveen@gmail.com or follow him on twitter @cinveen.