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The unsung heroes of the Ebola campaign

SEPTEMBER 1, 2014 By Joseph Dumbuya

The Ebola campaign has had its fair share of villains from within and without. The international community has come under sharp criticisms for sleepwalking as the Ebola continues to take its toll. No less a person than President Koroma gave the international community a kicking for foot-dragging in their response to the Ebola campaign, while his government continues to pour millions of dollars into combating a disease that was never foreseen – who would? – when it set out to put together the annual budget.

We’ve also had leading voices from the scientific community outside the shores of Sierra Leone joining the chorus of criticisms.

Peter Piot, the Belgian scientist who co-discovered the Ebola virus in 1976 and now director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, recently singled out international organizations especially the World Health organization for castigation. He described their response as ‘extraordinarily slow’ and further noted that the World Health Organization (WHO) only woke up in July, whereas the epidemic began in December last year and health experts sounded the alarm in early March.

They say wherever there are villains there are bound to be heroes. Just a simple fact of life, eh?  Yes, first in mind are the tens of healthcare workers including Dr. Sheik Umar Khan who have died in line of duty. We also have the unsung heroes within civil society who have been at the forefront of the campaign. By the way, this is not a tribute to the dead; it is one to the living.

These are compatriots and foreigners, who, driven by selflessness continue to save lives. They understand the risks but are not dampened by them. They are the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. They are not many though. These include the young volunteers across the country, especially the burial teams in the Kailahun District who were featured on the BBC last week. I am talking about ordinary Sierra Leoneans who do not demand money to be involved in the campaign.

In this group, I would like to pick out Charles Mambu of Health for All Coalition for mention.  Those of us who have known and worked with Mambu before now are not in the least surprised that he has thrust himself into the Ebola fight. Are you surprised he is more visible and active in this emergency period? Absolutely not!

I came to know Mambu around March 2001. By then I was the Information Officer for the Northern Province for the agency responsible for implementing the DDR programme – the National Committee (mind you not ‘commission’) for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (NCDDR). At the time, the NCDDR was entering the third and most crucial phase of the disarmament programme. The agency was poised to move swiftly with this phase after a short-lived and shaky first and second phase following the signing of the Lome Accord in July 1999.

We needed to finish with the disarmament and demobilisation phases as quickly as possible so that law enforcement agencies, including the Sierra Leone Police, can move in and kick-start the process of restoring constitutional authority. With the third phase of the disarmament underway, we needed to convince the combatants that they will not be abandoned after disarmament and that they will be provided with the support of their choice which will enable them become self-reliant.

Also, we needed to convince them that the programme will ensure their smooth return into mainstream society and this includes returning to their home communities where they may have committed crimes during the war. We needed partners to prepare mainstream society for the return of ex-combatants through social reintegration programmes. In addition, these communities should be prepared to coexist with their former tormentors.

Mambu was one such partner who brought a lot of energy and commitment to the table. With an XL motorcycle he will crisscross the country from the fringes of the Kailahun District to the other parts of the country. You can always rely on him for accurate information relating to how various communities feel about the return of ex-combatants.

The difference between him and other partners is that he will not come to the office to tell you what he has been told by sources in faraway places regarding how communities in various parts of the country feel about this issue. He will tell you things based on his interaction with and what he has seen in these communities. What’s more, he brings ubiquity to the job.

He will give you names of ex-combatants who will not be welcomed back in their home communities just yet. He will provide you with names of key stakeholders within these communities who are crucial to the return of ex-combatants. This is why I’m not in the least surprised that Mambu has been a leading voice in the fight against Ebola. He was in the thick of the action in the epicentre district of Kailahun following the outbreak of the Ebola virus in May, and since then there has been no looking back. This is just Mambu being Mambu. You cannot beat him at that.

Regular listeners to the ‘Good Morning Salone’ programme on Radio Democracy will recall how interviewers have called on him to exercise caution amidst fears that he may be putting himself in harm’s way. When he is guest on the programme some texters have gone as low as to warn his hosts not to get too close to him. Some have enquired whether he has had the Ebola test, while others have suggested that he has been infected.

Apart from these apparent distractions, when he is on the programme he provides a lot of insight into the Ebola campaign in various parts of the country in a manner no one does.

I have met small minds who will rather focus on his accent and the correctness of his grammar than on the substance of his messages. They want him to speak with a British accent when there is nothing as such; because the English, Scottish and Welsh accents are totally different.

How about the English accent? Well, there is nothing as such because even within England various regions have their unique accent. You know this the moment they open their mouths to speak.

But focus on irrelevances is a mere distraction. If we have other civil society organizations putting in the same commitment into the campaign as Mambu we would have achieved a lot more and possibly gotten rid of the virus. But when the campaign is reduced to money by some politicians then we have a serious problem. We would be better off focusing less on the money and more on education and dispelling conspiracy theories which does not seem to be abating. Unfortunately, some of it is now coming from overseas. Armchair critics are you listening?