Who can put Sierra Leone together again?
Second in a four-part series
By Jan Snider
May 19, 2015 | KENEMA, Sierra Leone (UMNS)
Lasting effects of the Ebola epidemic can be likened to a famous nursery rhyme: “All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” It’s a Humpty Dumpty moment for The United Methodist Church here and for the nation.
When blockades were imposed and public gatherings were banned, prices for rice and other staples skyrocketed. Farming, especially in groups, was limited and much seed that had been saved for cultivation had to be consumed to avoid starvation. In the urban areas especially, restaurants and other businesses where shut down and even government employees were kept away from their offices.
Just as the nation was beginning to see robust foreign investment, the epidemic spurred mass withdrawal of personnel and money. In a country with more rutted dirt roads than paved ones, a tenuous electrical grid that reaches less than 10 percent of the population and a mere scattering of Internet service, the nation’s economic future hinged on ambitious infrastructure projects. The epidemic halted all production and it is still on hold. Currently, lengthy bans on trade and travel are being lifted, albeit at a snail’s pace. Government officials estimate the nation’s economy declined by 30 percent in 2014, causing rapid economic deterioration that included unemployment, falling wages, and a scarce supply of goods and services.
It is clear that the influx of international funds and boots-on-the-ground response from non-governmental organizations has temporarily bolstered the economy. Hotels are overflowing with international experts who will leave behind a number of public health improvements.
The three affected countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have much in common: weak health care systems, lack of human and infrastructural resources, high rates of poverty, and recent emergence from conflict and instability. First surfacing in spring 2014, the torrent of Ebola cases changed the way West Africans refer to time. After more than a year of enduring the ravages of this mysterious virus, people now talk about life “before Ebola” and “during Ebola.” However, they are anxious to live in a “Post-Ebola” era. The World Health Organization reports that nearly 11,000 have died of Ebola in west Africa, and more than 26,000 were infected. In Sierra Leone, more than 12,000 have contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone and nearly 4,000 have died.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
The United Methodist Churches in Sierra Leone and Liberia are struggling to recover from the Ebola epidemic. You can donate to the conference relief efforts online through the Advance.
You can also give to the International Disaster Response fund Advance #982450 of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries.
Read full coverage of Ebola and The United Methodist Church.
Just as the response has become more robust, many citizens point to the large mansions being constructed in the hills of Freetown and attribute the building boom to pilfered “Ebola money.” The claims appear to be substantiated with the release of an audit by the Sierra Leone Anti-Corruption Commission that revealed major graft at the hands of national leaders. The report alleges that millions of dollars meant for Ebola response have been misappropriated. Asked when this corruption will end, one cynical Freetown resident shook his head and said, “It will end when Jesus comes down – but right now he is so angry with what he sees, he is cooling off.”
‘It shattered everything’
The United Methodist Church in Sierra Leone is facing its own financial crisis. At the beginning of this year, the government imposed a minimum wage that will require the conference to increase pastors’ salaries by 100 percent and the salaries of evangelists and lay pastors by 300 percent. The result will put many church employees out of a job just when their work is needed most. But Sierra Leone Bishop John K. Yambasu says the church must retrench, which might include laying off pastors and conference staff and the slowing down of church planting. Prior to the crisis, the conference amassed a six-year track record of “radical expansion” through the deployment of evangelists who planted new churches in all 14 districts in the country. These lay leaders, trained in United Methodist doctrine, received a small stipend and served in rural communities eager for church guidance. It is clear that in terms of evangelism, Ebola has been an earthquake.
“As a church, especially in a country where there is widespread economic hardship, it’s a hard decision for us to make. It means you are removing bread from the mouths of people,” he says.
Empty mouths are already a problem and could get worse.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that over 1.2 million people in West Africa need immediate assistance and by the end of the summer over 4.6 million people will face food insecurity.
As the government restricted public movement in an attempt to isolate Ebola outbreaks, markets were closed and the farmers couldn’t sell produce.
Safiatu Bockarie is a slight woman, hands seasoned in soil and eyes steeled with determination. As a member of a farming group in Tilorma village, she explains that the group’s seed inventory withered as quarantines lingered for months on end.
“We had to eat the seed we had,” she says.
The farming group is empowered through the help of an ecumenical organization called Agricultural Missions, Inc., and it normally stockpiles up to 40 bags of rice for planting. This year, they have managed to save only three.
Because there is nothing in the coffers, many fields will lay fallow. Farmers suffered an additional blow when scores of birds descended upon the fields and ate what rice was there. Sento Conteh, the group’s facilitator, explains that “bird-scaring” is a group activity outlawed because of the outbreak.
“Policemen were assigned to all the communities to watch peoples’ movements,” she says. “So, the birds destroyed most of the rice.”
As the leader of the men’s group at Kercher United Methodist Church in Kenema, Denis Ngotho Lansana is concerned about how the church will address famine.
“Food security is about to be a problem. We will feel a lot of hunger in this country,” he says. Already the church pools limited resources to help feed those members who have been widowed or orphaned by Ebola.
Every day in Combema village, farmers pass by obliterated structures that were destroyed during the decade-long civil war, which ended in 2002. Farming facilitator Sheku Bunduka says that Ebola has been a reminder of past traumas of the war.
“You really want to come up on your feet then there is another plague, this Ebola, it shattered everything.”
Yambasu says most of those who died of Ebola were in the farming and agricultural communities. With the nation largely dependent on subsistence farming, the labor force is clearly reduced. The church intends to develop a substantial agricultural program that will not only address food security but also malnutrition, especially among children, but it will take time.
Time is something they may not have. This month, farmers would normally be up to their elbows in earth as they anticipate the season’s harvest. But as fields lay fallow, Sierra Leone may have yet another looming crisis –because hungry bellies won’t wait.
Snider is special projects producer for United Methodist Communications and has reported from Sierra Leone multiple times since 2007.