Heartbreaking Portraits Of Women Who Lost Family To Ebola

Photo: Josh Estey/CARE.
Spend less than a day in Sierra Leone and you’ll hear gut-wrenching stories of loss from people whose lives were decimated by the often-fatal Ebola: Mary lost her father, along with seven brothers and sisters, an aunt, and an uncle to the virus. Conteh Mabinty contracted the disease from her husband and then passed it on to their 3-year-old daughter, who died of the disease.

Now, two years after the crisis, "Ebola orphans" — children who lost both parents in the crisis — wander their villages, hoping to find surrogate parents to take them in.

It is estimated that more than 14,000 Sierra Leoneans were infected during the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak. More than 3,500 lost their lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The first confirmed case in Freetown, the country's capital, was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) just over two years ago, on June 23, 2014.

Ebola spread virulently through Sierra Leone for a number of reasons. The country had never experienced an Ebola outbreak and its health infrastructure, already compromised by a protracted civil war, was unprepared to respond, Stacey Mearns, health coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, explained.

Then, frontline health-care workers inadvertently helped the Ebola virus spread more quickly throughout Sierra Leone. Nearly 7% of all health-care workers there died from Ebola, according to a study by the World Bank.

"There was a real lack of training and education about health-care workers as to how to protect themselves," said Rachel Hall, a program manager with humanitarian organization CARE. "So, they would contract it, then travel to a new community to help, unknowingly bringing the disease with them. Members of these communities began to think, These [health workers] are bringing sickness into our homes, and they started viewing hospitals and clinics as sources of disease."

The unfortunate fallout was that people avoided seeking help at health centers when they began showing signs of Ebola.

Today, Sierra Leone is Ebola-free, but those who survived continue to battle community-wide stigma and often have to deal with crippling physical symptoms, such as headaches, joint pain, vision problems, and other chronic health issues.

Ahead, some of the women affected by the Ebola crisis share their stories with Refinery29.

Caption: Kamara Dorgbo lost her husband to Ebola.

Editor's note: Leslie Goldman reported this story during a learning tour to Sierra Leone sponsored by nonprofit organization CARE.
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Photo: Josh Estey/CARE.
Conteh Mabinty
"When Ebola first entered my village, the chief was the first to be infected. The treatment center told him he did not have it at all. He returned home and died. Anyone who participated in washing the corpse and the burial got infected.

"[While I was being quarantined, three times for 21 days each], my mother died, as did my brother and sister. After losing my mother, the next day, I started showing signs of Ebola...and tested positive," Mabinty said.
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Photo: Josh Estey/CARE.
Mabinty contracted Ebola from her husband, Mohammed. She then passed it along to their 3-year-old daughter, who did not survive.
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Photo: Josh Estey/CARE.
Mabinty was quarantined for 63 days, during which her home and belongings were burned down, a testament to the incredible fear surrounding the disease.

When Mabinty was discharged from the treatment center on December 20, 2014, she was advised not to have sex with her husband (who himself had been released just one month prior) for 90 days.

"But I couldn’t [follow those instructions]; I had the trauma, I was in need of another child," she said.

"Then came the gossip: 'Now she’s pregnant...she’s doing this because she wants to [hurt] her husband,'" she remembered. "All of my compatriots in the village ran away from me."

Mabinty did have another child. Her son, Ibrahim, was born after the epidemic and is now about 8 months old.
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Photo: Josh Estey/CARE.
Like many Ebola survivors, Mabinty suffers from chronic joint pain. Prior to getting sick, she sold clothing, but she no longer has the strength or tolerance to carry the large container on her head. More relentless, she said, is the psychological pain that comes with losing a child, a parent, and an entire bloodline.
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Photo: Josh Estey/CARE.
A billboard tries to spread the message that Ebola survivors, including children, should not be shunned or avoided.

Mabinty said that now, her village is filled with orphans who lost both parents to Ebola.

"If you see a child sitting alone and ask, ‘What’s wrong?’ they will say, ‘I’m thinking of my mother and my father.’ Some children in the village don’t even eat food, because they are thinking of their lost parents," she said.
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Photo: Josh Estey/CARE.
Kamara Dorgbo
Dorgbo’s community was hit hard by Ebola. She lost her husband, but their children, ages 2 and 7, were not infected. She is supporting them by selling pepper, palm, and coconut oil.
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Photo: Josh Estey/CARE.
A public health announcement from CARE shows how Ebola is spread.
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Photo: Josh Estey/CARE.
Kamara Fullahmusu
Fullahmusu lost her husband, father-in-law, sister-in-law, and multiple nieces and nephews to Ebola. She estimates that only 14 members of her small village survived. Fortunately, her five children, ages 18 to 31, were not infected.

Quarantined for 63 days, Fullahmusu had no way of earning an income. With no one tending to her deceased husband's farm, nearly all of the family's produce had been eaten by rodents.

Once Sierra Leone was declared Ebola-free, she applied for a microloan from her village savings and loan association. She received 210,000 leones (about $53) to get the farm back on track and continue building the house he had been constructing for their family.

Now, she sells sugar, clothing, soap, dish pans, and locally made soap.
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Photo: Michael Lowry/CARE.
Burial customs fueled Ebola’s rapid spread.

"Here, it’s customary to undress the body and cry over it," Rachel Hall, a program manager with humanitarian organization CARE, explained. "So, people were interacting with sick bodies a lot."

Health-care workers attempted to teach alternate ways of caring for and burying loved ones, but centuries-old traditions are, understandably, difficult to change.

"Can you imagine your loved one, in their time of greatest need — fever, pain, sweating — and you’re not allowed to touch them?" said Saad El-Din Hussein Hassan, health advisor for the United States Agency for International Development. "Can you imagine your loved one dying and you’re not supposed to bury them?"
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Photo: Josh Estey/CARE.
Kargbo Mary
Kargbo Mary lost her father, along with seven brothers and sisters, an aunt, and an uncle to Ebola. Her two children are grown, but she is currently caring for four Ebola orphans, ranging in age from 12 to 15 years old. Before Mary’s father passed away, he was a member of their community village savings and loan association.

Mary has taken over that role and now works with 47 other members. She uses her share of the community money to purchase and sell rice and palm oil and make soap. She helps pay for her children’s schooling with the proceeds.