Time Magazine has recognised those fighting Ebola in West Africa with its prestigious Person of the Year accolade.
Medical staff, charity workers, and volunteers are among those putting their own lives on hold to help others survive. The Mary’s Meals Liberia team have been working directly with affected communities since the crisis began, and are managing to reach 100,000 children with emergency take-home food rations while schools remain closed.
Joseph Goelo, Head of Programmes for Mary’s Meals Liberia, tells us how the team faced up to the reality of the Ebola outbreak and rose above their own fear to reach out to those most in need of support.
On the day that Ellen Johnson Sirleaf announced the State of Emergency (August 6, 2014) we were preparing everything for the start of the new term in September, arranging the food and utensils to support our school feeding programme here.
This was the day we found out that the schools would not open. We said to ourselves, “if the schools are not open, what can we do?” We were determined, as always, to feed our country’s hungry children and help them stay safe. But, of course, we also wondered what this would mean for the safety of our own staff and their families.
We had a warehouse full of food purchased for the 130,000 children enrolled in our Mary’s Meals school feeding programme. We knew the military checkpoints between our base in Tubmanburg and the capital, Monrovia, were making people stay in one place and a lot people in the communities around us were scared to move around.
Fear is very powerful and a lot of the problems came from fear. People were scared to move around and sometimes even to come into contact with each other. Food prices soared in places where there is already a serious shortage of affordable food. When we were driving around, we could see the sad and desperate faces of people who were terrified of Ebola and also suffering the daily effects of hunger and malnutrition.
But the other thing we saw were people recognising our Mary’s Meals vehicles and feeling some hope. We knew that we must find a way to deliver the food directly to the children through their families and support these communities through this bad time.
Within ten days, my team had set up a pilot project to reach 29 communities around Sinje, where the Mary’s Meals warehouse is based. It became clear that it was possible to distribute food rations to desperate communities without endangering our staff.
The first place we went to distribute food rations was Garwula District in Grand Cape Mount. The District representative pledged to arrange security for us, but I told him it was not necessary. I said, “These are people we have worked with in times of peace. We know them; they know us.”
So, we arranged for the food to be delivered from our warehouse to a central point and the District representative called us to come and supervise the distribution. As well as giving out rations, we were creating awareness about the virus. There is so much fear because Ebola is invisible, but we know how best to care for ourselves and prevent infection, so it’s important for us to teach the communities as well.
The distribution was a success. Parents came to receive rations of the same food their children would usually eat in school. We could see people cooking as soon as the food was given out, because the hunger is such a problem. People in Liberia already know hunger—it is always a very big problem here—but with the Ebola outbreak things are even worse, because people are too scared to go and do the work they would usually do to get money for food.
We quickly began repeating this process in other areas, reaching children and their communities across Grand Cape Mount and Bomi Counties. By adapting our process quickly and finding a way to serve the children through take-home rations, we are helping our people to protect themselves from the other silent killer—starvation. Through this adapted feeding programme, we are reaching 100,000 children and their families with food rations while the schools remain closed.
As far as I know, we are the only organisation here with a full staff still working. Our drivers, warehouse workers and supervisors are all still on the ground. I am Head of Programmes here and would usually spend a lot of time in the office, but I am determined to go out into the field with my team every day, to show that we are all in this together—I cannot expect my team to risk themselves if I am not prepared to do the same.
However, we are safe. The two-day training we received from the County’s Ebola specialist (put in place by the government) has equipped us with excellent knowledge on preventative measures. Mary’s Meals staff are fully aware of what is required and have the confidence to ask for whatever they need to make the distributions safe, such as hand sanitiser and gloves.
I have been asked many times ‘what is the biggest challenge we are facing’, but this work is just an extension of what we already do. Liberia was a challenging place to work even before the State of Emergency—we are used to the rainy season and the difficult roads, and we are used to the widespread hunger, and food being essential to people’s survival. Thankfully, Mary’s Meals is very well known here and the communities are very co-operative and willing to work with us.
At times like this we must care for the most vulnerable. As well as helping the children, we have responded to requests from Ebola holding centres, where people who are suspected Ebola suffers are held and cared for. Food rations are delivered to these centres in Tubmanburg, Robertsport, and Brewerville.
People who have been cured and cleared to return home are often treated as outcasts, despite their official certificate, because others are so fearful of the virus. We are also serving rations to these people, who might otherwise starve because of their situation. And, of course, some of the children from our school feeding programme have been orphaned because of Ebola, so we are supporting 58 children in an orphanage in Tubmanburg by delivering rations directly.
Every one of my team here would like to give thanks and appreciation to our colleagues and supporters in the UK and around the world. We know, since you are with us at this difficult time, you are real friends and truly care to help us.