Life in Moyamba, Sierra Leone, was different for Abitatu and her brother Lanphia before their family was infected with Ebola. “We never knew about quarantines,” the teenage Abitatu told BBC news correspondent Tulip Mazumdar at Friday’s Women in the World London Summit. “We were all living a happy family life together.” As an advocate for Plan UK, Abitatu used to travel to surrounding villages to talk to fellow students about sexual health issues.
But then, on August 21, 2014, her family members began to show symptoms of the disease. One of her three older brothers, a surgeon, contracted the disease while operating on a patient. “At the time, very little was known about Ebola,” said Abitatu. In her village, she explained, “We used to say [the disease] was a curse against the family and we did not take it too seriously.”
Contracting the disease meant being shunned by the rest of the community. Of the 13,956 Ebola cases documented in Sierra Leone in 2014, 3,955 were fatal, according to the CDC.
Her elder brother was taken to a treatment center, and her father and another older brother went to visit. Once they returned to Moyamba, they received word that the sick brother had died, and after five days they, too, started showing symptoms and were taken away for treatment. Abitatu and her third brother Lanphia were quarantined in their family home, left to take care of their two younger sisters on their own.
“After the death of our brother and father, a few days later we started developing symptoms,” Lanphia said on Friday. “My sister was ambassador for Plan UK, so we called them and they tried to fast-track our treatment.”
But by the time Lanphia and Abitatu arrived for treatment, Lanphia had already lost consciousness, and the disease was rapidly worsening. “It was a terrible moment, because I could remember that I helped my father,” he said. “I was the only son remaining who was strong at the time … three days after he passed away, I showed symptoms. I could not walk on my own. I was in a coma by the time we arrived at the care center, and my sister was the only one caring for me. She was there taking my diapers, trying to help me eat and drink. At that time, you could survive if you drink and eat.”
Abitatu was already on the mend by then, and could tend to her brother without putting herself at further risk. “We used to pray and cry for him,” she said. “As a child I saw lots of children die.”
Lanphia pulled through, but when the brother and sister pair returned to their village, they were stigmatized by the community and risked being pushed out of their father’s house.
Today, they advocate for children orphaned by Ebola, and Abitatu has continued her work trying to lower the rate of teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone.
On stage in London on Friday, they sang a song in their native language dedicated to orphans of Ebola, and recited a poem in their honor. “Oh, Ebola, why have you done this to us? Why do you choose to let us be orphans?” it reads. “Let us be strong and courageous, and fight against our enemy, Ebola.”