THE BLOG

After Ebola, Let's Not Forget Sierra Leone

10/09/2014 05:37 EDT | Updated 12/09/2014 05:59 EST
AP

by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

A decade before the Ebola crisis in West Africa, we stood at the Freetown dock in Sierra Leone's capital awaiting a shipment of health supplies for the country's eastern Kono district. The civil war had recently ended and the traumatized nation was beginning to rebuild.

We made small talk with staffers from other international charities, asking what kind supplies they awaited. Their answers left us speechless.

"We're not shipping in. We're shipping out," said one who was especially dejected, their charity's resources depleted. "When's the last time you saw a celebrity telethon for Sierra Leone?"

We couldn't blame them -- an escalation in Afghanistan had replaced Sierra Leone as the dominant headline, and in the competitive field of global development, you go where the attention is or you lose relevance and donations. But Sierra Leone needed long-term attention back then, and this time around, once the world beats back Ebola, this beleaguered nation will need help rebuilding its future.

Civil war had crippled Sierra Leone. We met children who'd been forcibly recruited as soldiers, drugged into compliance and ordered to commit brutal acts. We watched a playground of students scatter in fear at the loud bang of a book hitting the ground, mistaking it for gunfire. Schools, health systems, social networks and psyches were in tatters.

But Canadian children never abandoned Sierra Leone. Since the war, their small but determined efforts have raised funds to build 35 schoolrooms in Kono district -- educating 700 students a day. Two clean water projects have been built; an animal husbandry program with goats and chickens provides steady income for over 100 families.

On our multiple visits to the region we've seen the life-changing impact of these young Canadians' attention. Kono's junior high school has a science lab, library and playground, plus sports days and music, dance and literary clubs -- subjects never considered during the violence more than a decade ago. Students distribute leaflets about children's rights and mosquito nets to fight malaria in a country with the world's fifth-highest prevalence of the killer disease.

These promising examples don't diminish the massive challenges that Sierra Leone faced before Ebola struck. The country remains in the bottom five of the United Nations' Human Development Index with a life expectancy under 46 years. Over half the population lives on less than US$1.25 a day, and one in five children die before age five.

But there was hope. And children had dreams.

On our last visit, before Ebola struck, we met young people who define resilience. Sarah Karim sees the scars of civil war on her way to school every day, and her single mother buys charcoal in the surrounding villages and resells to provide for her four children. Yet because Sarah is in school, the teen still dared to envision "a good job, sustainable income, loving family and peaceful community." Several classmates dream of becoming doctors -- a crucial profession in a country with one physician for every 50,000 people and many health crises to tackle.

Indeed, this worst Ebola outbreak in recorded history has been abetted by a critical lack of health infrastructure -- and we can't help but think back to that day on the dock. Would today's headlines be different if those aid shipments had been coming in for the long haul instead of going out to the next crisis zone?

The global community is admirably directing attention and resources--though still not yet enough--to towards West Africa for the struggle against Ebola.

Like a decade ago, the goal is to end the Ebola crisis and allow a nation to begin its recovery. The next step will be to re-open schools shuttered by chaos and fear, allowing the next generation of health practitioners to be educated. But success will only be achieved -- and the next crisis averted before it begins -- if we all follow the example of those Canadian children who refused to ship out of Sierra Leone until the job was done.

Brothers Craig and Marc Kielburger founded a platform for social change that includes the international charity, Free The Children, the social enterprise, Me to We, and the youth empowerment movement, We Day.

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