Making it in a man's world: how three women in Sierra Leone transformed their lives in wake of the Ebola crisis

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Sarah Biddlecombe

It was an epidemic that spread like wildfire across West Africa, claiming the lives of over 11,000 people.

But last month marked the euphoric one year anniversary since Sierra Leone was declared Ebola-free by the World Health Organisation.

After the deaths of almost 4,000 people, with some 14,000 struck “like lightening” by the virus, the communities in Sierra Leone struggled to cope with the mass casualties and some 20,000 orphans.

However, the outbreak has seen a new generation of women come to the fore, with women taking up traditionally male roles to raise the funds to care for themselves and their families in the wake of tragedy.

Here, meets three women who have tackled the gender divide, with a burial worker, a farmer and a mechanic telling their tales of survival against all odds.

The burial worker – Isha Conteh, 25

Isha Conteh (middle) with two other members of the Safe and Dignified burial team

Isha Conteh (middle) with two other members of the Safe and Dignified burial team

When Ebola struck her village in the northern district of Kambia, Isha Conteh was horrified to learn that womens’ bodies were being prepared for burial by men. Determined to give her fellow female villagers a traditional burial, in which their bodies would only be touched by women, she spent 18 months working as part of the Safe and Dignified burial team.

However, this brave act meant Isha was shunned by those closest to her, including her family, friends and boyfriend, all of whom feared she would contract the disease and pass it to them.

Isha Conteh

Isha Conteh

Isha Conteh is one of a number of women carving out a new future for herself and her family in post-Ebola Sierra Leone. She was one of the heroes of the Ebola crisis – not that her face is well known. During her 18 months as a burial team member in the northern district of Kambia, it would have been covered by a protective mask – an essential part of the outfit that kept her safe from the virus as she dealt with the dead.

She received no hero’s welcome from the communities she served. With anti-Ebola measures banning people from performing traditional rites like washing and dressing corpses, angry relatives often took out their frustration on burial workers, stoning their vehicles.

And worse happened closer to home. “When I joined the burial team, I was deserted by my parents, friends, colleagues and my boyfriend,” Isha said. “They feared I was going to contract the disease and spread it to them.”

She’d already been forced to give up her education when studying for the equivalent of her A-levels because her father had been too sick, and financial circumstances meant she had to take care of her family.  

Rather than studying, Isha had instead gone into the more profitable business of selling roast chickens. But restrictions on the sale of meat – prompted by concerns about Ebola being spread through bushmeat – meant Isha’s business was suddenly curtailed.

However, when women in her community began to die from Ebola, Isha was horrified to learn that their corpses were being handled by men. This went against centuries of tradition, in which the role of dressing the corpse had culturally been performed by women, regardless of their personal faith.

The Safe and Dignified burial team in full protective gear

The Safe and Dignified burial team in full protective gear

“I thought that was a disgrace to the women,” Isha said. “According to our culture and tradition, female corpses should be handled by women and not men.”

“I volunteered to be part of the burial team because I wanted to restore the dignity of these poor women,” she added.

Isha’s role in the team was to put corpses into body bags and then load them into an ambulance for burial. She started work at 7am and returned home at 6pm, although sometimes had to work much later if the team were sent to a particularly remote village that was far from their home.

Isha with her burial team

Isha with her burial team

Isha was one of 60 people who worked in a burial team during the Ebola crisis, and she was paid 500,000 Leones (approximately £60) per week for her work. 

She believes the project has helped her turn her life around and, now that they’re reconciled, that of her family too. She has been able to secure land left by her father that had previously been under threat from encroaching developers, and has resumed trading. She is also currently building a house on the land.

“I can now take care of my mother, younger brothers and sisters – as well as myself,” she said. “Life is so much better now than it was before.”

The survivor – Nancy Sannoh, 28

Nancy Sannoh, right, talking to a friend

Nancy Sannoh, right, talking to a friend

Nancy Sannoh tragically lost both her husband and her elder brother – her family's main breadwinner – to Ebola.

But incredibly, despite contracting the virus herself, she beat the odds and survived. However, this meant she was left with both a devastating loss and the challenge of becoming economically empowered in order to care for both her own, and her brother’s, children.

Nancy Sannoh

Nancy Sannoh

The Ebola outbreak has seen a new generation of women living in the village of Kenema come to the fore. Nancy Sannoh, 28, lost her husband, Kennie Sheriff Sannoh, and her elder brother – the family breadwinner – to Ebola. She too was infected but survived. “After contracting the virus, I was very sick, sad and afraid that I wouldn’t make it,” she said. “I was neglected and even asked to leave the house I was living in. I was so scared and lost confidence that I would survive as all those in the treatment room centre died one after the other.”

“Emotionally, I felt depressed and hopeless,” she added.

During the crisis, Nancy was appointed as a “youth leader” in the Combema community. She received training, delivered by the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD) through its partner Caritas Kenema, in how basic hygiene measures could help to stop the virus in its tracks. She also helped spread the message through her community.

“After the training sessions no-one else was infected and people’s fears were relieved,” she said. “The community now knows how to protect itself from Ebola, and general hygiene has also improved.”

Nancy farming

Nancy farming

The aftermath of the crisis has left Nancy looking after not only her own two daughters, three-year-old Watta and seven-year-old Mariama, but her late brother’s five orphaned children as well.

But a Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) funded project managed by CAFOD has supported her with counselling, as well as providing training in small-scale farming and capital to help grow the business selling her crops, which include swamp rice, groundnuts, cassava and vegetables.

Speaking of her hopes for the future, Nancy said: “I want my daughters to be educated and to improve my farming business techniques.”

The groundbreaker – Felicia Gotto, 17

Felicia working as a mechanic

Felicia working as a mechanic

Felicia Gotto was tragically orphaned when Ebola hit the village of Medina in the south east of Sierra Leone. With no family to support her, Felicia feared for her life – until a startling opportunity was presented to her.

Ebola orphan Felicia Gotto is transforming her life – and the world around her – one shock absorber at a time.

Felicia, who had never been to school, had been selling the local snack pepper cake to help her family get by until the virus claimed the lives of her parents. Her future looked bleak.

“After my parents died, I had no family support. I was also shunned by some people in the community who were fearful after the death of my parents,” she said. “I felt sad, neglected, afraid and very worried that I too would be infected by the virus. I tried to think what I could do to be self-reliant, so I could support myself and my younger sister.”

Now, however, one year after the country was declared Ebola-free, you’ll find Felicia covered in oil, smiling and sharing jokes with male co-workers at the Old Man Garage.

Felicia is a year into her auto-mechanics training arranged by Caritas Kenema in sponsored_longform with CAFOD. Her course is funded by the DEC, which raised £37m from the British public to tackle the Ebola pandemic and aid affected West African countries in their recovery.

As a female mechanic, she’s something of an anomaly in male-dominated Sierra Leonean society. But she won’t let tradition stand in the way of her dreams.

“There were no women mechanics around here. But I have a passion for this work," she said. “I want to prove to the world that women can be competent mechanics and inspire others to follow me into the trade,” she added.

Felicia, middle, with friends

Felicia, middle, with friends

Thanks to her training, Felicia can strip down engines, fix brakes, perform oil changes and replace fuel tanks damaged on the country’s rutted dirt roads.

And while she’s not paid during training, she makes cash doing odd jobs for the garage’s customers. She might only receive the equivalent of a pound or two each time but this has been enough to cover her rent and pay for food.

“Now I’m saving up to buy a toolbox so that I can strike out on my own doing car maintenance,” she said. “I am so thankful to donors for helping me to improve myself.”

But what do the men make of having a woman in their midst? “They are supportive and happy for me. They often praise me. It proves that whatever a man can do, a woman can too.”

Her boss, Simeon Ngeyboi, added: “Felicia is a hard-working and determined young woman. Without a doubt, I am sure she will achieve her dream to become a mechanic”. 

Images and additional reporting with thanks to CAFOD


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Sarah Biddlecombe

Sarah Biddlecombe is an award-winning journalist and Digital Features Editor at Stylist

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