Sierra Leone: Images from the Real Face of the Ebola Crisis

A few ladies tool around on a motorcycle at the ocean’s edge in Freetown. Although Ebola enters its sixth month in the capital, people can only sustain sadness for so long, and the girls seem to be enjoying themselves this afternoon. They’re taking it “small, small,”—meaning, slowly—since no one wants to end up in hospitals now. Image by Amy Maxmen. Sierra Leone, 2014.

Paramount Chief Alhaji Amara B. Vangahun (in white) presides over some 25,000 people in the Nongowa Chiefdom in Kenema, the eastern district of Sierra Leone. Government officials may enforce the law, but people listen to the chief. Kenema was a hot spot for Ebola a few months ago, but Chief Vangahun fought it back by demanding that his constituents refrain from parties, religious congregations, washing the deceased before burial, and any other practices that might fuel the virus’s spread. Image by Amy Maxmen. Sierra Leone, 2014.

When Ebola arrived in Kenema, in eastern Sierra Leone, doctors, nurses and laboratory technicians hardly knew what it was—never mind the precautions they needed to take to protect themselves. Fliers on the walls of Kenema General Hospital commemorate dozens of staff who succumbed to the terrible disease. Most were in their twenties. Image by Amy Maxmen. Sierra Leone, 2014.

At Kenema General Hospital, many of the brave staff who care for patients and handle corpses have not been paid for two months. Here, Mohammed Koroma stands in front of the overflowing morgue. His job is to carry dead bodies to the morgue, clean them and send them to the graveyard. He went on strike but was coaxed back to work by his supervisor, who asked him to volunteer for his country. He’s here handling this vital job, but he’s also tired, hungry and needs money for rent. “We have no power,” Koroma says. Image by Amy Maxmen. Sierra Leone, 2014.

The blood from people who have survived Ebola might help cure patients, so some survivors, including the two people above, have donated their blood. I ask the woman, Fudia Sesay, why she donated. She answers: “I watched 20 or 30 people die beside me for weeks in the Ebola ward. You watch, and you think, I’ll be next. You wake up, and the person you talked with the day before is being dragged out by men in white suits. When you walk to the toilet, you jump over dying bodies, and you cry as you do it. I’m donating my blood so no one has to go through all that.” Image by Amy Maxmen. Sierra Leone, 2014.

When Ebola hit, internationally run extraction companies deserted Sierra Leone, leaving local workers jobless. Here is an abandoned Chinese mining company outside of Freetown. Most of Sierra Leone’s export revenue comes from the extraction industry, dealing in diamonds, gold, iron and bauxite. Image by Amy Maxmen. Sierra Leone, 2014.

A woman in the Kamboma village pounds palm tree seeds to collect the nuts within. Later, she’ll fry, pound and boil the nuts to extract their oils. Normally she sells palm oil at the market—but she can’t now because her village has cut itself off from contact with outsiders to prevent Ebola from entering. That strategy seems to have worked, but the village has become poorer. Now the community must subsist almost exclusively on the products made within its borders. Image by Amy Maxmen. Sierra Leone, 2014.

A medical student catches a ride into villages on the outskirts of Freetown, where he will check on people who feel ill. If he thinks they show signs of Ebola, such as a fever, vomiting or bloody-red eyes, he’ll call for an ambulance. Image by Amy Maxmen. Sierra Leone, 2014.

The Swab Team. Men on motorcycles collect saliva samples (swabs) from people who have died, place them in a safe container on the back of their bikes, and ride them to a laboratory where laboratory technicians test the samples for Ebola with molecular techniques. Image by Amy Maxmen. Sierra Leone, 2014.

Children laugh and kick a soccer ball behind the wall of a courtyard near Ascension Road in Freetown. For all the hardship and terror that Ebola causes, Sierra Leoneans astound me daily with their humor, compassion and breathtaking bravery. Image by Amy Maxmen. Sierra Leone, 2014.

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone—If you’ve even glanced at the news in the past several months, the grainy image of the microscopic, wormy Ebola virus as well as photographs of otherworldly workers dressed in hazmat suits have passed before your eyes. From afar, the contagion devastating West Africa can seem foreign or even reminiscent of bad science fiction—and perhaps that’s one reason why the world responds relatively slowly as the outbreak persists into its second year.

Hazmat suits represent only a slight fraction of what I see on the ground in Sierra Leone while on a reporting fellowship here this month. Although the virus permeates all aspects of life, it’s really in the background. Up front are humans who love, eat, work, pray and play. And none of that feels the least bit foreign to me. In this slide show, I’ve intentionally left out photos of Ebola treatment tents and hazmat suits. You’ve probably already seen that. I want to give you a glimpse of the 99 percent.