The story of the three sisters is, sadly, a common one in Sierra Leone. It is a story of loss and trauma from an early age, caused by extreme poverty. With 60% of the population of Sierra Leone living below the international poverty line*, poverty is pervasive, along with its side effects of illiteracy, malnutrition and disease. Children suffer the most.
Aminata, Memunatu and Hawa lost their father first, when he became ill in their village of Kpewema near Bo. He was transported to the government hospital where he died.
Soon after, their mother went into labor with her fourth child, who was stillborn. The labor was very difficult, and on the long transport to the hospital, she too died. The inability to access health care when they needed it proved devastating to this family.
The girls lost their parents in 2015, during the height of the Ebola outbreak. Although the parents did not die from Ebola, the family was nevertheless deeply affected by the crisis. Hardly anyone in Sierra Leone escaped the Ebola epidemic unscathed. An estimated 21% of health care workers died, severely curtailing the already over-burdened system. The reduction in healthcare services caused setbacks in the treatment and control of other serious diseases, including HIV, tuberculosis, typhoid, and malaria.
With country-wide travel restrictions and wide-spread quarantines in place, an already inadequate food supply was further threatened. The World Bank estimates that two out of three households experienced increased food insecurity due to Ebola. The ripple effect of the epidemic reached deep into the households of the poor and vulnerable.
After the death of their parents, the three girls were left in the care of their late father’s sister, Nagissa. A widow who struggled with poor health, Auntie Nagissa did her best to care for the sisters, but her meager income as a petty trader barely provided enough for herself and her daughter. She worked long hours in the Bo market and the children were mostly left unsupervised. Constantly hungry, they could be seen begging and scrounging for food around the neighborhood.
As Nagissa’s health declined, she needed to seek medical treatment that was only available in Freetown, and she couldn’t take the girls with her. Desperate and unsure what to do, Nagissa appealed to the Child Reintegration Centre for help for her nieces. When CRC Education Manager Mabel Mustapha saw the children’s condition, she knew they needed to intervene. The girls were not attending school and were obviously malnourished.
“When I heard about the death of their parents, especially the mother, I could not hold back my tears,” Mabel said quietly. Reintegration Manager David Musa concurred: ”I thought to myself that if the CRC does not come in to help, this whole family will be facing problems.”
With no other obvious options, the CRC agreed to bring the girls into the residential program until Nagissa could stabilize her situation and provide an adequate home for her nieces. Aminata, Memunatu, and little Hawa moved into the CRC residence in December of 2015, a few months after the Ebola crisis was declared over.
After enduring so much trauma and loss, the CRC provided the sisters with a safe haven of predictability and normalcy, but the girls never stopped longing for their own family. Hawa especially needed constant hugs and reassurance, the result of losing her parents at such a young age.
Aminata had been in first grade when their parents died, but her younger siblings had never gone to school. The girls were excited to enroll in the nearby primary school, UMC Kulanda.
Eventually Aunt Nagissa’s health stabilized and she returned to Bo. It had always been her heart’s goal to care for her late brother’s children, and with coaching and support from the CRC staff, she was able to prepare a home for the girls.
Nagissa attended the CRC’s family strengthening program, and with the help of a small stipend, she secured a small compound in a safe neighborhood with room for an outdoor kitchen and space for the children to play. Close-knit and welcoming, the neighborhood is close to the CRC and the girls are still attending UMC Kulanda Primary, which is just around the corner.
“I am very happy to have them back,” Auntie Nagissa said happily. “Ever since they came back they have been helping me with domestic work at home. Aminata usually goes for the cooking items at the market where I am selling and brings them home to my eldest daughter. They both cook together,”
“I always help in washing the dishes and sweeping the compound,” Memunatu said proudly. Little Hawa helps her aunt care for the chickens.
Recently, a documentary crew from Helping Children Worldwide’s partner organization 1MILLIONHOME visited Sierra Leone to interview and film families like Nagissa’s who have been reunited through the CRC reintegration program. Reintegration Manager David Musa and case manager Assiatu Tarawally accompanied the film crew to Auntie Nagissa’s home to translate and check on the family.
During the film crew’s visit, a neighbor was holding a graduation party for her daughter, and everyone got in on the action. The three girls helped their neighbor prepare food for the party. Aminata pounded hot peppers, Memunatu drew water from the well for cooking, and Hawa washed dishes.
The whole compound was filled with the celebration of life, and the joy of family and community. “They were all involved in the cooking together with their auntie,” David observed. “You could feel the love when all of them are together.”
“They were all involved in the cooking together with their auntie. You could feel the love when all of them are together.” - David Musa