KAMBIA, Sierra Leone– Amid the sound of children playing in the rooms of the Social Welfare Ministry in Sierra Leone’s Kambia district, it isn’t easy for parents and caregivers to hear their names being called out.
They all strain their ears, because none of them wants to miss out on the cash grants being distributed at the Ministry, which are providing an important boost for young victims of the continuing Ebola emergency.
Among the beneficiaries is 1-year-old Jariatu. She is an Ebola survivor and orphan, having lost her entire family, except for her great-grandmother. Jariatu is now under the care of Emma, 22, who met ‘J’, as she calls her, at the Port Loko Ebola treatment centre.
“I never imagined taking care of a baby now or even in the near future. But how could I abandon her just like that?” Emma says. “Her great-grandmother, the only surviving relative that had been traced, told me to take the baby with me because she feared J could not survive with her, as she was not strong enough. I felt an instant bond between myself and the baby, which was strange.”
There’s one common thing between Jariatu and Emma that almost certainly helped make that bond: They are both Ebola survivors. “I know what Ebola feels like and how much pain she has experienced already. All she needs now is best love and care,” says Emma in her soft voice.
Emma says she had a lovely childhood with her own mum and wants Jariatu to experience that same kind of motherly love.
“I have had my mother around me my entire life. I know the importance of a mother figure in anyone’s life, and I don’t want her to miss that. I am going to take care of her just as my mother did for me,” she says, kissing Jariatu on the cheek.
As a beneficiary of the UNICEF cash grants, Jariatu receives US$90 in two disbursements. The livelihood support is targeted at several different groups, including Ebola survivors, orphans and children who have been sexually abused. It is primarily meant to start livelihood activities in support of the children and their families. The programme targets 1,050 beneficiaries in Kambia, Port Loko, Pujehun and Moyamba districts, with 344 having received support so far.
Salmah Babu from UNICEF’s implementing partner, BRAC, a microfinance and development NGO, is on hand to encourage people to make good use of the money: “These monies are given to you to care for these children. Please use them wisely and ensure that the children fully benefit from them,” she says to those picking up their grants.
“We are supporting these children and their families because they are in real need,” says David Lamin, a Child Protection specialist with UNICEF Sierra Leone. “Not only do survivors need to replace many of their possessions destroyed when they tested positive, but the death of parents often leaves children exposed to other vulnerabilities, including violence, exploitation and abuse.”
Emma’s face is full of smiles as she receives cash for her new best friend and baby.
“I am grateful for the programme and the support we are receiving, because the money will at least help us start small business activities to help us recover,” she says.
Like Emma, most of the beneficiaries use their first instalment to replace personal effects, but have more sustainable plans for the second instalment.
“I used the first money I received to buy some clothes for J,” Emma says. “I am going to use this one to start a small business so I can earn money to take care of her.”
Jariatu has integrated well into Emma’s family, and she is loved and cared for by the whole family, including Emma’s mum, Fatmata. “J is my new granddaughter, and I’ll give her all my love and care for her as best as possible,” says Fatmata as she helps her eat her breakfast.
Emma looks forward to better days ahead, even though things are not so easy now: “I have faith that we will get over this and get back to normal,” she says. “I believe I was destined to meet J and be a mother to her. I look forward to a brighter future for us, and I’ll do all I can to help her realize her dreams.”
By Harriet Mason
UNICEF Sierra Leone