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'Ebola Is Real': Group Works Beyond Government In Sierra Leone


We're going to fix our attention on one district in the far north of Sierra Leone now - a place called Koinadugu, which for months has been able to keep Ebola out while the disease has spread around the country, but that changed recently. Koinadugu has now seen its first cases of the virus, but the numbers in the district are very small - at least for now. The nonprofit Fambul Tok is a group that has helped organize the anti-Ebola effort in Koinadugu. Their executive director is John Caulker. He joins us now from Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. Mr. Caulker, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN CAULKER: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: How has Koinadugu been able to avoid the infection for so long?

CAULKER: We took concrete measures, proactively, way back in May. The district decided to self-quarantine. There was control of movement - people coming into the district and people going out of the district. We also embark on major sensitization door to door. We involve community leaders, and we just involve the whole community to say this is a real. Ebola is real. Let us avoid Ebola.

SIMON: Sierra Leone is a society with a lot of faith healers. What do they do that might help spread the disease?

CAULKER: The act of healing involves the use of the hands. They are not trained people. They don't have gloves. It's a lot of physical touching, and that is why we are saying the faith healing practice should be stopped for now because once the patient shows signs and symptoms of Ebola and they go to a faith healer, it's almost 100 percent that they will transmit it to the faith healer and eventually to the community.

SIMON: You've been working outside the government.


SIMON: Do you think officials in the Sierra Leone government have been responsive enough?

CAULKER: Now they are, but that's the lost opportunity because had they responded way back in early June, when the virus just entered Sierra Leone, we will not have got to this point.

SIMON: You were chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone following the civil war that lasted for so many years there. Are you trying to bring some of those same skills to bear in communities where there might be people that need truth and reconciliation regarding Ebola?

CAULKER: Well, this is the fact that we have to grapple with, you know, you could imagine when the health worker who resides in the compound is the first suspect of Ebola - that family will be stigmatized. The issue of the community conflict is a present, major challenge, so we hope the skills we've got from the Fambul Tok process will be employed to address this challenge.

SIMON: Mr. Caulker your country has seen so much - civil war, terrible violence and now this threat of Ebola. Do you learn something every step in the way that might help Sierra Leone now get through this period?

CAULKER: Yes, in fact, this is the major communication we are trying to pass on to the authorities, not just to the government of Sierra Leone, to the U.S. government, to the British, to all those who are coming to our aid, to say don't treat Ebola like you treated the war. The conflict in Sierra Leone was unique, but the way it was brought to an end, it was just - once the guns were silenced, it is over. They packed and leave. We are saying deal with Ebola in a way that structures will be in place to handle post-Ebola discussions because experience or history has taught us that Ebola - there's always a possibility that it will come again. So how do we put in place structures in the communities, in the districts, in the villages, to ensure that once Ebola comes again, we'll have structures in place to deal with that immediately and it not get to where we are now.

SIMON: John Caulker is executive director of the nonprofit group Fambul Tok, that means family talk, in Sierra Leone. Thanks so much for being with us.

CAULKER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.