The road to Barkedu is rich clay red with thigh-deep potholes and bordered by luxuriant bush. A police checkpoint warns you that you are entering a restricted access area. There are no “Ebola is Real” placards as you see in the capital Monrovia but there are other visual reminders.
Small clusters of houses show no signs of life. Farming families left in a hurry to escape sickness. Only some are slowly returning. Fields that would normally be busy with labourers as harvest time approaches are empty.
As we arrive in Barkedu’s wide main street, community members are gathering in the solid new meeting hall opposite the town mosque. Paramount chief Moussa Kamara addresses his people and acknowledges the first consignment of rice from WFP, delivered by the local county health teams. The community is prioritizing families who have lost members to Ebola or who have been sick and survived.
But Kamara tells us that ongoing food assistance is needed for the close to 10,000 people in the village and scattered surrounding settlements.
“For months now we have not been farming our fields, because people have been sick, people have been dying, people have been quarantined. Our own market is closed, we cannot move to secure food and supplies are not coming in,’ Kamara said.
We update the chief on how the World Food Programme is securing new warehouse space in northern Liberia’s transport hub Voinjama and boosting its teams on the ground to meet growing needs of communities affected by Ebola.
Among those listening to the paramount chief is Varlee Telleh, an elegant 60-year-old man, who radiates sadness. The virus claimed his wife, who died at home, as well as two sons and a daughter in law.
Varlee and his youngest son, 4-year-old Loseme, survived, while another son, who also received medical treatment, did not make it. All three spent several weeks in the one functioning Ebola Treatment Centre in the north – two and a half hours drive away in Foya.
Varlee has not yet moved back into his family home. It has been disinfected with chlorine, but he still fears the sickness and, he admits, the memories. But he must deal with practical concerns.
“Today after this period of grieving, one of my main worries is to how to cover the loss from the fields. I am not longer able to tend or harvest them. I wonder how I will provide for my dependents, my extended family. I worry about feeding those who are left after all this”.
As of Sept. 8, Barkedu counted 165 deaths from Ebola – one fifth of the country’s fatalities.
In our brief stroll through Barkedu we see houses that are boarded up and roped off. These are all where people have died, possibly, probably from Ebola. No one is taking any chances.
The presence of survivors in Barkedu is important, as it means that Ebola is not neccessarily a death sentence yet the fear is deep and integrating survivors not always easy. Some survivors display their medical certificates but their pride is muted. Others are being engaged by the local Ebola Task Force as advocates, telling families how to prevent and cope with Ebola.
As we pass the site of the district market, which used to draw farmers and traders from far and wide, goats nibble grass underneath the simple wooden stalls. It is a skeleton.
Ironically, Barkedu sits in one of the richest agricultural zones in Liberia and until the Ebola scourge, crops forecasts for farmers this year had been looking good.
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