Even love does not fear death

Sierra Leoneans take center stage as storytellers and active witnesses in a new documentary about the Ebola outbreak.

Still from Survivors–Hope and Resilience in the Time of Ebola.

The film, Survivors–Hope and Resilience in the Time of Ebola, opens with Mohamed B. Bangura, a senior ambulance driver in Freetown, Sierra Leone, who is not shy about his heroism. Peering into the camera, he tells us that fear, from the onset of the Ebola outbreak, held everyone hostage. Even the film crew didn’t have the courage to come and interview him when the outbreak started. Mohamed is followed by Arthur Pratt, a pastor and the director of the film, who is frank, yet also a comforting and compassionate advocate and guide. He pulls us into a constellation of characters and stories and insists the audience consider a new perspective to what really happened in the time of Ebola.

The film centers on the complications that accompany fear and the abrupt disruption that threatens to destroy the very foundation of the community’s social contract: trust. It is a test of people’s faith, depicting the heart of Sierra Leonean culture, its diverse religious beliefs and tolerance. The acts of faith are made more poignant when a woman describes her mother’s embrace after she was declared Ebola free: “even love does not fear death.”

The film interweaves the personal and the political, as it attempts to piece many moving and complicated pieces together. It interrogates the notion of survival and surviving. Foday Koroma, a 12-year-old boy living in the streets of Freetown, invites us to explore life at the intersection of poverty and resilience, mirroring the landscape that enables Ebola to thrive. We get a glimpse into another world of survivors—children living in abject poverty and lacking social support at the height of an epidemic. Foday and his friends navigate a city on the edge of fear.

Arthur’s own story is brought to the center as he and his wife reminisce about how they fell in love—despite their current fears over her high-risk pregnancy. His story resonates with many who struggled to access health care services during the outbreak, especially pregnant women. His wife is lucky; she delivers a healthy baby boy. Yet, later we see a mother hand over her 18-month old Ebola-positive baby. The mother gasps for air before breaking into tears as she watches her sick baby enter the ambulance. In that scene, we become witnesses to deep anguish.

Margaret Sesay, the nurse at the Ebola Treatment Center (ETC) brings the commitment and compassion of health care workers to the heart of the film. She prays for every patient she tends to, breaking off a piece of faith to share as generously as possible. Not everyone is like Margaret though, and this is what brings nuance to the film. A nurse refuses to tend to a pregnant woman at a community health center because she is not registered in that area. We see disagreements among Sierra Leoneans when a patient is brought to Connaught Hospital. The tension rises as the call for a white health worker is made. Later in the film, white responders become the outsiders who arrogantly make decisions at the expense of local nurses, ambulance drivers and others on the response teams. This unearthing of power-dynamics provides depth without over-explanation.

The film’s strongest feature is its centering of Sierra Leonean voices. The only time we hear a non-Sierra Leonean voice is towards the end of the film when the 18-month old boy Ibrahim, survives Ebola and his father cries for joy as he clings to his son. We see the compassion and dedication of both local and international actors. Even when the non-Sierra Leonean doctor speaks, she re-directs attention to the strength and resilience of Ibrahim, the baby boy who brought joy and hope to the Ebola Treatment Center.

This film brings to life the raw honest humane story of Ebola in Sierra Leone from those hardest hit, its people. I cried throughout the film, because just like Arthur, Foday, Mohamed and Margaret, I was there. I remember how hands remained out stretched—to help, to hold, to comfort—despite the risks. We lived on shared faith.

The film sends a resounding message by repositioning its storytellers not only as proactive actors, but also as active witnesses to the crisis; ushering us to move past any assumption that Sierra Leoneans were passive recipients of structural, human or financial support. Rather, the interwoven narratives of Mohamed Bangura, Foday Koroma and Nurse Margaret Sesay, pull us into a world colored by the grace and resilience of ordinary people surviving extraordinary circumstances.

Survivors makes its US national broadcast debut on PBS’s documentary series POV, Monday, September 24, 2018 at 10pm Easter US time (check local listings). You can also check the stream at pov.org.

About the Author

Fatou Wurie is a social justice advocate currently consulting on innovative solutions for gender equality at UNICEF headquarters in New York City.

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