Elizabeth Katta has collected children throughout her life. The latest addition to her household is bouncing on her lap in the southern city of Bo, at the DRIM disability rights centre.
The seven-month-old baby is Elizabeth’s nephew, who was born to her younger sister during the Ebola crisis. Baby Munda is making a lunge for his aunt’s mobile. After a brief but enjoyable suck it is pulled from him and he bends down to chew his sandals instead.
Munda – shiny, portly and placid – is passed between his aunt and her other adopted child, Ramatu. Now 16, she took a shine to Elizabeth when she came to her village, 11 years ago, and has stayed with her ever since. She’s now training to be a motor mechanic at DRIM.
After a brief grizzle, Munda is hushed and falls asleep on his aunt’s lap, despite the steady clanging coming from the blacksmith’s forge and the whirr of sewing machines from a tailoring class.
Elizabeth exudes charisma and boasts a different hairstyle every day. A single parent, she is also a women’s and disability rights activist, and a friend to girls everywhere.
A child is a collective responsibility, even one that is born in unusual circumstances. Everyone helps to bring up a baby because they may turn into a big person in the future! My sister’s baby is healthy and he eats well, luckily for us.
The baby looks like his father, but he belongs to us, so we named him Munda, which means ‘our own’ in Mende.
My sister was sent back to our village during the outbreak because the disease was more rampant here in the city of Bo. There was no money or business flowing, so she had to help out selling cake and cassava bread.
She met a boy. He was much older than her. I thought he was arrogant. He used to buy up all her wares for his friends. He gave her the impression he could take care of her.
My sister loves Munda because he is her firstborn. But she doesn’t want to remember her pregnancy; it makes her cry if we speak of it. She’s ashamed because the father refused to recognize his child. She has gone to live with an elder sister to attend school near Makeni, over 100 kilometres from here. She telephones for news of the baby every day.
To me, Ebola was a real wickedness for women
Many girls fell pregnant during Ebola. We call it ‘pikin bon pikin’ (children having children). They were out of school, and often having to support their families. I run a self-help group for 30 girls who have suffered obstetric fistula [a disability caused by extended labour in underage girls that leads to incontinence], supported by Forward UK. Four of my girls got pregnant during the crisis.
Satta is one of them. At the time of Ebola she was 14, the eldest of five children. Her mother was a trader, so when the markets were shut down, the family was hungry and she went to live with her aunt in Bo, who sent her to sell roasted groundnuts at the junction.
On her way there, Satta met a man who helped her a great deal. He was 22, had a good job constructing houses. He gave her 100,000 Leones ($24) – more than her whole family income – and she slept with him. Later, when she got pregnant, he denied he was responsible, until family pressure forced his hand.
Satta had a complicated labour that lasted three days and ended in a caesarean. She lost the baby and was left with obstetric fistula. She faced a lot of stigma. Her friends mocked her; her boyfriend beat her every night because she messed in his bed. One night, he beat her so badly that she returned home to her parents. Later he abandoned her altogether.
Teenage pregnancy in Sierra Leone
1 in 4 aged 15-19 pregnant or mothers in 2013
40-65% increase in rates of pregnancy in some areas during Ebola
I referred Satta for treatment at the West Africa Fistula Foundation in Bo government hospital where they repaired the damage caused by childbirth. Satta tells me that she will never accept a man like that again. She works with me to warn others of the dangers. My girls say: ‘Obstetric fistula stops with me.’
To me, Ebola was a real wickedness for women. We were pushed to the forefront as caregivers, and sexually exploited by men.
I speak up for the girls of Sierra Leone. I really want to change this story. What happened to Satta and my sister gives me the strength and courage to continue with my advocacy. I don’t want other girls to suffer the way they did. I want things to change in this country.’