How Women Helped Lead the Fight Against Ebola in Liberia

Mama Tumeh on the porch of her home outside of Monrovia. A member of the Kissi tribe, she heads the Liberian organization Traditional Women United for Peace.

Mama Tumeh on the porch of her home outside of Monrovia. A member of the Kissi tribe, she heads the Liberian organization Traditional Women United for Peace.

How Women Helped Lead the Fight Against Ebola in Liberia

by Kayla Ruble

June 5, 2015 | 8:02 pm

Mama Tumeh sits on a plastic chair on the porch of her pale green home outside the Liberian capital of Monrovia. Well into her seventies, gray hair pokes out of her traditional white head wrap, which she wears with a long, patterned dress. She cools herself with a handheld fan as she waits for her 35-year-old granddaughter Juliana Fayiah, who arrives wearing black pants, a colorful top, and uncovered hair, along with a large gold watch and hoop earrings.

A prominent figure in Liberia, Mama Tumeh is member of the Kissi ethnic group and a tribal elder who has lived in the small village of Parker Corner for her entire life. She has seen her country through 14 years of civil war, the peace and reconciliation process, and efforts to help Liberia's traditional women modernize while maintaining their values. But last year she was tasked with leading her community through an unexpected and unimaginable crisis: The devastating Ebola virus outbreak that spread through Liberia, claiming more than 4,800 lives and infecting nearly 11,000 people.

The head of Liberian organization Traditional Women United for Peace, Mama Tumeh recognized the urgency of the Ebola crisis almost immediately. She quickly jumped into action, working not only protect Parker Corner, but also to unite other traditional leaders in the fight against the deadly disease. She implemented a host of rules and guidelines for her community to keep the virus out, while also leading outreach programs in other parts of the country.

Her efforts are just one example of community-based solutions put into action by local leaders, efforts that have since been recognized as the driving force behind the country's success in getting down to zero cases nationwide. Just across the border, Guinea and Sierra Leone are still reporting new infections, with 25 registered in the last week of May.

Related: VICE on HBO: Evolution of a Plague

Mama Tumeh on the porch of her home outside of Monrovia. A member of the Kissi tribe, she heads the Liberian organization Traditional Women United for Peace.

The deadly hemorrhagic fever has so far infected more than 26,000 people, and like many other communities in the three countries hardest hit by the outbreak, Mama Tumeh's people did not initially believe that Ebola existed when it first arrived in March of 2014. The denial was partly due to the fact that Ebola was a completely foreign disease.

"When Ebola came… some people can be scared," she told VICE News, explaining that people did not know what to do, especially come last June when the virus spread to Monrovia, the country's largest urban center.

Beyond denial, the traditional communities were not equipped or trained to effectively prevent the spread of the virus, a situation that was exacerbated by the slow initial response from the government and international community. After attending a workshop last summer, Mama Tumeh enlisted the help of her granddaughters, Fayiah and Elizabeth Tomba, to assist in ensuring that Ebola would not find a home in their small but dense community perched on a hill in Parker Corner.

"[We decided] nobody can come from outside to sleep here, no coming inside to spend time here," Tumeh said, explaining that all visitors were barred from entering. "If you leave and come back, we quarantine you, we keep you where no one can come around you for 21 days."

The women orchestrated the community response measures through a task force they developed. Mama Tumeh disseminated her message to residents, while also attending meetings around the country to help facilitate response efforts with other traditional community leaders. She explained that her standing in the community was crucial to helping traditional Liberians understand the severity of the Ebola outbreak.

"You've got a family, do you not trust your mother? Do you not trust your pa? Does your pa not trust your grandpa, or your mother your grandmother? That's how we grow up," she said explaining that trust is similarly passed down in the community. "That's how we grow up here, my grandmother was a big woman, [so] I will grow up with that too, [for] the traditional people the culture is respectful."

Related: The Fight Against Ebola (Full Length)

Mama Tumeh (center) sits with her granddaughters Juliana Fayiah (left) and Elizabeth Tomba (right). Together, they worked to ensure that Ebola would not spread in their small but dense community.

With their grandmother too old to personally cover the undeveloped landscape by foot, Fayiah and Tomba went out as her ambassadors to homes nearby. They would count the number of people in the house, check on their health, and, in the event that someone had been quarantined for leaving the village, they would provide food rations and other supplies.

The pair also traveled to other traditional communities — sometimes even venturing outside of Monrovia's Montserrado County — to disseminate Ebola awareness information and pass out thermometers, gloves, and other supplies. Their efforts proved successful: Not a single person in the village fell ill, a claim that few parts of Montserrado County can make.

In March, Fayiah and Tomba spent an afternoon walking through a nearby community passing out buckets to be used as hand-washing stations. The use of water spiked with bleach was key to halting the spread of Ebola, and a measure that many people want to see kept in place even after the virus disappears from Guinea and Sierra Leone.

During the outbreak, most businesses required customers to wash their hands before entering, and residents were also encouraged to keep the buckets at their front door. As fears of contracting Ebola wane in Liberia, the practice has started to die down, but Mama Tumeh's granddaughters believe hand washing should continue in case the virus returns.

"You have to keep washing your hands," Tomba said, explaining that many homes still do not have buckets, or people have moved their buckets indoors for other uses. "They say 'I trust in God,' and I say, 'Yeah, you can trust God, but wash your hands.'"

Related: 'I'm Going to Live': American Ashoka Mukpo on What It's Like to Have Ebola

 

Fayiah and Tomba walk in a neighborhood outside of their village delivering buckets to homes for people to use when washing their hands, an important Ebola prevention measure.

 

 

Families listen to instructions about the hand washing bucket and the importance of stay alert in the fight against Ebola.

Though the World Health Organization (WHO) has officially declared Liberia Ebola-free, Fayiah and Tomba are still working to keep Ebola prevention measures in place, particularly when it comes to monitoring symptoms and visitors.

"There was a time it was difficult to believe it would come to this place [to zero cases], because every day people died, every day 100, 200 people died," Fayiah said. "So there came a time where we almost lost hope, but with the help of God we came through it."

Traditional women, who often leave school at an early age, do not typically pursue professional careers, and instead stay home with the children. According to Fayiah, this helped prevent many women in these communities from contracting Ebola, but their husbands — who were going out to work, find food, or to care for someone who was sick — were seemingly more vulnerable. Fayiah stressed the importance of restarting programs that help women financially, such as helping them sell traditional fabrics or other avenues that blend their values with the need to earn an income.

Fayiah and Tomba faced their own challenges during the outbreak. Due to border closures, Fayiah went more than eight months without seeing her 12-year-old son, who stayed in Sierra Leone when she returned to Liberia a few years ago to care for her aging grandmother. After the border reopened in March, she was finally able to resume her monthly visits.

"Before Ebola I used to go there every month to see him," she said, adding that her son would cry on the phone and ask to see her. "Each time he would say 'Mom are you coming?' and I'd say 'after Ebola.' When he heard the borders were open, he called me, he was so happy." 

Related: The End of Ebola: Inside the Race to Finish Vaccine Trials in Liberia

The enhanced community work during the outbreak gave the women a more prominent role as traditional leaders. The time is coming for them to follow in the footsteps of their grandmother, and Mama Tumeh explained that passing on traditions to the younger generation is key.

"If you only take the values of these days, of the Western world, you would find at the end of the day if we all leave the world, then who will remember our culture," she said.

Eventually, traditional head wraps will replace Fayiah and Tomba's uncovered hair that is pulled back in a ponytails or headbands. They will also have to swap their pants for the traditional patterned skirts and dresses, known in Liberia as alappa.

"[My grandmother] she always say 'No, we don't wear trousers,' she feels bad when we do. But when she's gone, I won't wear trousers, I'll wrap my hair," Tomba said. "But now I'm going out to talk about Ebola so I need to be protected, I won't be wearing a lappa."

 

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB