Umaru Fofana says he 'had to let the world know' about Ebola

The World
Umaru Fofana is one of Africa's most respected journalists. But he says that covering Ebola tested him in ways he never expected

Umaru Fofana is one of Africa's most respected journalists. But he says that covering Ebola tested him in ways he never expected 

Leo Hornak/PRI

Umaru Fofana still has flashbacks to some of the worst days covering the Ebola epidemic in his hometown of Freetown, Sierra Leone.

“One [day] really stands out” he remembers. “I went to a treatment center and I saw a child. She was probably no more than five years old. Living with Ebola. Struggling. And I knew she was literally taking her last steps. And I then returned home. And I saw my own 2-year-old daughter.” He sighs. “Flashes of those moments have never disappeared from me.”

Fofana is one of Africa’s most respected journalists; he recently won a Peabody Award for his part in NPR’s Ebola coverage. But he says that the crisis tested him in ways that covering wars and human conflict never had before. Unlike the Western reporters he was working with, he knew that there was no prospect of an evacuation overseas or special medical treatment if he became infected. And he also knew that every risk he took to tell the story of Ebola was also a risk for his wife and three children.

“I had to do my job — I had to let the world know what was happening in Sierra Leone. But I also had to live with my family. And I’m very grateful to them. Despite all the risks they knew I had exposed myself to — whenever I returned home, they would hug me and they would kiss me."

As the epidemic took hold, every journey out of the house became a risk. Fofana and his wife forbade their children from leaving home under any circumstances. School had already been canceled. The Fofanas even took to locking the front door each day to keep their children inside when they went to buy groceries.

Colleagues at the BBC had given Umaru surplus supplies of anti-viral gel, and he remembers piling the packets of gel into every spare space in his car, for constant use on the road.

“Every inch! Every, every corner I had them stacked up! And then I would look at my rear view mirror to make sure I didn’t have red-shot [blood-shot] eyes,” he says. “Because of fear. We know that red-shot eyes are one of the symptoms. And we know that nothing about Ebola is conclusive. So there was even a time when we feared that it could have become airborne. I kept washing my face in the chlorine solution, even though that is not needed.”

Things have improved considerably since then. Infections continue to occur in Guinea, but Sierra Leone is currently only a few days away from being declared officially free from the virus.

Fofana has also noticed people’s behavior in Freetown returning to normal.

“Things are a lot calmer now” he says. “People have begun shaking hands again. All those chlorine solutions that dotted offices and homes have gone.” And his own family life has become more relaxed. The children are back at school and are no longer forbidden from leaving the house.

Even so, some precautions remain: “We warn the children to please be careful. And we still carry our anti-viral gel.”

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