Chapter Two

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Shortly after her young friend died, more and more people were experiencing the tell-tale symptoms of nausea, diarrhoea, stomach and chest pains. It was a terrifying, sad and chaotic time, but it was then that Ikmatu heard about a local project that gave her hope.

There was a group YMCA Sierra Leone, funded by Comic Relief, which was training the community on disease and hygiene. They helped people to protect themselves and those around them. Ikmatu immediately signed up. "I saw that the adults who were meant to be involved were afraid," she said. "I wanted to save my community so I felt happy to be involved."

Once she was trained, Ikmatu and the other volunteers started going door to door spreading their knowledge. Teams of young people all stepped up to help stop Ebola. They educated others on the importance of washing their hands thoroughly multiple times a day. They told them to avoid physical contact with anyone who was sick and to never, ever touch the body of anyone who had died from Ebola - that was when the disease was at its most contagious. They would stand right up to the tape that marked the quarantined zones and beckon people over to hear their message.

Ikmatu was proud to know she was helping to prevent deaths in her community, but instead of receiving thanks she faced teasing. "They said we should not bring Ebola to their houses, they thought we had the disease. Others thought we were in it for the money, as volunteers." In reality, they were all unpaid volunteers, putting themselves on the frontline to help others.

As Ikmatu's friends learnt what she was doing, they stopped spending time with her. "My friends stayed away from me. They said I had contracted the disease. Even in the community, some people refused to respond to my greetings like they used to before the Ebola outbreak." Despite this, she did not get angry or disheartened. She persisted.

But deep inside Ikmatu too was afraid of this disease which made global headlines and seemed to take on an unstoppable life of its own. Thousands of cases were identified in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Senegal and Nigeria experienced small epidemics and cases were discovered in Europe and the USA as returning aid workers developed symptoms. In total, Ebola would kill more than 11,000 people globally, nearly 4,000 of those fatalities were in Sierra Leone alone.

"I was afraid because I might get infected by someone that had not been identified as infected yet ... They might touch me," Ikmatu said. "But as time passed, I thought fear wouldn't solve problems. I made up my mind and had the faith and belief that nothing would happen to me so I continued talking to those who were quarantined and helped them fetch water in the mornings, evenings and afternoons."

Despite the risk, Ikmatu continued her volunteer work during the height of the Ebola outbreak. She still went door to door telling people how to protect themselves and their families. She got used to the sideways glances or feeling alienated from her friends.

Her family were concerned for her health too, but knew that she felt passionate about the work she was doing. And with schools across the country closed for a year, the work also helped Ikmatu avoid restlessness and still feel positive about her future. "I got more confident, became bolder and decisive in making decisions, in anything I put my mind to."

In many ways, it's shaped the woman that Ikmatu has become.

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