About 20km east of Freetown is an unassuming yet remarkable collection of magnolia buildings. Accessible only via a series of dusty, winding roads that open onto a breathtaking landscape, Heaven Homes houses 51 children who lost their parents to the Ebola virus that has ravaged Sierra Leone over the past year.
When the first case was recorded in the country in June 2014, it was impossible to foresee the scale of devastation the crisis would go on to cause. Over 3,950 people have since died as a result of contracting the virus in Sierra Leone alone. Two more deaths in a northern village this September sparked concern that the epidemic was not yet over, but on 7 November, 42 days since the last recorded case, the country was finally declared Ebola-free.
As Sierra Leone looks to a brighter future, the shadow of Ebola remains. British charity Street Child estimates that over 3,000 Sierra Leonean children have been orphaned by the virus, and at least 12,000 have lost their primary caregiver. In a country wracked by poverty, many of those whose parents died were taken in by relatives or neighbours who were already living hand-to-mouth, but with the stigma attached to such a virulent disease, some were abandoned entirely.
Hannah Kanu has made an extraordinary sacrifice as Sierra Leone seeks to overcome the tragedy of the past year. At 60 years old, she has welcomed 51 orphaned children into her own home.
When we pulled up to the house, it was almost silent – the children were in school, which is just a short walk away and also run by Hannah, the proprietress. Later on, they filled the grounds; shouting hellos, giggling, and running after our car. Built before the Ebola outbreak in 2010, the school now has over 160 pupils, almost a third of whom are orphans. Those 51 are currently living in Hannah’s house, but she is having a number of bungalows built nearby where they will live in groups of five along with an ‘aunty’.
Her face, usually bright and smiling, clouded over when I asked her to describe the effect Ebola had on the children she now mothers. “It is pitiful to remember,” she recalled.
“Some of these kids were sleeping at the market place because there was nobody to take care of them. Some of them were sleeping at the cinema halls.”
Already a respected member of the community because of her school, Hannah was asked by local counsellors linked to Tearfund’s partner the Evangelical Fellowship of Sierra Leone if she would take in some orphans from the local area.
Soon afterwards, 23 children arrived on her doorstep. The youngest was just three years old.
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