Lucee watched Ebola kill her father.
In the small house she grew up in with two brothers, 12 and 4, she stared in silence as the disease swallowed him whole. She couldn’t save him—he’d made her promise not to try.
“He gave us a strict warning not to come near him,” the 16-year-old tells me through a translator. “He got so sick, but wouldn’t let us come in. He died alone.”
It was mid-November in Sierra Leone, the emerging epicenter of a lethal Ebola epidemic that had infected more than 15,000 and killed almost half that number. Lucee’s father had just returned from a trip to the hospital with her mother when he fell ill. Her mother, too, had been struck with the disease following a week of funeral rituals for a friend.
The night those ceremonies ended, Lucee remembers, her mom took a shortcut home through a nearby cemetery. In a matter of days, she was sick with fever and vomiting nonstop. Less than 24 hours after arriving to the hospital, she was dead. Lucee’s father returned to the village alone to deliver his three kids the blow: Their mom wasn’t coming home.
When he began vomiting days later, there was no one to drive him to the hospital. Friends that may have helped were too sick themselves—or worse, already gone. Nearby relatives were too afraid. Even if he could find a ride, the chances he’d be able to secure one of the few remaining beds in the treatment centers were slim.
Realizing there was no way out, he made a quick decision. The outbreak, the one occurring in his family at least, would end with him. The newly widowed man quarantined himself to one room in the house and barred the door. Lucee and her brothers, Samuel and Isaac, were not to enter under any circumstances.
Her father’s thinking, albeit gut wrenching, was sound. The sicker an Ebola victim gets, the more contagious they become. Survival is possible, but requires an abundance of fluids delivered almost around the clock. It’s a constant battle against fever, dehydration, and diarrhea—one that fails more than 60 percent of the time.
In the final stages of the disease, an infected person can be secreting lethal fluid from nearly every pore in their body. The chances that another will be infected soars.
Lucee’s father had watched Ebola’s gruesome final act. He knew how it would end. In the ultimate act of unconditional love, he simply surrendered. He sacrificed his own life to save his children.
Four months later, Lucee refuses to go near the house she once called home.
After the loss of her parents, she’d been left no choice but to stay there with her two brothers. The memory of that time still gives her nightmares. By day, it felt like a prison, the only place where she was safe from the stigma that follows this disease. At night it was a haunted house, filled with dreams of her mother’s ghost.
Eventually, she found a new place to live—a small shack with no door. It’s not as nice or as safe as her old home, but it’s not the place where she watched her father slip away. For now, that is enough.
Four months after her parents died, Lucee is still braving a battle for survival—one that’s punctured with unfathomable sadness. She misses her parents all the time. “When they were alive they did a lot of things for me,” she says. “They bought things, they took care of me.”
In their absence, Lucee is virtually a single mother of two. Without any trade to support to her brothers, she first turned to casual sex with “boys” in the neighborhood for money. But after a terrifying miscarriage, she abandoned the practice for good.
Lucee’s new source of income, firewood, is safer but unreliable. Each morning, she sends her brothers into the nearby brush of the Western Region to collect as much as they can carry. The wood they find they sell to the community, the majority of whom use it to cook. Some days the wood goes quickly, some days not at all.
The new responsibilities that come with raising her two young brothers weigh heavily on Lucee. Thanks to education from community leaders, those who had alienated her have begun to reconnect. Slowly, some things in her village are returning to normal. But at the end of the day, she is still with two brothers to care for and no parents to help.
Street Child UK, which highlighted Lucee’s story in a recent report on children orphaned by Ebola, offers as much assistance as it can. Established in 2008, the charity promotes educational opportunities for kids in West Africa.
But with an estimated 12,000 children in Sierra Leone orphaned by Ebola, there is only so much to go around.
For Lucee, who received some education before the epidemic occurred, school is the answer. She hopes soon that Samuel, who was also in school before the outbreak, will return, and that Isaac will soon follow. The two boys, owing to their young age, seem yet to have grasped the gravity of the situation ahead. Lucee wants it that way.
On the phone discussing her battle, Lucee sounds defiant. She’s determined to keep moving forward. She wants to go back to school, find a better home, and land a steadier source of income. While donations from Street Child and other NGOs can help her make ends meet, it’s a better future that she wants in the end. Getting closer to that will require helping to build up her community—and relying on it to do the same.
It’s these “home-grown solutions” that James Kassage Arinaitwe, a former orphan from Uganda, believes will be the answer to this crisis. While stories of individual children who’ve lost parents to Ebola in West Africa are valuable, he says they can be dangerous, too. “For every Sweetie, there are countless children left wondering why they weren’t plucked away,” he says of a New York Times profile of a 4-year-old Ebola orphan.
The danger with singling out individuals, he says, is that it can leave the others wondering: Why not me? Saving one child at a time does nothing to better the place from which they’re being saved. With this mind, he hopes the communities themselves can unite together—much like they did to slow the epidemic—and lift these children up.
“Only then can we ensure that the child survivors of Ebola are born in an Africa where they are not seen as victims or beggars,” he says, “but as captains of their own fate.”