A Tale of Two Countries

There’s an old legend about a mayor of Freetown who paid a visit to Gambia to meet with the mayor of Banjul. Two days into his stay, Freetown’s mayor thought that most people in Banjul knew somebody's name in his city 500 miles away. Everywhere he went, he ran into someone who had family or friends in Freetown.

Historical, trade, and cultural ties go back centuries between the two African countries.

So it came as a bit of a shock when the Gambia announced in April that all flights from Sierra Leone (as well as Guinea and Liberia) to Banjul had been cancelled to prevent the spread of Ebola. The decision left passengers, mainly traders travelling to Banjul, stranded, while Sierra Leone’s government was still in talks with Banjul.

“Given the severity of the Ebola virus disease, I support the decision,” said Felice Oluremi Lawrence. They were “safety measures taken by the government of Gambia to prevent the virus from entering its borders,” she said.

Sierra Leonean born Felice has lived in Banjul since 1997, when her family moved there from a small seaside village on the outskirts of Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone. The 20-something year old wife, mother, and writer of children’s activity books, is one of thousands of Sierra Leoneans in the Gambia, a popular tourist destination.

“Travel restrictions have put a lot of strain on trade, and on families. Holidays have to be cancelled, weddings, and these are things people have taken months if not years to plan. People are not sure how soon husbands or wives will be back, there are also children to take care of.”

“People who travelled by road —a lot of people who went on holidays and other business got caught up in the flight restriction and had to come back by road —were held at the border for up to 21 days; checked by doctors to make sure they were not infected before they were allowed to come back in," Felice recalls.

In addition, Felice says, Gambia is in the middle of its official tourist season.

Tourism in The Gambia has become the fastest-growing sector of the economy as visitors come in every year, drawn by its beaches, birds, sunshine, the culture and the country's biggest asset: the Gambian people, whose hospitality and friendliness have made it "The Smiling Coast. (Visit the Gambia dot com)

“A lot of airlines or would be tourists are scared because they think they might get infected. The truth is, there has not been one case of Ebola in Gambia, and the single case that slipped into Senegal was successfully treated and sent back to Guinea. That was almost a month ago. Gambia is Ebola free and we are taking all measures to ensure it stays that way,” she states.

Felice also notes the panic and misconceptions.

“When it comes to disease prevention and control the three most affected countries really did try the best they could, given 90 percent of the health workers and the population did not have a clue about Ebola. The virus does not only use our own bodies to fight us, it uses our very human empathy to spread,” she said.

“I know a lot of people will disagree with me but picture this for a moment: Your child is sick with a fever, you give him Paracetamol (a pain reliever and a fever reducer).

"He’s not getting better, you give him a sponge bath. While you are not around his older sister carries him on her lap trying to comfort him. Daddy comes home and gives him a hug to check how he’s feeling. Hope you are keeping count of how many people have touched and cared for this one child.

“By morning he gets worse, you go to the hospital. A nurse caringly takes the sick child in her arms as she tries to find the doctor to treat him. The doctor checks his temperature using his stethoscope, tells the nurse to put him on IV and moves on to check on another patient that just came in.

“These are scenarios that must have occurred in numerous homes, health centers and communities, with the leaders of our countries desperately trying to show leadership as they assess the situation. If you say it’s serious, you create more panic. If you say it’s going to be contained soon, you don’t get the urgent help needed. And so the Mano River Union has found itself in the biggest crisis ever. Not of its own making and yet, we the citizens now face stigmatization and keep being isolated,” Felice observed.

In August, Gambia’s Point newspaper reported President Yahya Jammeh's donation of US$500,000 to President Ernest Bai Koroma and the people of Sierra Leone, as Gambia‘s contribution towards the fight against Ebola.

A press release issued by the Embassy of Sierra Leone in Banjul quoted the Gambian leader:

“As Africans we must take the lead and put up a show of African support. When your neighbor’s house is on fire, you should help with a bucket of water.”

Soulayman Daramy, Sierra Leone’s Ambassador to Gambia, said the donation was a demonstration of solidarity. “On behalf of my President, the government and people of Sierra Leone, I want to express sincere thanks and appreciation to President Yahya Jammeh, the government and people of The Gambia,” the release said.

“I strongly believe the outbreak in Mano River countries could have happened anywhere,” Felice said. “We can only pray and hope that a cure is found soonest. Meanwhile we have to continue to fight our instincts to touch, hug, and show how much we care to protect not only ourselves but the next person who will be compelled to take care of us if we fall ill.”

Felice Lawrence, aged 11, and her mother pose for a family shot before migrating to Gambia


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