Jessica Monson, Arete contributor

In June last year I was commissioned by Arete to make a series of films for the charity Wharf Kids in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Wharf Kids began in mid-2015, while Brigadier Charlie Herbert was leading the international response to the Ebola epidemic. Shocked by the devastation — particularly in the impoverished wharf areas of the city — Charlie began supporting the most in need children with school fees and living costs.

Charlie hi-fives a child in Freetown

Three years later, Wharf Kids funds the education of 67 children, and provides livelihood, healthcare, housing and extra-curricular support to many families that were affected by Ebola.

The epidemic may be over, but its after-effects endure. As Ebola survivor Samuel tells me, it can cause chronic joint pain, loss of vision and impotence, while the stigma continues to make finding employment, or even housing, very difficult.

Samuel with his family

“When I came out of the treatment centre, my neighbours had persuaded my landlord to kick me out,” he says. “I spent the first few weeks living in a storage building at the school, with my four children, and three nieces and nephews who had been orphaned by Ebola.”

Thanks to Wharf Kids, Samuel is now in full-time employment as the charity’s in-country coordinator, and all of his children can attend school. The family will soon be moving into a newly constructed house, also funded by the charity.

Over our three-day visit, we spent most of our time at Magazine Wharf, the biggest slum in Freetown and the epicentre of Wharf Kids’ work. A higgledy-piggledy rabbit warren of corrugated iron rooves, narrow alleyways and open drains, it is not hard to imagine how Ebola spread so voraciously here.

Yet the community remains tight and more resilient than ever, though there’s sadness in the eyes of many and a gaping absence where siblings, parents, aunts and uncles once were.

A women looks at the camera in a section of the Magazine Wharf

Charlie is happy to see his original ‘wharf kid’, Jenneh, looking healthy and happy in the home of her half-sister Fatima. He met Jenneh in July 2015, when she was five-years-old and alone at an Ebola treatment centre. She had survived the virus, but her mother and little sister had not. Through determined detective work, Charlie had found Fatima and placed Jenneh in her care.

There are countless stories like Jenneh and Samuel’s — of families clubbing together to make do after the loss of breadwinners, caregivers, family and friends — in a place where life was hard enough before Ebola left its mark.

18-year-old Yeanoh is the first of the Wharf Kids alumnae to attend university. Growing up in Magazine Wharf was hard, and staying focused on her studies even harder. But with Wharf Kids’ support, she is accessing the opportunities that every child deserves, and encouraging others to do the same. She even teaches at the after school clubs that Wharf Kids established in between her studies.

“I want to be a bright example down the wharf,” she says. “I really want everybody to see education as the key to a successful life. You have to show your parents that you are not going to school for nothing. You are going to school to make them proud and to change their story.

Yeanoh is proud to be setting an example to her fellow Wharf Kids

“If it wasn’t for Wharf Kids I would not be at university. It was my dream and now I have the chance. I’m studying social work because it is the course that will help me to change the story down the wharf.”

And that is exactly what Wharf Kids is trying to do too, one kid at a time.

Biography

Jessica Monson is a content producer for Arete. She has produced multimedia work for Arete clients including UNICEF, UNFAO, Mastercard Foundation, Wharf Kids and GSMA, and is currently studying an MA at Sussex University. Her work mainly focuses on marginalised voices in the UK and abroad.


From the videographer: Filming with Wharf Kids after Ebola was originally published in Arete Stories on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.