“Very importantly we must continue to recognize and celebrate the sterling efforts of African healthcare workers who have worked indefatigably to get the disease under control. They were there long before the cavalry arrived! Indeed, some have paid the ultimate price…” – Memuna Janneh, founder, Lunchbox Gift
This is part of a series (part one focused on Liberia and part two on Guinea) that is and has been an attempt to recalibrate our thinking and perception of the fight against Ebola; that essentially, a majority of Africans and Africa have been at the center of the fight and not by-standing on the periphery. Thus, this third and final installation of the 3-part series on Ebola, focuses on the West African country of Sierra Leone, which is cradled by Liberia in the south-east, Guinea in the north-east and the Atlantic Ocean on its western borders. These three countries make up the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak of 2014 and with the highest Ebola transmissions of the three West African countries, Sierra Leone is considered the “hotspot” of the epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as of 13th February 2015, Sierra Leone had 10,987 confirmed cases and 3,363 deaths while Guinea had 3,081 confirmed cases and 2,032 deaths and Liberia 8,931 cases and 3,858 deaths, respectively.
Against this harrowing backdrop, our story first takes us to London, England to a certain diasporan from Sierra Leone, Memuna Janneh, founder of Lunchbox Gift, an initiative that provides freshly cooked meals for patients, healthcare workers and frontline staff at Ebola treatment centers in Sierra Leone’s capital city, Freetown.
Lunchbox Gift workers in Sierra Leone (Photo: Fatou Wurie)
A wife of more than 20 years, mother of two young men, a Finance Systems Integration Consultant by day and Ebola fighter every waking hour she finds, Mrs. Janneh, much like Solome Lemma of Africa Responds, Mamadou Toure of Africa 2.0, Zeinab Camara of Women in Mining Guinea and Africa 2.0‘s Global Lead on Ebola Response, Saran Kaba Jones of FACE Africa, and the countless unnamed and faceless fighters in this epidemic are the unsung heroes that undoubtably make up Time magazine’s 2014 Person of Year: The Ebola Fighters. Without a doubt, 2014 was a defining year for this fearless lot as they “risked and persisted, sacrificed and saved” according to Time, in the face of the Ebola giant. As Mrs. Janneh fervently described to me via our Skype call, “the Ebola epidemic and the fight against it tugs at the heart, propels you to action and needs your firm commitment; time or otherwise,” (make that monetary contributions for Lunchbox Gift, Africa Responds, Africa 2.0, FACE Africa etc.) as they complete the final but critical stretch of the fight against Ebola. It is a call to action that most Africans have indeed answered and I chatted with Mrs. Janneh to get additional insight on how she and her team responded to the Ebola crisis.
FARAI GUNDAN: Let me get right down to it; what have Africans such yourself done to reduce the spread of this virus in Sierra Leone? I ask, because in looking across media coverage of this disease, it would appear that Africans are not doing much (there is the heroic story of 22-year-old Fatu Kekula who nursed her entire family through Ebola in Liberia). African billionaires Dangote, Elumelu, Masiyiwa etc. have donated money – however not much else is being reported on “us” except that we seem to be doing the “spreading”.
MEMUNA JANNEH: Sanitation messaging is a major part of our feeding program, Lunchbox Gift‘s strategy. With our very first Ebola feeding program, each lunch box had a sanitation message on the lid – “To beat Ebola, always wash your hands.” This message was supported by a vivid graphic illustration for those who cannot read. Our distribution partners on the ground (national Non-Governmental Organizations, NGOs) reinforced this simple message with every visit, by giving a short health talk to the community before handing over their lunchboxes.
Our current hospital-feeding program goes one step further, providing an anti-bacterial hand wipe in each meal pack. With the support of our United Kingdom (U.K) based sanitation partner Clinell, we have been able to demonstrate how these individually wrapped anti-bacterial hand wipes can be used to promote good hygiene and control the spread of communicable diseases in parts of the world where there are challenges with clean water supply.
In addition, we have sourced specialist cardboard food boxes and bamboo spoons for packaging patient meals. This ensures that all packaging that goes into Ebola treatment centres can be safely incinerated after use.
After 10,000 infections and over 3,000 deaths, in your country, Sierra Leone and months later, why Lunchbox Gift?
JANNEH: LunchBoxGift is at the heart of the Ebola crisis. As locals, we understand our people better and can get closer to them than international NGOs or international donor partners can. We feed ‘in our own language’ and protect the dignity of our beneficiaries by making sure their food is presented in a respectable way regardless of the desperate situation they find themselves in.
With the financial support of our growing army of ‘ordinary people’ from around the world, close to 40,000 freshly prepared meals have been delivered to vulnerable communities, Ebola patients and frontline healthcare workers, over the past three or so months.
Our work has been widely acclaimed and has been described by U.K’s Cabinet Minister & Secretary of State for International Development, Rt. Hon Justine Greening, as “a truly impressive example of British and Sierra Leoneans innovatively working together to help mitigate the effects of Ebola on individuals in Sierra Leone.” She also said that, “I commend the work of Lunchbox Gift in their work to provide meals, not only to patients suffering from Ebola but also to those healthcare workers selflessly caring for them.”
It should not go unnoticed that we have also created much needed employment for a small team of 15 cooks and support staff in Sierra Leone. Our management team however, is comprised solely of unpaid volunteers from a variety of professions who are bound by one common objective – Africa forward.
Given the debilitating challenges in the 3 countries: weak health systems, lack of human and infrastructural resources, having only recently emerged from long periods of conflict and instability; how will Lunchbox Gift and other local organizations, end the Ebola outbreak?
JANNEH: We have not been directly involved in efforts to treat or contain the virus; that is something that falls to the state machine and the medical experts. But as ordinary patriotic citizens, we can certainly provide food and other ancillary services. This tremendously lifts the burden from the medical experts whose primary focus has been and continues to be to treat and contain the disease.
Meals from Lunchbox Gift continue to provide sustenance for the heroes and heroines working tirelessly and selflessly in the Ebola frontline. In the speed of each stress filled day, a lunch box gift is ‘something to look forward to’. Our nutritious light soups specially prepared with Ebola symptoms in mind, speed up recovery and help to rehydrate and strengthen those who have been weakened by the disease.
Most pleasing was the feedback from one of the recipients of our meals Dr. Santigie Sesay, who heads up Sierra Leone’s largest Ebola treatment centre based in Hastings – “LunchBoxGift is a very welcome initiative. Since its introduction to the health facility both patients and staff look forward to what will be in the next surprise lunch pack…You can see the satisfaction of all after a delicious lunch.”
How can people participate / help Lunchbox Gift in ending the Ebola outbreak – what are the immediate practical steps that someone reading this can do to help Lunchbox Gift?
JANNEH: LunchBox Gift is now shifting focus to the plight of the thousands of very young children left orphaned by the Ebola epidemic. In partnership with another charity Street Child, our SundayLunch project which goes live next month, will see that hundreds of Ebola orphans and their foster families will each receive a delicious, hearty lunch every Sunday of the year. Many of these children have lost everything; their parents, siblings, other close family members, their possessions. Everything around them has changed drastically and they need support.
Uniquely, Street Child is already providing small business grants to hundreds of foster families to encourage them to take on and care for many of these vulnerable young children. Such simple, practical solutions are very commendable and LunchBoxGift is very proud to throw in its support with the simple, yet essential gift of good food.
We’re also turning things up a notch or two this time! Our technology partners Journey Apps, a U.S-based tech company, have developed an enterprise mobile App for our logistics team that will provide up-to-the-minute tracking of all deliveries. The app will also send out live email updates to people who make donations to us from around the world, keeping them abreast with our work in the field. We are very exciting to bring this technology in the fight against Ebola.
We also encourage people to continue to support us by giving generously online at www.lunchboxgift.com. Post-Ebola work is just as critical in this fight.
What is the current situation in Sierra Leone? How does the Ebola outbreak impact organizations such as Lunchbox Gift etc?
Our farming communities are very badly affected by the epidemic. With so many towns and villages quarantined in the past few months, produce cannot easily be transported around the country and there have been reports of tons of perishable food rotting to waste in parts of the country. Border closures with Guinea and Liberia have exacerbated the problem causing intermittent food shortages, which push prices up and make our lunchboxes more costly to provide. Nonetheless, we are determined to support the local economy and work closely with small farmers in nearby mountain villages to secure all the produce we need.
Mrs. Memuna Janneh, founder & Executive Director, Lunchbox Gift
What role has the Diaspora played and what should the Diaspora do?
The African diaspora is a huge asset to the continent. Each of us can – and must – leverage both internal and external networks to develop practical solutions, specifically tailored to our communities. Working together and forming strategic alliances is key and Lunchbox Gift has benefited greatly by collaborating with Africans in the Diaspora.
Our sister charity in the UK, Let Them Help Themselves (LTHT) opened lots of doors for us in those challenging start up months. LTHT is the brainchild of Ida Horner, a London based Ugandan who works relentlessly to support communities in Africa.
We’ve made new friends too! Thanks to the information superhighway, our work caught the attention of Elizabeth Tsehai an Ethiopian-American based in Washington, and she autonomously set up an on line fundraising appeal that raised almost $12,000 for LunchBoxGift.
Other Afro-centric alliances include our work with Beam in Ghana and Splash in Sierra Leone. Together, these two companies have cut through international money transfer barriers to ensure that Luncbox Gift can now accept Bitcoin donations from around the world in a cost effective way.
The African new dawn must continue to break regardless of Ebola and we must ensure that the ‘Africa rising’ narrative translates into something that ALL Africans ‘can eat’! In fact Ebola should act as a catalyst. Those who have not been involved in the past should see now why it is so important to play your part. Yes, there is a lot of anger in the room and quite rightly so. But we must be mad enough to dare…we must dare to invent a different kind of future for those who come after us.
Can we end Ebola in Africa?
Of course we can.
We have the beauty of hindsight; science and technology are on our side. In fact the race to create a vaccine and/or reparative treatment for those infected by hemorrhagic diseases is now on and African scientists are at the heart of it.
But we must recognize that there is no silver bullet to fixing the deeper problems with the health infrastructures of the affected countries. Other countries with similar issues – and there are many – must take note. We must re-engage with a new sense of purpose and re-double our efforts with the most dogged determination. This crisis continues to shine a bright light on all our shortcomings. We can only hope that it forces us as Africans to dig deep and come up with smart, practical solutions to address our myriad of problems.
Let’s do it!
This is part of a series ( part one focused on Liberia and part two on Guinea ) that is and has been an attempt to […]