When the news hit that Ebola had mysteriously appeared in Guinea back in March, 43-year-old Momoh Konte (pictured), a successful businessman who lives in Washington, D.C., wondered how he could keep the people of his district safe. And after four months of spearheading his own Ebola-free program, his district of Koinadugu remains the last one in Sierra Leone to be Ebola-free.
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After watching the news about Ebola’s emergence, Konte, who is responsible for helping privatizing telecommunications in Sierra Leone, made an important observation about the virus, “The whole idea is it’s not killing rich people, it’s not killing middle-class people — it’s killing poor people who move from one place to another looking for work or something to eat.”
So in June, he traveled to Koinadugu — which is the largest district of Sierra Leone’s 14 districts and has a reported population of 265,000 residents — with large drums of chlorine, face masks, thousands of rubber gloves, and a plan.
His plan involved donating 10 million Sierra Leone dollars (about $2,300) on a monthly basis to the area in order to replenish the items he initially traveled with.
The next step was getting key leaders on his page and creating a number of tasks forces.
Konte’s first step was convincing district politicians, along with the important traditional tribal leaders, that they could not wait for help. And he needed their support.
He was persuasive and, especially important, willing to spend money. He organized a district Ebola task force, gave each of the 10 members a stipend and appointed a former Doctors Without Borders official named Fasineh Samura as the head. Together, they set out to implement Konte’s plans.
The subsequent step — and likely one of the most critical — involved enforcing strict restrictions on the mobility of residents outside the district.
The strictest measure was to draw a ring around the district and restrict who went in or out. The mountains helped. But so did checkpoints, where guards stood armed with thermal thermometers and chlorinated water — and a pass system that prevented most residents from leaving. Visitors needed a local resident to vouch for them.
Not surprisingly, the “pass laws” weren’t very popular, with some even maligning the new measures over radio.
But Konte held the line.
When some small business owners complained about not being able to make supply runs, Konte, who runs an economic consulting business company called “Transtech International,” used his business expertise to solve the problem by creating a $45,000 revolving fund for loans on importing food, medicine, and fuel.
He also helped coordinate a task force to manage deliveries.
The district’s vegetable growers, the country’s primary produce supplier, were forced to share a small, communal fleet of trucks to ship their goods. And instead of these trucks being stuffed with five people, each carried one driver and one or two people called “manifesters” who tracked the shipments and payments.
Another integral step included engaging the community at all levels. Konte made sure neighborhood watch teams were set up in each chiefdom. He also educated community leaders heading motorcycle taxi drivers, market women, and local nonprofits, effectively passing the baton of responsibility all around.
One of the most important people to target, though, were faith leaders. With the first cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone coming from funeral attendees of a faith leader’s burial, Konte wanted to make sure these respected figures were also fully informed.
“When it comes to traditional African healers, we had to pay extra attention,” Konte says. “People trust them. They are popular. A faith healer with Ebola could be disastrous. It would’ve wiped out our community.”
And so far, Koinadugu has persevered disease-free, even as nearby communities continue to suffer deaths all around them. For example, the town of Makeni, which is reportedly an hour away, has reportedly suffered an “explosion” of new infections.
Which is why Konte insists, “You cannot have comfort and take care of this Ebola thing.”