Pakistani volunteer wins villagers’ hearts on Sierra Leone Ebola frontlines
Kambia, 30 March 2015 - As he walked down a dusty road in Kunta Dumba, in Kambia district, northern Sierra Leone, the villagers bellowed intermittently, “Mr. Khalid! Mr. Khalid!” Khalid Javed Choudhry, a Pakistani UN Volunteer, smiled and waved at the people with whom he has developed an uncommon affinity.
Kunta Dumba, a small village near the border with neighbouring Guinea, is battling Ebola, and a number of families have lost their loved ones. In fact, on the day that Khalid and a team from the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) visited, two families were quarantined.
The team had driven through a verdant forest before arriving in Kunta Dumba to inspect two latrines that had just been constructed for the quarantined families to avoid further spreading of the virus to other villagers and domestic animals.
One of Khalid’s tasks as a Field Crisis Manager in the district is to supervise the construction of such quick impact projects that help local communities fight Ebola. The projects include toilets for quarantined homes, fuel for an electricity generator that helps pump treated water into a reservoir for use in the township and at the Ebola Treatment Centres, funds for a group of Ebola survivors to help raise awareness of the virus and for a local radio station to produce programmes in local languages.
To the villagers, Khalid is a folk hero, and his visits reassure of the UN’s concern for their plight. They in turn acknowledge his efforts by yelling his name whenever they set eyes on him.
“Khalid is a good man, we love him,” says Mohamed Kamara, a project officer with the non-governmental organization, United for the Protection of Human Rights, which is UNMEER’s implementing partner in the district. “He is a catalyst. He pushes us to do our jobs. He has adapted himself to the culture of our people. He feels our pain, and we like his style.”
What could have motivated this mild-mannered, soft-spoken social worker to leave his wife, a son and a daughter to volunteer for an Ebola fight in another country on another continent?
“I was involved in efforts to eradicate polio in Pakistan, and I understand how difficult behaviour change can be. So, when I heard about Ebola, I knew behaviour change was going to be key and I wanted to come and help,” he says.
Arriving Sierra Leone in mid-January, Khalid had to live with little or no electricity, without easy access to medicines and having to eat strange foods. But he soon adjusted and now feels at home. He notes, “I was mentally prepared for this situation. I did not expect to come to a place where social services are working smoothly.”
Despite the discomforts, Khalid has connected emotionally with the villagers. “I look at them, particularly the families that have lost loved ones due to Ebola, and I say to myself, ‘at least I have not lost anyone.’ Whenever I think about their situation, I get the energy to work even harder.”
When the villagers are happy, Khalid’s mood is upbeat. Helping to end Ebola is Khalid’s mission – and also his passion.
UNMEER Field Operations Manager, Martin Leach, says that "Khalid has just the right personal approach when working with UNMEER’s partners in fighting Ebola: he is considerate, patient yet determined."
While Khalid is looking forward to re-joining his family in Pakistan, he conveys a sense of urgency – even desperation – whenever he talks about the Ebola fight. “I am hoping these people can return to a normal life very soon.”
By the end of March, Kambia was still an Ebola hotspot. Khalid says that, “Behaviour change is the key to breaking the transmission chain, and from what I can see, the situation is slowly improving.”