Non-Profit

Hope amidst the heartache of Ebola

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BRISBANE, AUSTRALIAWhile the Ebola crisis sweeping through West Africa is easy to ignore, a Brisbane woman has refused to turn a blind eye. She has started a charity for an orphanage in Sierra Leone that will bring hope to innocent orphans who have become the tragic fallout of the deadly virus.

Jane Shakespeare is a feminine, blonde, slim, yoga-loving graphic designer, wife of IT consultant Jeremy and doting mum to 13-year-old Harry. The family lives in a comfortable, tree-lined suburb of Brisbane with their lovable pooch, Holmes and enjoy all the comforts hard work in their adopted country of Australia has brought.

The family moved from England in 2007 for Jeremy to take up a new job with his company and the family fell in love with the sun-drenched beaches of Australia and the friendly, laid back lifestyle of Brisbane. The contrast between life in West Africa’s Sierra Leone and this lush little pocket of Brisbane is extreme. Yet Jane maintains a soul tie with this war-torn and more recently, Ebola-ravaged country.

Inexplicably, it was while living in the quaint, historic town of Warwick, England – that she had her first introduction to one of the poorest countries on earth. While studying for her economics degree at Warwick University, Jane became interested in micro-credit and the impact it had on women’s lives. She was put in contact with an organisation called One World Link which already had ties between her home town of Warwick and Bo Town in Sierra Leone. The country had been through a brutal civil war during the Nineties and thousands of young men were murdered. Women had become the backbone of their society and increasingly, the only hope for their children’s education and future.

St Mary's Children's Home 2

“They basically had a very powerful influence on the country as so many of their men were killed in the civil war. It was important for them to have skills to support their whole family. Their little businesses meant the difference between them being able to educate their children and sinking into a cycle of poverty,” says Jane.

Her university agreed to sponsor Jane’s trip to Bo Town, Sierra Leone and in February, 2006, she spent two weeks visiting women’s groups interviewing individuals and discovering how they managed to support their families. In spite of the apparent poverty, Jane witnessed how women eked out a living simply by being given a small kick-start loan. Back in England, she didn’t forget these resourceful women and immediately set about encouraging her friends, colleagues and community to donate sewing machines.

“I placed an advert in the local Leamington Spa/Warwick paper asking for non-electric sewing machines to be donated to send out to the women’s groups I’d come across. It was obvious to me that if the women had their own sewing machines they could make their own fabrics into garments to sell, cutting out the middle man. This allowed them to earn more money for the groups. I sent the sewing machines out in a container with other materials that were sent over by One World Link in Warwick. I thought I might get 20 or so but ended up collecting 176 which was quite overwhelming,” she says.

I was so concerned about the home’s long-term survival that I subsequently offered to set up a website so people could donate

While in Sierra Leone, Jane had also met Father Peter Konteh, founder of St Mary’s Children’s Home, an orphanage in Bo Town, Sierra Leone. He was also president of the Desert Flower Foundation that fights against genital mutilation of young women, a practise still rife in parts of Africa. Fr. Konteh later traveled to England and the two became good friends. So much so, that Jane and Jeremy began the process of adopting a young girl from the orphanage.

“At the time, I was having problems falling pregnant but the international adoptive procedure was very complicated and expensive, I realised we could do far more to help many children, not just one, by sending money to the orphanage. It was the only way I knew how to help. I was so concerned about the home’s long-term survival that I subsequently offered to set up a website so people could donate.”

SMCH Photo

Little did she know how important her gesture would become. In March, 2014, the Ebola virus disease outbreak took hold of West Africa. Starting in Guinea, it spread across land to Sierra Leone and Liberia and by air to Nigeria and again by land, to Senegal. According to the World Health Organisation, it was “the largest and most complex Ebola outbreak” since being discovered in 1976. Sierra Leone was not left unscathed and soon became ravaged by the devastating disease.

As at 24th December 2014, WHO estimates Ebola has claimed the lives of close to 7,588 people, although more realistic figures are believed to be more than 12 000. As at 27th December there have been more than 2,366 confirmed deaths in Sierra Leone. Again, these figures are always far higher, given the remoteness of some affected regions and the fact that many of the dead are buried without cases being reported. The number of orphans grew to thousands and Father Konteh relayed the problems his orphanage was experiencing. Their resources were stretched to capacity and raising money became increasingly urgent.

While the orphanage was supported by donors, grants and contributions from organisations such as the Healey Foundation in New Jersey, Jane felt powerless to help. She realised that the only way to assist was to set up an Australian-based charity and raise awareness here. Through her constant interaction with Fr Konteh, and hearing first-hand how shocking and far-reaching the impact of Ebola had become, she knew the more money raised, the more children could be rescued. “My objective was to show ordinary people around the world how they could help in their own small way.”

WHO estimates Ebola has claimed the lives of close to 7,588 people

She began posting haunting, confronting images about the Ebola crisis on Facebook, giving a face to those impacted by its cruel cycle. Often, her passion was met with cynicism and occasionally, open hostility, especially when she started campaigning for governments to step in. She refused to give up her quest and slowly, the message seemed to be getting across. Yes, the disease was on another continent, but it was a world problem, not one that could simply be dismissed. The Australian government was slow off the mark, but help began trickling in.

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The more she spoke about her relationship with St Mary’s, the more people took notice and before long, Jane even had fellow yoga class members offering to donate. “I was overwhelmed by the generous hearts of everyday Australians,” she says. “All I wanted was to get some of the orphans off the street and into a happy, safe environment where they could be educated. Every little bit helps towards that goal.”

As if this wasn’t enough to take on board, Jane’s heart had capacity for far more. While visiting Bo, Sierra Leone, she had also encountered Josaya Bangali, who had written poems revealing his sentiments about the 10-year civil war that had destroyed his country.

“I made a promise to him that I would put his poems into a book, get them printed and sell them on his behalf. In 2008, I did a graphic design course, set myself up as a self-publisher and got 500 books printed. I currently sell them for $20 AUD each or £10 GBP each and send 100% of the proceeds to Josaya. I also created a website to sell his books but I’ve found that it’s easier to sell them by speaking to people.”

Children at SMCH

Her relationship with Josaya didn’t end there. He happened to have a daughter, Manjia, a community nurse in Sierra Leone who expressed a desire to further her nursing studies in a developed country. Jane was her contact with the Western world. Again, this slight, big-hearted, adoptive Australian woman stepped in to help.

“I helped her apply to the Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane and she received on offer to do a Bachelor of Nursing degree. To do so, she would need funding and a sponsor, something that was proving increasingly difficult to facilitate. “

It all could have ended there, but Jane sat down with her family and discussed the possibility of financing Manjia—paying for her studies and opening their home to her while she completed her three-year degree. After careful thought, the family decided to offer sponsorship—a move that was not without its concerns and difficulties.

“It was not a case of this wealthy, spoiled family deciding to do their bit. We’ve had to make sacrifices,” says Jane. That included inviting Manjia’s young son to come and live with them too.

“In the course of our communication, (hampered by dodgy internet connections), I discovered that Manjia had a two-year-old little boy, Kingsley, and I just couldn’t let her leave him behind so he’s coming too,” she smiles.

That’s if they can get in the country at all. With the understandable hysteria surrounding Ebola, (Australia has banned all travel from Sierra Leone), for now, Manjia’s plans are on hold. It’s taken nine months of jumping through hoops, visa applications and other red tape and they are not quite over the line, particularly with the indefinite ban imposed. However, Jane is confident it will all eventually work out. And she hopes her story inspires others that everyone is capable of contributing, no matter how small the steps are.

“It is inspiring to think we are capable of reaching out and helping in whatever little way we can. I consider myself an average person—not particularly special—all I did was to help the only way I knew how,” she says.

SMCH-logoTo donate, contact www.stmaryschildrenshome.com

Organisations such as the UK-based charity, Street Child estimate ‘an excess of 20,000 children’ have already lost their primary care giver to Ebola. ‘And clearly that number is growing daily’.

Feature photo – Jane, her son Harry and husband, Jeremy

Photos courtesy of St Mary’s Children’s Home Charity Facebook Page

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