Hunger and frustration grow at Ebola ground zero in Meliandou, Gueckedou préfecture, in the Forest region of Guinea. A charred kapok tree and around a dozen graves scattered amongst the mud brick houses of Meliandou are painful reminders of the toll Ebola has taken on this village in southeast Guinea.
Scientists traced the source of the worst-ever outbreak of Ebola to two-year-old Emile Ouamouno, who they believe contracted the disease while playing near the tree, home to hundreds of bats that may have been hosting the deadly virus.
The boy’s father, Etienne Ouamouno, said Emile fell ill in December 2013, and infected his sister and mother who was eight months pregnant at the time. Over a year later, having lost all his immediate family, Etienne Ouamouno has difficulty in finding words to describe his grief.
For now, his body language does the talking.
Sitting at the foot of the kapok tree, which has since been set alight by the villagers to smoke out all the bats, Ouamouno nervously lights up a cigarette and takes a number of short drags in quick succession before flicking off the ash.
There is a long, uncomfortable silence as he contemplates the significance of this spot. Almost 24,000 people mainly in hardest-hit Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, have been infected and some 9,700 have died from Ebola as a result of the chain of transmission that started here.
“It wasn’t Emile that started it,” Ouamouno finally says in Kissi, the local language. “Emile was too young to eat bats, and he was too small to be playing in the bush all on his own. He was always with his mother.”
For Ouamouno and thousands of others in the forest region of southeastern Guinea, once the breadbasket of the West African nation, the suffering has only deepened. Ebola has left them scared, frustrated and jobless.
“There’s food on the market, but not enough money to buy it. Around 100,000 people are out of work since the mining companies closed due to Ebola,” said Jean-Luc Siblot, emergency coordinator for the World Food Programme (WFP) in Guinea.
“Closures of borders with Ivory Coast, Liberia and Mali and the lack of willingness for food transporters to come into the region meant agricultural collectives were stuck with their products,” Siblot told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Jobs have dried up in 91 percent of the communities surveyed by WFP in the forest region. Farmers in other parts of the country say up to 50 percent of their crop has spoiled because they could not be sold across borders.
WFP estimates that up to 1 million people do not get three meals a day and many have to sell their assets to buy food. Ebola has made this worse.
Since September, WFP has distributed over 15,000 tonnes of food aid to around 550,000 people in the forest region, including the prefectures of Macenta, Gueckedou and Kissidougou, where the outbreak was the most ferocious.
In the dense undergrowth around Meliandou, children pick mushrooms for dinner while their mothers make palm oil in the village courtyard. But palm oil alone will not feed the family, nor will it sell for enough to put food on the table.
“What we need right now is agricultural support. We need more classrooms, a church, and health posts staffed with doctors and equipped with medicine,” said Ouamouno, who started to open up with the encouragement of the village chief.
In January, global aid agency Oxfam called for a multi-million dollar post-Ebola “Marshall Plan” to help Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia — similar to a U.S. aid program to help rebuild shattered European economies after World War Two.
The idea was revived on Tuesday as the leaders of the countries met international donors in Brussels to discuss their response to Ebola.
Back in Meliandou, villagers were skeptical of the government’s intentions ahead of presidential elections due later this year.
“The government has never done anything for us in the past, so why would they change now,” said Ouamouno, reflecting the view of many in this largely anti-government region of the country.
Misha Hussain & Katie Nguyen
Thomson Reuters Foundation