THE BLOG

Life In Sierra Leone After Ebola

04/11/2015 16:56 GMT | Updated 04/11/2016 09:12 GMT

It's awkward meeting someone new in Sierra Leone. Automatically you stick out a hand to shake, then pull it back, remembering that kind of touch is a thing of the past. Instead people bang elbows or pat their chest. A light tap of knuckles is another favourite.

This is a country changed in so many ways by Ebola. When you travel the lush green roads from village to village you find checkpoints, manned by locals waving thermometers and checking you have a stock of hand sanitiser.

They gesture towards your forehead, checking your temperature. As long as you're below 38 degrees, a rope slung across the road is lowered and you're waved through. Some of these guardposts will close in the next few days, others will continue for another six weeks. No-one wants to take any chances.

Forty-two days without Ebola is a significant milestone. The World Health Organisation considers the outbreak over after six weeks without a case, but that crisply precise scientific view can mask what's going on underneath. Ebola may be gone, but so are parents, children, friends. I met 18 year old Mohammed, for him the loss was a double one. His mum, a nurse, died after catching the disease from her sick patients. Now Mohammed is acting as a parent to his four younger brothers and sisters, the smallest just two years old, He wanted to carry on at school but he hasn't the time or money. His second loss is his own future.

I asked the President of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma, how he plans to rebuild it. That sounds very grand, I know, but we happened to be on the same flight into the country and when he walked through economy class, shaking hands and posing for selfies, I seized my chance. "I think we have learned a lot of lessons", he told me, "and we will come out stronger at the end of Ebola.

"There are also lessons to be learned by the international community in terms of response to crises of this nature."

Ebola treatment centres are closing now. I visited one built by the Red Cross in Kenema, in the east of the country where the outbreak started in Sierra Leone. The white tents that each held six beds filled with patients are empty today, the boards which once showed hundreds of names scrubbed clean.

It's hard to find words to describe what it feels like to stand in there, knowing the pain and confusion of so many had been contained within those canvas walls. I took a moment, quietly, to remember them.

A few steps away, a cemetery was created right alongside the treatment centre, to safely bury those whose never went home. More than two hundred graves, once simple mounds of earth, are only now being properly marked with signs to show who lies beneath.

As communities begin to deal with the psychological scars of losing their loved ones in such a brutal way, there's another very real issue facing Sierra Leone. Nearly 4,000 people died in this outbreak, but thousands more who caught Ebola fought it hard enough to survive.

Even though there are plenty of them, they face huge stigma. Ericson described to me how, after his discharge from hospital, his home was burned down because people feared it was contaminated. Edith explained that she felt ugly when people didn't want to touch her. Both talked about others being the problem, those who hadn't caught it yet, who were still susceptible.

But take for example the two recent cases of American Dr Ian Crozier and British nurse Pauline Cafferkey. They caught Ebola in Sierra Leone and recovered, only to see the effects of the virus re-emerge.

I interviewed Dr Crozier in-depth for our special day of BBC Radio 5 live programmes from Sierra Leone, and he's keen to make an important point. There's a lot the scientific world still doesn't know about Ebola. While this Saturday's declaration is a landmark, it's only one stop on a long journey for this part of West Africa.