By Geoffrey Kalebbo Denye, World Vision Emergency Communications Specialist, Democratic Republic of Congo
As the flag flaps, little boys and girls walk past. They walk by blue buckets of water situated at each classroom entrance. One by one they excitedly enter a classroom to learn about a deadly disease that has claimed more than 2,000 lives and left more than 4,000 children separated from their caregivers. They are learning about Ebola.
"Who has heard about Ebola?" Marthe a World Vision trained educator asks. All the hands shoot up in the air. "How is the disease spread?" she continues. The children are quick to answer that as well. Children’s camaraderie is undying, even in the parts of DRC affected by Ebola, but behind it are many questions and anxieties.
After these pupils at a Catholic Primary School in Beni are taught how to wash their hands correctly as a way to keep Ebola away and they’ve been quizzed about what they know and what they would do, they are given a chance to ask some questions. Their queries come in torrents.
“Can I catch Ebola after I have been vaccinated?” “What happens if I am sharing a bed with my friend and she starts throwing up?” “With the introduction of free primary education, we are so crowded in class, am I in danger of catching Ebola?” “The day I was supposed to join my friends for vaccination, I was told not to go to school. I am not vaccinated, will I catch Ebola and die?” “If someone is vaccinated today and they touch a patient tomorrow, would they get the sickness?”
School head-teacher, Olivier, agrees that since free universal primary school education was introduced class numbers shot up from an average of 45 to about 75 pupils per class. “The desks are few and the children end up sitting close to one another, we need help in this case. The 17 hand-washing buckets are also too few for our population of 1,110 pupils.”
The facilitators respond to the queries one-by-one and the children seem happy. But, World Vision’s Mental Health and Psychosocial expert, Phiona Koyiet, advises that responders need to do more than answering the questions. “This is the reason we are helping frontline workers learn the Psychological First Aid skills to look, listen and link, so they can humanely help children who might be hurting beyond their expressions,” she explains.
World Vision’s Martine (Community Mobiliser) observes that the questions that children are asking, in this effort funded by USAID, are evolving. “In the beginning, they used to ask questions about treatment and prevention. Now, they are asking many more questions about vaccinations and infection,” Martine notes.
The organisation has reached nearly 270,000 children with lifesaving awareness, prevention and treatment messages through its Channels of Hope Action Teams in affected health zones of Beni, Butembo and Kalunguta.
“This is part of our multiple efforts to address the varied effects of this crisis –including community engagement, risk communication, food provision, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) to patients, survivors and contacts. We have done this through the coordinated efforts of the Ebola Commissions,” says World Vision’s Response Manager, Jimmy Tuhaise.
Many children attending this awareness session at their school have been vaccinated, but several others haven’t. Together they tell stories of what they hear adults say about the vaccine. “My mother refused me to get the vaccine, because she says it kills,” one child says. “Mine said if I get the vaccine I will be safe from Ebola.” Their responses reflect the confusion in the villages.
As the children leave the classroom, it is clear they have learned a lot, they have had an opportunity to share their beliefs, hopes and fears. But, it is also certain that deep within some hearts and minds little storms of worry and uncertainty still lingers.