Via the Christian Science Monitor, a report datelined Kailahun: As Ebola crisis ebbs for Sierra Leone, food insecurity gnaws at recovery. Excerpt:
In the weeks after Sierra Leone's first confirmed Ebola case in late May 2014, this rural eastern district of Kailahun — which presses up against porous land borders with Guinea and Liberia — went into lockdown. A district state of emergency on June 12 shuttered schools, cinemas, and bars, and checkpoints appeared along major roads to test travelers for abnormally high fever, Ebola’s earliest warning sign. Large gatherings were forbidden, and farmers could not hire laborers to harvest their crops.
But the disease still refused to stay put. By August, it had migrated north and west to 10 of Sierra Leone’s 14 districts, and the region where the disease first crossed into the country was put under a strict quarantine. With few exceptions, no one came in, no one went out.
“If you’re a farmer, how do you get people together to harvest your fields in those circumstances?” says Yatta Samah, a veteran farmer, women’s rights activist, and politician in Kenema, the district adjacent to Kailahun. “It’s impossible. And that is not mentioning the trauma that so many farmers endured from the disease itself.”
In a year when cacao production had been predicted to rise, it instead sank, from 13,253 metric tons in the 2013/14 harvest season to 12,642 metric tons the following year, according to Sierra Leone’s Produce Monitoring Board. Overall, Sierra Leone’s economy, which had expanded by 20 percent in 2013, contracted by 6 percent in 2014, and is expected to shrink again this year, according to the African Development Bank.
Today, many of Kailahun’s cacao plantations remain shrouded under a veil of overgrown weeds, and even those farmers who have been able to clear their plantations are struggling to offset the costs of their lost year.
“August is the hungry period [between harvests], so farmers are coming to me asking for loans in food they will pay back once it’s harvest time,” says Mr. Momoh, the distributor, “but after last year, we have nothing to give.”
Instead, as he speaks, a World Food Programme truck rumbles down the town’s main street, carrying a cargo of emergency food aid. Before the Ebola outbreak, about a half million Sierra Leoneans were classified by the WFP as “food insecure” because they had highly unstable access to food. That number shot up to 747,000 by early 2015 – and kept rising. Today, at the height of the “lean season”, WFP estimates there are as many as 1.6 million severely food insecure here among a population of 6 million.
“I can’t describe it to you, except to say that we were living in perpetual fear,” says Frederick Johnnie, who runs a cacao plantation outside Kailahun, of the past year of his life. In a typical year, he says, his 13 acre farm produces between 40 and 50 bags — 180 pounds each — of cacao. Last fall, they harvested five.
“This year is a bit better, but we are still expecting failures,” he says. “I think we will for some time.”