Abdul Kamara: COFA Scholar

Abdul Kamara, COFA Scholar

Abdul Kamara, COFA Scholar

Abdul Hassan Kamara, a man in his mid-30s, is earning a Master of Public Health degree at Njala University in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital. He goes there for classes every weekend after his workweek in Lunsar ends. Abdul’s road to public health school—supported by COFA—is unlike any you’d imagine. How many survivors of Ebola do you suppose have gone on to earn an MPH?

Karim Kamara—no relation (Kamara is one of the most common names in Sierra Leone) introduced me to Abdul in Lunsar in 2021, at a dinner with the Lunsar Cycling Club. We talked and he told me about his passion for public health, lamenting that he couldn’t pursue it any further (without saying so, because of lack of money). He never asked for help. When I said I thought COFA might be able to support him, he cried. I’ve since gotten to know him as an intelligent, compassionate man with tremendous promise.

Abdul was born in Magbala, a village of seven families in northern Sierra Leone, all subsistence farmers. The primary school was 6 kilometers away, and few  children went to school—education was not much valued. Abdul got lucky when a teacher visiting the village persuaded his father to let him attend. Among the few whose parents couldn’t afford a uniform, he was teased. But none of that mattered when he scored the second highest grade in the school on the national primary school examination. For his achievement, he was sent to live with an aunt in Lunsar for secondary school, but trekked home 15 kilometers every weekend to work the family farm. After graduating he completed a certificate program at Port Loko Teachers College.

In 2014, the Ebola epidemic struck Sierra Leone, and in 2015 Abdul’s brother, who had been living near Freetown, brought it to Magbala, returning to the village when he became ill, not knowing it was Ebola. The family and the community treated and cared for him, and Abdul was called back to see him. He died the day Abdul arrived and had cradled him in his arms. The next day, contact tracers arrived and while many villagers did not want to admit contact with his late brother, Abdul took his first public health stand, listing all who had been in contact and taking responsibility for keeping those who had not been exposed away from those who had.

Abdul returned to Lunsar and isolated but became sick himself. He went to a local hospital where more than 100 people were lying on the floor without treatment. At one point he was moved to a “dying room.” A friend working at the newly constructed Partners in Health treatment center nearby began bringing him food and medicine. Abdul survived and eventually got  a job with Partners in Health as the Survivors Advocate Supervisor in Port Loko district (where Lunsar is). He also worked with  the International Medical Corps as the Social Behavior Change Training Officer.

Abdul and Mariama with their children, Isatu and Susan

Abdul and Mariama with their children, Isatu and Susan

All told, Abdul lost 27 family members, including both parents. The survivors now are responsible not only for their own children, but for all the Ebola orphans, making sure they’re housed, fed, and in school.

After Ebola, Abdul was able to complete a Bachelor of Science in Public Health Science, with Honors, at the University of Makeni. But there were few opportunities for professional work. In 2019, when the coronavirus pandemic started, Abdul started volunteering with Karim distributing handwashing stations, masks, and other sanitary items (supported by pre-COFA funding) to local communities, and educating community members. He also participates in many of Karim’s current projects, including Nourishing Young Minds and Bodies and works as a coordinator for “Reseed,” the Vision 8 microfinance project. (Vision 8 is the Sierra Leonean charity started by Karim).

Abdul has completed most of his coursework and has begun planning for his dissertation, which he will complete later this year. He’s hoping to find a job that uses his skills to support his wife and two small children, but also aspires to further his studies. Whenever I hear from Abdul, I’m so proud that COFA is able to help him—a man who wants more than anything to make Sierra Leone a healthier place to live.

Hellen Gelband

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