Helping survivors bloom

Priya Kulasagaran speaks to Sophie D’Souza about working with Ebola survivors, battling prejudice, and paving the way for positive change.

After a long flight, Sophie D’Souza found herself in Lungi Airport in Sierra Leone. Arriving in the wee hours, the British psychology student now had to look forward to a coach ride in the middle of the night, before getting into a speedboat for a bumpy journey to her final destination of Freetown. Sleepy-eyed, she recalls arriving at the pier just as the sun was coming up and being hit with the sights and sounds of the city, as well as the warmth of her hosts. “My sense were firing away in a way that they didn’t in the UK (United Kingdom),” says D’Souza. “It was a rich experience, very immediately visible, from the colours of people’s clothes, to the smells surrounding you. It was amazing to be dropped into another part of the world, and to connect to the environment and people there.”

While taken by the beauty of the country, D’Souza’s purpose for the trip was not for travel’s sake, but to work with a non-profit organisation helping women who survived the Ebola virus.

Sierra Leone was one of the countries that was ravaged by the West African Ebola outbreak between 2014 to 2016. With some 11,315 people across six countries killed by the virus in just 21 months, the outbreak was said to be the deadliest occurrence of the disease since the discovery of the virus in 1976. At its peak in late 2014, around 450 cases a week were being reported in Sierra Leone alone.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Ebola is a highly contagious viral illness which causes a sudden fever, intense weakness, muscle pains and a sore throat. From there, the symptoms get rapidly terrifying; vomiting, diarrhoea, rashes, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases internal and external bleeding.

Part of what causes the fear of contracting Ebola is that there is still no proven cure for the disease, although researchers are currently testing new vaccines and drug therapies. Patients can survive if they get early treatment for their symptoms at a hospital; common treatments include rehydration, as well maintaining blood oxygen and blood pressure levels and supporting the organs as the patients fights off the infection.

Two years into the epidemic, the WHO in March last year declared Sierra Leone as Ebola-free. As the country breathed a collective sigh of relief, what remained was a need to rebuild communities. In times of disaster and emergency, aid is often focused on the problem at hand; with the case of the Ebola outbreak, this meant literally saving lives and containing the disease. The less looked-at issue was the psychological impact of the disease, as well as innovative ways of building resilience.

In was in this space that the Survivor Dream Project (SDP) was born.

Surviving trauma

Founded in 2015, the non-profit is the brainchild of Fatou Wurie, a passionate Sierra Leonean activist and writer. The organisation’s first initiative was the Women and Ebola programme, a year-long endeavour involving 20 women and girls participating in entrepreneurial and educational workshops as well as a space to heal their minds.

The female focus has very much to do with the fact that women are disproportionally affected by such epidemics. A survivor of sexual assault herself, Wurie understands the need for these women to have access to support. As she writes in an article for the South African portal The Journalist, SDP is about “exposing the hidden reality of ‘surviving’ which is the ability to pick up the pieces of life when all is destroyed”.

Meanwhile, halfway across the world at the University of Cambridge, D’Souza came across a writeup on SDP and was compelled by its mission. “They’re really filling in the gap of the psychosocial impact of the virus, and what it would mean for individuals and how they navigate their way back into the community. It’s putting mental health on the map. I just felt aligned with their belief in building social support to heal and transform the local community,” she says.

After getting in touch with Wurie, D’Souza embarked on her six-week trip to Sierra Leone in June last year. While she knew she was going to be part of some sessions with the participants, D’Souza’s involvement was rather dynamic role of responding to any opportunity she could contribute her skills to. “I was a support worker in some ways,” she explains. “So it was a mix of doing some work in planning, grant writing, figuring out logistics, and research. I also did some data collection for the project; interviewing the women about their experiences, documenting their journey of what it meant to be on this year-long programme.”

While psychology is her main field of study, D’Souza also has a keen interest in art – it made sense then that she ran an “art therapy empowerment session” with SDP participants. “When you’re worrying about feeding your family or getting a job, you don’t have time to worry about why you’re feeling sad; I just wanted them to have a chance to really connect with themselves for a second,” she explains. “I didn’t say that we’re going to make ‘art’, because that has its own set of connotations. For example, we just got them to make ‘marks’ or lines based on what they felt while listening to music. The idea is show them that they can make something ordered and manageable in a situation that feels disorganised and overwhelming.”

Aside from supporting Ebola survivors, SDP also looks at the broader gendered realities of the communities it operates in. In this respect, sexual rights is an area the organisation is aiming to do more work in. Following the brutal gang rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl named Hannah Bockarie in 2015, the nation was forced to look at the real risk of sexual violence that many young Sierra Leoneans face. “That case really sparked a national conversation,” adds D’Souza. “What SDP hopes for is to overcome the stigma survivors face, because they tend to be shamed and blamed. So there needs to be sexuality education, starting from school children; if people are educated about sexual rights, they would be more aware of the injustices that occur. Part of the work I managed to help out with was to do some writing programmes and material on sexual rights, as well as possible innovations we could introduce to reach out to people.”

Using privilege for social change

A child of first-generation immigrants, D’Souza is a plucky young woman and more than cognizant of the nature of power, privilege and social injustices. “My family migrated from India, and I went to a state school in a not-so-good part of town — walking into an elite educational institution like this, you become quite aware of how you don’t really see yourself represented in these sort of spaces,” she says. “It’s a fantastic place, and I feel privileged to be able to gain knowledge here; and I feel to respect that knowledge, I need to reach out to people who have not had access to this sort of privilege.”

As she shares her passion for psychology and social justice, D’Souza expresses a clear fascination for the human condition. “People are just so interesting to me,” she says with a laugh. “I love observing them and trying to understand why someone would respond to a certain situation in the way they do. And if I see an opportunity to make a positive impact, I need to do it. I can’t walk away from the chance to make a positive change.”

What is also striking about D’Souza is that she has refreshingly unromantic view of doing social work, which partly stems from her wanting to avoid the “Western saviour complex”. “Development work can be very political in nature; when you’re going to developing countries, it’s very reminiscent of colonial encounters, so you really have to be mindful and critical,” she says. “It’s about attitude and perspective. I am in no way superior to the people I work with, nor should I be trying to ‘fix’ them — that is what’s problematic with international development work. When you just talk to people as human beings, and just share with each other, you quickly realise that all you have is knowledge that is intensely situated on your own perspective. You can’t operate on this idea of being like ‘I’m here to save these poor starving people’, but rather that you’re realising a shared goal together. Instead of looking down at someone, it’s about looking at each other.”

Having such a perspective also explains why D’Souza is nonchalant about travelling to Sierra Leone. With much of the mainstream media’s coverage of the African continent distilled to a simplistic narrative of just poverty and war, a good number of people may balk at the idea of such a trip. “It’s another form of colonialism isn’t in, the way certain places are always depicted,” she quips. “There is a tendency to homogenise and entire continent, and I think many people in the West badly ‘otherise’ Africa as dangerous and barbaric. Naturally, people would worry over the concept of an unfamiliar place, but a lot of these ideas come from a certain form of power dynamic. I just hope that with the people I meet at least, they would be inspired to challenge these ideas and do their own research on the continent. I wasn’t scared at all to go there — I mean, there are people there, and they’re living their lives aren’t they?”

All in all, D’Souza’s experience with SDP has only solidified her desire to continue being involved in holistic community work. As she finishes up with her degree, she shares that while she has no concrete plans as of yet, mental health and international development work are definitely on the cards for her. “I definitely have an affinity towards getting mental health on the map, and international work is really exciting. Why should we confine knowledge to just our own country or continent even? Why not exchange ideas to innovate, and learn from each other and harness our resources to work together. And I definitely want to go back to Sierra Leone if I can,” she says.

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