The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The fight to save the last Ebola-free district in Sierra Leone

One man's campaign to keep his home free of Ebola has been a resounding success -- and a curiosity to researchers.

Momoh Konte, shown at his office in Freetown,  returned to Sierra Leone from Washington to help his home district fight against Ebola. (Photo by Tanya Bindra for The Washington Post)

Only in Koinadugu does he relax. That’s where his fears of Ebola fade.

John Caulker, executive director of the nonprofit Fambul Tok, travels across Sierra Leone these days tense with worry about contracting the dreaded disease. He worries in the bustling capital of Freetown and in the smallest villages. But not in Koinadugu.

“It’s a sense of relief,” Caulker says, “a sense that here you are going to be okay.”

The last region in Sierra Leone untouched by Ebola sits in the rugged, mountainous north, in a place called the Koinadugu district. It is a poor place, dependent on small farms and gold mines, the largest of the country’s 14 districts by land size and home to 265,000 residents. The district borders Guinea, where the current Ebola outbreak began and first spilled over into Sierra Leone. Koinadugu is surrounded by districts dealing with hundreds of Ebola cases.

But Koinadugu has kept the virus at bay.

It is a remarkable feat, a source of pride for district residents, a source of hope for the entire struggling nation, and a curiosity to epidemiologists tracking the worst Ebola outbreak in history, which has recorded more than 8,000 cases in west Africa with no end in sight.

The district’s success was no accident. It has been the result of concerted, early efforts to staunch the spread of the disease, sometimes turning to novel measures, tailoring details to fit the region’s unique needs. Most of the planning has fallen to a man named Momoh Konte. He, along with district government and tribal officials, have managed to do what has seemed impossible elsewhere.

Konte, 43, grew up in the town of Kabala, the capital of Koinadugu, but left years ago to pursue his education in the United States, studying at Howard University and the University of Toledo. He runs an economic consulting business with offices in west Africa called Transtech International. He helped privatize Sierra Leone’s telecommunications industry. Konte has done well for himself. He maintains strong political ties to the country’s ruling party. He lives in Washington, D.C.

But in May, as the Ebola outbreak smoldered, he began thinking about ways he could help his home district. He was convinced the government and international aid groups were not doing enough.

How to stop Ebola

Konte wasn’t an Ebola expert, hadn’t read up on the latest infection control standards and didn’t understand in great detail how the virus was transmitted. He knew only that Ebola was spread by close contact with body fluids. So he focused on limiting exposure. And, to him, that meant limiting movement.

“The whole idea is it’s not killing rich people, it’s not killing middle-class people — it’s killing poor people who move from one place to another looking for work or something to eat,” Konte says.

In June, he flew to Sierra Leone, plans in hand. He arrived in Koinadugu with big drums of chlorine for disinfection and thousands of pairs of rubber gloves and face masks. He donated 10 million Leone dollars to the district’s anti-Ebola efforts and promised to renew the donation every month for a year. That’s about $2,300 a month. Not much. But it was enough. The local press hailed him as a philanthropist.

Konte’s first step was convincing district politicians, along with the important traditional tribal leaders, that they could not wait for help. And he needed their support.

“I cannot just start passing laws. I don’t have the authority to do that,” he says. “The only thing I enjoy there is the respect that they give me.”

He was persuasive and, especially important, willing to spend money. He organized a district Ebola task force, gave each of the 10 members a stipend and appointed a former Doctors Without Borders official named Fasineh Samura as the head. Together, they set out to implement Konte’s plans.

A district on lockdown

The strictest measure was to draw a ring around the district and restrict who went in or out. The mountains helped. But so did checkpoints, where guards stood armed with thermal thermometers and chlorinated water — and a pass system that prevented most residents from leaving. Visitors needed a local resident to vouch for them. Aid groups such as Doctors Without Borders have criticized such quarantines, which exist in several regions of Sierra Leone, arguing that they only worsen suffering.

But Konte, relying on his business background, devised some potential solutions. While most small business owners were not allowed to leave Koinadugu to visit Freetown on supply runs, he set up a $45,000 revolving fund to make loans for the importation of food, fuel and medicine, with deliveries coordinated by the task force.

The district’s vegetable growers, the country’s primary produce supplier, were forced to share a small, communal fleet of trucks to ship their goods. And instead of these trucks being stuffed with five people, each carried one driver and one or two people called “manifesters” who tracked the shipments and payments.

These mango, rice and bean farmers were upset with the new rules. Konte recalls they took to the radio to criticize his plans, to wonder who gave him the authority to act like he was the president of Sierra Leone.

“I understood their position,” he says. “To cut off a business from making profits is very difficult.”

He tried explaining why the changes were necessary. It also helped that he gave them each 2,000 Leones – the equivalent of 46 cents – to cover higher costs.

“I was able to overcome that and get their support,” he says.

Ebola neighborhood watch

Responsibility for stopping Ebola was shared. Chiefdoms were asked to form neighborhood watch teams to enforce the new rules and educate people about the disease. Community leaders, such as the women working public markets and drivers of popular motorcycle taxis, were encouraged to explain Ebola and why the new restriction were required. Fambul Tok, a nonprofit aimed at civil war reconciliation efforts, shifted its focus to Ebola education.

Each bit helped, broadening the duty of keeping Ebola away.

“It’s a collective determination to make sure they remain Ebola-free,” Caulker of Fambul Tok said. “The people in Koinadugu are trying to defend their status.”

Konte’s plan also targeted faith healers. The task force dispatched teams to meet with these traditional medicine practitioners, give them cash and beg them not to treat anyone appearing to suffer from Ebola. The disease’s first cases came to Sierra Leone from people infected during a faith healer’s burial in Guinea. Faith healers offer hands-on treatments that can involve blood-letting, all of which carry risks of transmitting Ebola.

“When it comes to traditional African healers, we had to pay extra attention,” Konte says. People trust them. They are popular. A faith healer with Ebola could be disastrous. “It would’ve wiped out our community.”

The district has faced close calls. Last month, a man sick with Ebola was smuggled into Kabala from the neighboring Port Loko district, where the disease is rampant. His wife was a native of Koinadugu, and the couple holed up at her father’s house. But a group of young people alerted district health officials. The couple were escorted out of Koinadugu. The house where they stayed was disinfected. People who had close contact with the infected man were quarantined. No new cases of Ebola were found.

Konte says he knows the anti-Ebola measures have been hard. But he doesn’t see any other way.

“You cannot have comfort and take care of this Ebola thing,” he says.

Koinadugu’s status as Ebola-free remains fragile, prone to break with the slightest mistake. The town of Makeni, just an hour away, has seen an explosion in the number of new infections. Konte compares it to seeing your neighbor’s house on fire and wondering just how long before the fire reaches your house, too. As a result, the district’s Ebola task force this week cut the number of passes allowing people to leave Koinadugu.

Residents need to remain vigilant, he says.

The stakes are higher in Koinadugu, Konte knows, growing with each passing day as the outbreak rages just outside its doors.