Sierra Leone: We’ve lost our houses, but not our hope

After surviving the devastating mudslide, one family prepares for an uncertain future

Caroline Thomas
Oct 3, 2017 · 4 min read

In the early hours of August 14, Yeabu, her husband Tamba and their four children made a miraculous escape from the mudslide, running in the dark while the mud and water poured down the mountain behind them. Over 500 people lost their lives and 800 are still missing, presumed dead.

Yeabu is plagued by nightmares of her and her family running for their lives when the ground started to shake and the mudslide struck. “When I lie down, thoughts of what happened turn in my head,” says Yeabu. “My memories torment me, especially when the rains come.”

Yeabu survived the mudslide that destroyed her home by running while carrying two of her children. Her husband Tamba and their other two children also survived. Photo: WFP/Caroline Thomas

Yeabu and Tamba, like hundreds of other families, had their home and all belongings destroyed that night — totally covered by the mud and rocks that fell down Mount Sugarloaf. For the first few nights, the family of six slept in a small shop owned by a friend, surviving on food provided by the World Food Programme (WFP) and other partners. After moving to a larger structure near to the mudslide site, they were eventually housed in one of the two temporary camps the Government of Sierra Leone set up for mudslide survivors.

Families at the temporary camp in Freetown. Credit: WFP/Caroline Thomas

Here, they sleep on mattresses in a room shared with several other families. Although basic, the family is provided with food, healthcare, and a child-friendly space for the children to play in. However, they are keen to re-start their lives. “This isn’t my home; I can’t feel comfortable in a place that isn’t mine,” says Yeabu.

Yeabu walks with her four children through the temporary camp that is the family’s current home. The camp was set up for those left homeless by the August 14 mudslide. Photo: WFP/Caroline Thomas

To help families like Yeabu and Tamba’s to start over, the Government, with the support of UKAid, UNICEF, WFP and other partners, has organized a cash transfer programme, where all affected families are given a set amount of funds using ‘mobile money’. In addition, those that choose to leave, or not move to, the temporary camps will be given an additional early recovery cash transfer. This is intended to be start-up money to be used for rent, and to enable people to re-start businesses. For Yeabu, a petty trader, this will mean buying a small amount of goods to sell.

In addition to providing food in September for affected people, WFP will provide money for families to buy food for October and November. “It is crucial that people are able to feed their families while they establish new homes, re-start work, and take steps to overcome the trauma they’ve been through,” says Kinday Samba, Deputy Country Director of WFP Sierra Leone. “To support this, WFP will be providing households with money for food for two months. This way, families can have control over the foods they buy, using local markets.”

The WFP team, together with the Government of Sierra Leone, hand out ID cards to those affected by the mudslide. These ID cards enable people to benefit from the cash transfer programme that WFP is supporting, together with UKAid, UNICEF and other partners. Photo: WFP/Caroline Thomas

As the registered household head, Tamba queues up to receive his cash transfer ID card from the WFP team. Full of curiosity, Tamba’s four-year-old son Kelfala can’t resist joining his father in the queue. He watches as Tamba is given his ID card and, at the next table, a new phone, SIM card, and instructions on how to receive the cash transfer.

Tamba collects instructions for the cash transfer programme while his four-year old son Kelfala looks at the mobile phone the family has been given. Using this phone, the family will be able to receive funds. Photo: WFP/Caroline Thomas

The family can now decide how best to use this money, meaning Tamba and Yeabu have to find a new place to call home. As he leaves the WFP tent with his new phone, Tamba is already speculating about locations in Freetown where he and his family can start a new life. Despite the challenges that inevitably lie ahead, and the terrible memories they carry with them, their resilience is evident — and, with the support they’ve received, they have an opportunity to re-build what was lost.

Yeabu thinks back to when she phoned her mother to tell her that the family had survived the mudslide. “My mother told me, ‘Your house may have fallen but your life hasn’t fallen. You can re-start. Don’t lose hope’.”

Yeabu with her children Mabinty, Yenkeh, Kelfala and Fatmata. Photo: WFP/Caroline Thomas

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