Winnipeggers grieving loss of families in Sierra Leone
S the death toll from mudslides and flooding in Sierra Leone climbs to 1,000, one Winnipegger is coming to grips with losing most of her family in the latest disaster to hit the west African country.
Mahawa Conteh lost 14 members of her family in the capital of Freetown, when their homes were hit by the deluge coming down the mountain.
“When you hear that your loved ones — your family — all died the same day, that’s too much,” Conteh said between sobs on Wednesday.
Conteh, who came to Canada in 2012, is not alone in her grief.
On Friday night, members of the Sierra Leone Nationals Association of Manitoba will hold a vigil for Sierra Leone at Knox United Church downtown at 7 p.m.
To association president Abu Bakarr
AKamara, the disaster has been forgotten by the news media since it happened on Aug. 14 — the focus is now on tropical storm Harvey, which by Wednesday had killed 30 people in Texas.
In Sierra Leone’s capital city, the government initially reported 450 dead and 600 missing. Now church and community leaders are saying the death toll is at 1,000 and an estimated 3,000 people are homeless. Kamara said there’s no insurance or anything that comes close to the Americans’ Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is helping people in the storm-hit Gulf Coast region.
Along with the vigil, the association is holding a fundraising car wash on Sept. 9 and is asking Manitobans to donate to charities helping people in Sierra Leone.
“People need us to help,” Kamara said.
Kamara is sending money to his sister and her family, who lost their home in the mudslide and are staying with cousins. He said desperate strangers who lost everything in the disaster are on Facebook, reaching out to Sierra Leonese-Canadians for help.
“Not everyone has relatives in Canada,” Kamara said.
It’s not the first time this community in Manitoba has rallied to pray for their former home and to support local people dealing with shock and grief. Two years ago, Sierra Leone was hit by the deadly Ebola outbreak. It saw some 14,000 cases of the grisly virus, which killed almost 4,000 people.
Now, in the aftermath of Ebola, people with loved ones in Sierra Leone — such as Conteh — are grieving again.
The mudslides killed her uncles, their wives and children in Freetown in a horrific manner, she said.
“It was the way they died,” said Conteh, who has two preschool-age children. She’s most haunted by the image of her pregnant aunt, who was due to give birth this month.
“When they found her body, the legs were gone,” she said, trying to wait for her husband to get home from work and take the kids so she could cry without them seeing her so upset.
“Kids always want to see their parents happy.”
Conteh said her Freetown relatives who weren’t home at the time of the mudslide all survived, but they’re now homeless and destitute.
“They don’t know where their house is,” she said.
“Everything was wiped out. The place looked like a field.”
Conteh works part time and is looking for more hours so she can send more money to help them. “It’s so stressful. It’s too much.”
Where to donate
The Sierra Leone Nationals Association of Manitoba is organizing a vigil, called Night of Prayer for Sierra Leone, at Knox United Church (400 Edmonton St.) Friday at 7 p.m.
The association is accepting material donations from the public to assist in the recovery effort. Contact Simeon Ganda, chairman of the disaster relief committee at (204) 951-4250.
On Sept. 9, association volunteers will be washing cars to raise money all day at the Domo gas bar (1441 Henderson Hwy.)
Registered charities helping Sierra Leone include:
The Humanitarian Coalition — Canada’s leading aid agencies that finance relief efforts in times of international humanitarian crises; see humanitariancoalition.ca or call (toll-free): 1-855-461-2154
Canadian Catholic Organization for Peace and Development (Caritas) see devp.org or call (toll-free) 1-888-234-8533
Abu Bakarr Kamara, president of the Sierra Leone Nationals Association of Manitoba, says people in Sierra Leone need help in the aftermath of mudslides and flooding earlier this month. The association is holding a vigil Friday.