By: Lisa Pattison
The Ebola crisis in West Africa has resulted in people from all walks of life stepping up to serve as volunteers in the concerted efforts to eradicate the virus. When asked why they do it, the simple yet profound reply is, “If I don’t do it, who will?”. This is a sentiment that has long resonated with Mustafa Gamanga who has served as a volunteer with the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society since 1989 through war, cholera and now, Ebola.
“I was always drawn to groups,” says Mustafa. “It first with Scouts, and then one day I saw people dressed in white with a red cross emblem. I found out it was the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society and knew I wanted to join.” Still at school, Mustafa was encouraged to set up his own Red Cross youth group which he did, reaching a membership of 30 committed members and many associates. “We had an open door policy. Anyone could join which is what the Red Cross is, it’s for everyone.”
With Mustafa at the helm, the youth group was active both inside and outside of school. “We did things to serve the community like clean the school, provide first aid, visit hospitals and children’s homes to socialize with orphans and the sick. The girls would do people’s make-up and the boys would cut hair to make patients feel better.” Mustafa’s enthusiasm for community work prompted him to engage four other schools in Freetown to start their own Red Cross youth groups which are still active to this day. He also became the National Red Cross Youth chairman for the Western Area.
Mustafa’s volunteering work was not always in the happiest of situations. With the eruption of civil war in 1991 there was a mass exodus of doctors and nurses. “There was no one to care for the sick or injured, but I knew I could help through my first aid training. We were recognized and respected by the authorities as the Red Cross to be able to go out and pick up the injured and take them to hospital. Without us volunteers, many more people would have died. This was one of my most challenging moments as a Red Cross volunteer, but also one of my proudest.” Mustafa did not flee during the civil war. He chose to stay, continuing to provide relief, clothing and food to those caught up in the war until it ended in 2002.
When the cholera epidemic ravaged Sierra Leone, Mustafa put his honed communication skills into action to educate communities about chlorine. “Chlorine was very important in overcoming cholera, but the communities were very suspicious of it so we really had to build trust. The Red Cross was really celebrated for its activities, and I felt proud to be a member. Appreciation from others is my remuneration. That is why I volunteer.”
It only seems natural that Mustafa’s energy and leadership skills should translate into his chosen career choice: a secondary school sports teacher. “Volunteering gave me the confidence to stand up in front of a crowd, which is what I have to do every day at school without fear,” says Mustafa. But since the Ebola crisis, schools have had to close, so Mustafa has been volunteering full time with the Red Cross as head of the beneficiary communications team in Freetown. His volunteers are responsible for explaining the safe and dignified burial procedures to the families and communities of the deceased. This is a very challenging role owing to the deeply held traditions of the communities, and many myths circulating about Ebola. "We’re in a good position to change this. The Red Cross is trusted and respected, so people will listen to us if we continue to educate them about Ebola.
“Even though school is out, I see my students in the street and tell them to study. I go to their house to get their parents to encourage them to learn. Students are becoming worried and frustrated that they can’t go to school. They see me being active with the Red Cross and want to know how they can join their school group.”
Mustafa hopes that he will be able to go back to his normal life at school and be at home with his three children without constantly thinking of Ebola. He looks forward to teaching football, his favourite sport, which he credits for his youthful energy. Until then, his focus remains on beating Ebola through the efforts of all Red Cross volunteers. “Being recognized as a good teacher is important to me, but being seen as a good volunteer is even better – to me it shows stronger values.”