Gbangbatok, Sierra Leone – The remote Turtle Islands archipelago must be one of the few places in the region where Ebola is not the main topic of conversation.
Scattered among the mangroves and sandbanks off the coast in the south of the country, the islands have so far been spared the onslaught seen on the mainland.
Yet despite the fact that not one of the 16,000 islanders has contracted the disease, Ebola has brought life here to a standstill. The economic impact of the virus has spread far beyond it’s physical boundaries, with fear and travel restrictions hampering trade throughout the country.
The fish market in the once-thriving town of Gbangbatok, tucked away in the mangrave swamps behind Bonthe Island, has all but collapsed, depriving the islanders of their dominant source of income.
Anywhere else in the world the islands’ stunning beaches and laid back village life would be enough to sustain a thriving tourist industry. But in a country still feared by mainstream travellers after a decade of civil war in the 1990s, the popuation is almost exclusively dependent on the fishing industry. With the proceeds from their fish, the islanders used to buy rice -the staple of the local diet.
Now seven months after Sierra Leone recorded its first cases of the virus, the islands have become dependent on food aid. Last week the World Food Program teamed up with the British military and it’s fleet of Merlin helicopters to drop some 220 tons of food.
“For two months now I have not been able to sell my fish,” said Mohamed Koroma, a fisherman from Chepo, who was happy to see supplies being delivered.
Mustapha Kong, the local chief of Nyangai Island, said living conditions there were getting worse. “The fishing business is very important to our island. If this does not end soon it will be calamitous,” he said.