Lately in Sierra Leone, people don't hug each other when they meet, Fort Wayne resident Francis Mustapha said. Relatives don't kiss. “You don't even shake hands,” he said.
It's a major cultural change for the West African nation, where people are generally open and friendly, said the 65-year-old retired Fort Wayne school teacher, born and raised in the West African nation.
But the widening and overwhelmingly deadly Ebola virus epidemic has rendered the precautions necessary.
“People are doing what they can,” he said.
Also known as hemorrhagic fever, Ebola in the last six months has killed nearly 1,000 people in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and Nigeria, world health officials say.
Mustapha, after retiring from Snider High School in 2011, has spent much of his time in Sierra Leone, where he has been building and running a school in his native village, Madina.
So far, he said, no one in Madina, in the southwestern part of the country, has been infected with the virus. Most cases, he said, have been about 300 miles away in the districts of Kailahun and Kenema near Sierra Leone's southeastern border with Guinea, the nation where the outbreak originated in February and March, he said.
But the disease is leaving a large footprint in his homeland.
On Monday, Mustapha said, the entire nation observed a “stay-at-home day” declared by the government as part of an Ebola-related national state of emergency. News reports say officials were to go house to house in endemic areas to identify victims and impose quarantines until the homes were medically cleared.
Public gatherings, except those to deal with the disease, have been banned.
In Madina, Mustapha said, people for some time have been “self-quarantined,” heeding the advice of the school's full-time nurse, who has trained herself in the disease and has been trying to educate families. She has been talking about how the disease is transmitted and stressing personal hygiene such as hand-washing and cleaning.
“They (Madina villagers) have decided that they are not going to go outside the area. They can go to their farms (fields), but they are not going to go to other communities now. And secondly, they are very vigilant about people coming in,” Mustapha said. “They might isolate you for several days. So they are taking steps to at least to protect themselves.”
With the state of emergency expected to last 30 to 90 days, according to news reports, “now there's a real possibility that they will put off school until the situation is under control, that school will not open next month,” Mustapha said.
Mustapha, who survived bouts with malaria and typhoid during earlier stays in Sierra Leone, said he left for the States about the time the first reports of Ebola surfaced.
He and his wife, Roberta, planned to go back in June to get ready for the upcoming school year, he said, but they canceled the trip because of the outbreak. A rescheduled trip for Aug. 19 also has been put on hold, he said; U.S. health officials in late July warned against non-essential travel to Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia because of the epidemic.
“I have been talking with family members on an almost daily basis, and all of them say they don't think I should come,” Mustapha said, adding he also consulted with a friend who is a doctor in Sierra Leone.
The doctor confirmed worrisome news that the first case of Ebola had shown up in Madina's district, although many miles away from the village. The doctor also said there are a few cases now in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, about 140 miles to the north.
“He said, ‘Don't come, because the situation is out of control. We really don't have control of it,' ” Mustapha said.
Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization also said this week that Ebola was “out of control” in parts of West Africa.
Mustapha said Ebola has been so devastating in his homeland because many people are not only poor but also illiterate. That's a situation he hopes the school, now in its second year, will someday help remedy.
Mustapha has used his own retirement savings and donations, many from the Fort Wayne area, to start the school. He said it now has 270 students, nine teachers and six assistants in addition to the full-time nurse.
Still, about 70 percent of Sierra Leone's people cannot read or write, he said. So, when it comes to Ebola, they are at the mercy of ignorance, fear and rumor.
Many people, Mustapha said, are afraid to go to a hospital for care because they fear they will die there. Others, he added, have removed the ill from the hospital to seek traditional healers or remedies.
Many people, Mustapha said, do not know Ebola is spread only from direct contact with the body fluids of an outwardly ill or dead person. He said the region's funeral practices promote the virus' spread because they involve ritual washing of a dead person by relatives and large gatherings in which people touch the body.
Ebola has been fatal in more than 90 percent of cases in Sierra Leone, Mustapha estimates.
“What has happened with Ebola is that what is really needed is education, education of the masses,” he said. “The unfortunate thing is that ignorance is leading people to the wrong conclusions.”
Read more about Mustapha's work: