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In Sierra Leone, we’ve stopped shaking hands

Shop security guards are standing beside a bucket with a mixture of chlorine bleach and water encouraging passers-by to dip their hands in the mixture.


The shop security guys, clad in plastic gloves, call out "Wash, wash" outside the electronics shop on Siaka Stevens Street in central Freetown. They're standing beside a bucket with a mixture of chlorine bleach and water encouraging passers-by to dip their hands in the mixture. Fatmata, a woman in her mid-20s, is next to the shop, selling plastic gloves and chlorine tablets from a small tray – 2,000 Leones a pair (about 50 cents). Business is brisk in front of the bucket and for Fatmata. Business is very slow inside the shop. I dipped my hands but passed on the gloves. Washing one's hands is an important part of staying healthy, as we all know, and in this environment where Ebola dominates the news and almost every discussion, it's even more important.

Sierra Leone is a friendly place where hand shaking and holding hands is part of the culture. Wherever I go in my work as a media development consultant – meetings, shops or street corners – I'm usually greeted with smiles and handshakes. I've had some of the most interesting conversations while walking hand-in-hand with my friend Sullivan. Now, under the umbrella of Ebola, most people are keeping their hands in their pockets or folded across their chests instead of reaching forward to greet friends and family. Nods and salutes have replaced the familiar friendly three-step, hand-grasp-thumb-lock-and-grip greeting.

A group of photographers, with whom I sometimes work, shares space along the sidewalk of Siaka Stevens Street with women selling bananas, cold water in plastic bags and cheap costume jewellery. I bought a banana from Kadija, who fumbled with my change in her gloved hands.

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As we stood along the street, a green SUV topped with a loud speaker and decorated with about a dozen UNICEF-sponsored Ebola posters inches along in traffic. I hear a distorted electronic tune, something about "Ebola ea dae" (Ebola is here). Then, there's a recorded message in Krio, the lingua franca of Sierra Leone, which crackles and reverberates off the concrete Rokel Bank building.

My Krio is decent but I had to ask Kadija what the message was saying. She looked nonplussed as she said: "The government says we shouldn't touch anyone." I smile as I suggest that it's still totally fine for her to hug and hold her children, one of whom was looped over her back in a lappa. This over-simplified government message is another example of misinformation being circulated about town. But, how do you convey the more accurate message: "Don't touch sick or dead people."

It's rainy season here and I huddle under a blue tarpaulin awning with a small group of okada riders. (An okada is a small, public motorbike taxi.) The conversation immediately turns to the Ebola crisis. I ride my own motorbike around town and so share an affinity with these professional taxi-riders. They tell me stories about witchcraft (juju), Ebola witch guns, crazy nurses injecting neighbours with Ebola, government conspiracies and other nonsensical rumours. Then, in unison, they tell me that we are all in the hands of God and that only God can save Sierra Leone. This is a deeply religious country of Muslims and Christians and many people believe prayer is the only hope against Ebola.

In an address to the nation on Monday, Sierra Leone's President Ernest Bai Koroma declared it a national "stay-at-home" day for "reflection, education and prayer." At daybreak, the streets were completely empty as, it seems, the entire country stayed at home. There were no taxis. There were no poda podas (converted minivans turned into public buses). Stray dogs lounged in the middle of usually busy intersections. Police and security forces strolled empty sidewalks. All businesses, shops, offices and street markets were closed.

The eerie quiet and unusual emptiness was a bit disconcerting. As I strolled through the Aberdeen neighbourhood in the west of Freetown, I saw women braiding each other's hair, cooking fires covered with big pots of boiling cassava leaf stew, young folks sweeping porches and older folks listening to radio broadcasts. There was a lot of sitting around, discussing and praying.

People are afraid of the Ebola virus and rightfully so. But, I'm hoping factual and clear information can help allay some of this fear. Ebola is here and primarily affecting those who treat sick people, professional health-care workers and close contacts. Healthy caution, awareness of the facts and a preventive mindset is in order. But, there's no question it's affecting many people's lives. This is a close-knit country, for the most part. People have gone through school together; they have grown up in the same or nearby villages; they are related by marriage or politics. Everyone undoubtedly will be touched by this disease in one way or another.

And, Ebola has touched my life beyond the street conversations and dinner table debates. My friend, Hawa Rebecca, a nurse in Kenema, was recently tested for Ebola. She was positive. Two days ago, she was "responding to treatment" in the Kenema Hospital. Monday morning, she died. She left behind three young children and countless other family members who relied on her small income. Ebola is here and it's affecting us all.

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