Today the World Health Organization announced that the latest Ebola outbreak has killed 2,622 and infected at least 5,335 in West Africa. The Fuller Center for Housing of Sierra Leone finds itself at the epicenter of the outbreak as it partners with families near the crowded capital city of Freetown, a slum-filled city that saw a less-publicized outbreak of cholera kill almost 400 people two years ago.
The Fuller Center’s work of partnering with families to help them build simple, decent housing can play a significant role stemming the spread of disease and illness — or, better yet, stopping them before they start, especially in a country like Sierra Leone.
“Sierra Leone is a place that badly needs our help — that was true a year ago, and with the outbreak of Ebola, is even more true now,” said Fuller Center Director of International Operations Ryan Iafigliola, who developed a particular fondness for the friendly people of Sierra Leone during a 2010 site visit. “Slums with their poor sanitation and cramped and dirty conditions are breeding grounds for disease. Even before Ebola arose, people in Sierra Leone die every year from sickness caused by their living conditions during their rainy season. When I visited, family members told me of their sad losses of loved ones.
“What we do in building decent homes with improved sanitation is some of the best preventative care that can be done for a family,” Iafigliola added. “As we’ve seen, in some situations it is not an exaggeration to say that it is a life-or-death situation.”
That’s something that has been witnessed going back to the very roots of this affordable housing ministry, something that Fuller Center founder Millard Fuller learned in the 1970s in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where The Fuller Center still works today). He believed that owning a simple, decent house was fundamental to a family’s well-being. A nurse helped him realize how directly it can impact health conditions, something Fuller recalled in writing his book “More Than Houses.”
“I remember a conversation I had years ago in Africa with a British Baptist nurse in Ntondo, Zaire, about our burgeoning work there,” Fuller wrote in chapter six. “’You are doing more for the health of the people in this village,’ she said, ‘than we have with our clinic in twenty-five years. You are getting rid of the reasons for their illnesses.’”
Fuller went on to document case after case of communities and families whose health conditions were drastically improved by having decent, clean housing. He also cited a study by Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, which examined the difference in health outcomes of Malawi children who lived in houses built by Habitat for Humanity (then led by Fuller) and those who lived in inadequate housing. All other circumstances being equal, they found that children under the age of 5 in Habitat houses were 44 percent less likely to be ill.
“Spirits are lifted, hope is restored and health improves when families are able to leave leaky roofs, mud walls and dirt floors behind and move into simple, decent places to live,” wrote Fuller, who would go on to found The Fuller Center in 2005 to get back to the grass-roots, Christian principles of the movement he and wife Linda launched more than 40 years ago in Zaire.
Duke University Professor Priscilla Wald insists that addressing the underlying causes of the Ebola outbreak in Africa is both sensible and plausible.
“We hear about how medical ignorance is spreading the disease, but we don’t as often hear about how poverty — in the form of insufficient medical equipment and facilities, for example, or insufficient nutrition and housing — is the largest factor in the amplification of a disease outbreak that could become a pandemic,” said Wald, author of “Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative.” “If that story was told sufficiently, the core problem might better be addressed.”
Fuller Center of Sierra Leone Executive Director Isabel Johnston is saddened by the devastating effects Ebola has had on her country but is more determined than ever to press ahead with the building of simple, decent homes. After meetings with government and other leaders, she has made clear the role adequate housing can play in a turnaround.
“The tragic Ebola virus has totally disrupted every aspect of the nation’s existence,” she wrote in an email to Fuller Center headquarters in Americus, Georgia, earlier this week. “We thank you for your prayers and for empathizing with us. Our proposal for involvement in the eradication of the virus was endorsed, and we are doing our best to kick-start the program.”
“Our partners in Sierra Leone have vowed to carry on despite the national problems caused by the disease and want to bring good out of the tragedy,” Iafigliola said. “The good will be a better Sierra Leone with more worldwide awareness of the plight of those living in poverty housing and the preventable effects of those conditions.”
The Fuller Center has launched a specific fund to help it’s covenant partner in Sierra Leone play an increased role in stemming the tide of Ebola by building more decent housing. (To donate to the fund, click here.)
“As we’ve learned with this outbreak, we’re all connected — a disease that starts in a slum in Africa can spread to the United States and the world,” Iafigliola said. “Helping address the root causes of the problem is not only the right and Christian thing to do, but it’s also enlightened self-interest. Every day that families live in those conditions increases their risk — and ours — of deadly consequences.”