GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) – For Esperance Nyabintu, catching Ebola was a curse and a gift from God. A year ago the virus killed her husband. Most of her neighbours, friends and family abandoned her, such is the social stigma of surviving the disease.
Undaunted by the challenge of bringing up 10 children alone, she has become a social worker, supporting other ostracised survivors like herself in the east of Democratic Republic of Congo.
The epidemic, the second-largest Ebola outbreak since the virus was identified in 1976, has given her an enduring sense of purpose.
“It makes me useful. I tell myself that it is God who chose me,” she said outside her sky-blue wooden house in Goma, North Kivu province, a city re-built on the black lava that spewed from a nearby volcano in 2002.
One of her neighbours, Kikandi Lukoo, said most people shunned Nyabintu after she recovered because they feared she remained infectious, but their friendship prevailed.
“When the neighbours heard about Ebola, everyone hid,” Lukoo said. “I ask people to think of Ebola as any disease, and tell them that Esperance has healed.”
In June the government announced the end of the two-year outbreak that killed more than 2,200 people, just as a genetically distinct flare-up of the virus emerged on the other side of the country. That outbreak has now infected 124 and killed 50.
Congo’s equatorial forests are a natural reservoir for the virus, which causes severe vomiting and diarrhoea and is spread through contact with body fluids.
Despite effective vaccines and treatments that dramatically boosted survival rates, the social and emotional impact of survival has received less recognition.
For Adophine Mauwa, 13, the trauma of losing her entire family to the disease recently caused her to stop eating and talking. Her uncle arranged for Nyabintu to visit.
Sitting together on the porch, Mauwa is soon laughing and high-fiving with Nyabintu.
“I feel really good when I meet an (Ebola survivor) and give them moral support,” Nyabintu said. “I got sick and now I’m an ambassador of healing.”
(Reporting by Djaffar Al Katanty; writing Hereward Holland; Editing by Mike Collett-White)