A mother of eight narrates ordeal with the pandemic in Liberia
By Bettie Kemah Johnson-Mbayo, [email protected]
Monrovia – Before the Coronavirus pandemic outbreak, Bone Kortie, 43 years, was a petty business trader in Paynesville city, Parker Paint community.
Paynesville City is one of the cities surrounding Liberia’s densely populated capital city of Monrovia.
Bone is a mother of eight children between the ages of three and 16 years. Like so many other women across Liberia, she takes care of extended family too. Bone is the biological parent of five children, while the others are those of her late sister who died tragically in a car crash in 2017.
She is famously called by regular clients as ‘cold milk’ – a name she earned from the tasty cold milk she sold prior to the pandemic in Liberia.
Bone’s life has been marked by economic hardship, which she has mostly had to overcome on her own. She recounted that the father of her three-year-old son disappeared with a promise to turn their little savings into profit “up country”. Until now he has not returned.
“My son’s father asked for the money we were saving for the family to go do business but since he left, I was pregnant, now he (our son) is three years, I have no idea if he is alive or dead.”
Since the start of Covid-19, Bone’s business has faltered, and she has exhausted all her earnings from the sale of cold milk, which is the only source of income to feed her entire family.
“Since the start of the sickness, the people are afraid to buy the milk, nobody wants to buy, and I was losing so, I resolved to not sell it anymore,” she said.
Life for Bone and her children is unbearable, according to her. She is now doing casual labour, collecting and piling dirt for a house foundation. Three of the children are selling plastic bags in the streets while the oldest son is doing yard work to help the family survive.
“I am currently helping someone to fill their house foundation. I am paid L$150.00 [about 75 U.S. cents] and at least 10 loads must be taken to the site in a day. The money we raise from the sales of plastic and the filling of the foundation, is what that is keeping us alive right now.
“Sometimes when I think about my suffering I can just want commit suicide; my life now is not easy, the condition I find myself in. I can’t explain,” she said.
Prior to Covid-19, Bone and her children ate two meals a day, but now, it is either one meal a day or none.
With tears running down her cheeks, she said, “As long I don’t wash people clothes or carry dirt for the foundation, I can’t feed my children. This gone Saturday we didn’t eat but we ate Sunday, it was from a neighbor’s hand-out. I kept small of the food for Monday … I told the children if they eat early Monday morning there will be no food in the evening. So, you see, I can starve the children because I don’t have it and sometimes they don’t understand. Even on Monday they ate at 4 p.m. but the food wasn’t enough. I made them to drink enough water. I have no thought [I don’t know] if they were okay, but they slept till Tuesday.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Bone went to work and returned home with five cups of rice, which she steamed, and the children ate without any soup nor oil.
Thursday was a “no food day” for Bone and her children because of the heavy rain, which resulted in no work for her and her sons selling the plastics. Now that Liberia has entered the rainy season, there will likely be more no-food days to come.
“Today [Thursday] till now no food, the plan I have is, when it is late evenings I will go to the lady that I can wash for, to give me the clothes to wash, I know she will pay but going for the clothes is an assurance that we will eat Friday because tonight, I am hoping that someone can help me for the children not to sleep hungry again.”
Despite the struggle for food, Bone is also faced with an increase in the rent of her one-bedroom apartment where she and the eight children live. “See me, for the children I can’t find it and the landlord said the rent has increased. Where am I going to take the money from?” she asks rhetorically.
Luckily, Bone is now one of the 300 project participants for the social protection project funded by Oxfam GB through its Catastrophe (CAT) Fund and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark (Danida).
She was selected by Community Health Initiatives, a partner to Oxfam in Liberia.
The project aims to minimize the socio-economic impact of Covid-19 on women and girls, and it was pre-designed to address their basic food and non-food needs by providing a digital cash transfer via mobile phone.
Mohammed Massalay, Covid-19 focal person, said the cash assistance is unconditional; participants have the freedom to use the funds to address their most unmet needs during this crisis and in times of lock down.
“Since we are digitalizing the transfer of cash to achieve on these results, we were compelled to ensure that participants were rightly selected and have active mobile money accounts. Selection criteria was developed with our partners and was used during the process targeting the most in-need households,” Massaley says.
He continues, “after the selection process, we noticed that 50% (150 households) of the project participants did not have mobile phones and no mobile money account due to age and some level of vulnerability. We procured phones and sims for these 50% participants and registered a mobile money account of their own.”
The project is locally led by two women partners: Community Healthcare Initiative (CHI) and West Point Women for Health and Development Organization, both largely focused on women’s rights.
Six urban poor or slum communities were chosen: West Point, PHP, Newport Street, King Gray, Pipeline and Chicken Soup Factory.
Both partners appreciated Oxfam for the support, adding that the cash transfer is the first to empower women through cash transfer during the pandemic.
Shah Liton, Country Director, Oxfam in Liberia said the effect of the pandemic has also largely affected Liberia with an already poor economy.
He explains that Oxfam in Liberia and partners have committed to supporting the Government efforts in line with our overall programming to address inequalities and enhance social protection during this pandemic.
The project will allow these women and their families to have access to basic food needs and non-food items to overcome the impact of Covid-19 crisis, thereby protecting them from exposure to Covid-19.
Each project participant received $109.50 United States dollars to their mobile money accounts.
Currently, Bone with a smile beaming across her face, displays the text showing receipt of payment on her phone via mobile money.
“I am going to buy food for the house and start selling charcoal, I do not know when this sickness will go, and I can’t use all the money to buy food,” she said. “The transfer is a dream come true. My children and I can’t say much but to say thank you for coming to our rescue. Now we can eat daily,” she said.
Oxfam would like to do more to alleviate the pressure to support Bone’s business idea during the Covid-19 pandemic and is working to raise the funds to do just that.