For His Mother: Sierra Leone PIHer Reflects on Career

Posted on Sep 18, 2018

Mark Dumbuya at Koidu Government Hospital in Sierra Leone in 2017.
Photo by Jon Lascher / Partners In Health

In September 2014, as the largest Ebola outbreak in history was devastating West Africa, Alusine Mark Dumbuya was struggling with an additional, very personal concern in a rural region of Sierra Leone. 

“I know it sounds bad to say, but I didn’t care all too much about Ebola,” Dumbuya said. “At that time, my mum was getting really sick with cervical cancer, so I just wanted her to get better more than anything else.” 

Dumbuya, 33, is now operations manager at Koidu Government Hospital, for Partners In Health. The hospital is in Sierra Leone’s Kono District, and less than 100 miles from where Dumbuya grew up. His experiences during the Ebola outbreak, trying to find cancer treatment for his mother amid the international crisis, motivated him to apply to PIH. And at the hospital, he continues to honor his mother. KGH, as it's often called, has a strong focus on maternal health, in a country where 1 in 17 women dies during pregnancy, delivery, or its aftermath—the worst rate in the world.   

Dumbuya remembered the Ebola outbreak solemnly.  

“The hospitals were so overwhelmed by Ebola patients that other illnesses kind of got ignored. At first, mum was misdiagnosed with a growth, but my family knew something was wrong because she felt more and more unwell,” he said. “Many hospitals closed their doors because the doctors had either died or were too scared to go to work. By the time a doctor figured out what was wrong with her, she desperately needed morphine to control her pain, but it wasn’t available anywhere in the country.

PIH staff prepare to receive patients at the Maforki Ebola Treatment Unit in Sierra Leone in 2015. (Photo by Rebecca E. Rollins / Partners In Health)

“I was so desperate to help that I ran around the big pharmacies in the area, pleading and begging to buy morphine from them,” Dumbuya continued. “The pharmacists all looked at me so funny.” 

Sierra Leone’s government implemented a nationwide, three-day quarantine amid the outbreak, ordering people to stay in their homes from Sept. 19-21.

“It was total shutdown,” Dumbuya said. “When we were finally allowed to leave and go back to the hospital to visit mum, her condition was much worse. She died the next day. We think her oxygen machine must have been taken away by someone else staying there, but I guess we’ll never know.”

His mother’s death changed Dumbuya’s life.  

“After months of insight into how flawed my country’s health care system was, I decided I should try to help if I could. So, I made that my focus,” he said. “I started a job as operations assistant at the Wellbody Clinic in December 2014.”  

Wellbody Clinic is a primary care facility in the small town of Koidu. PIH has supported the clinic since 2014, when it was just one building. It now has six buildings and round-the-clock electricity and water—precious commodities in Kono District. Since 2015, PIH also has supported nearby KGH. PIH collaborates with Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Health to provide support including medical training, supply chain management, community outreach programs, data system innovations, and more.

Jon Lascher, executive director for PIH in Sierra Leone, said Dumbuya "represents the best of PIH" through his work at the hospital.  

“Mark’s commitment to PIH’s mission exemplifies the type of team we have in Sierra Leone," Lascher said. "He works tirelessly, often behind the scenes, to ensure life-saving clinical work is possible at KGH. Since I met Mark, he has never mentioned a task was too small.” 

Longtime PIHer and Sierra Leone native Dr. Bailor Barrie, strategic adviser to Lascher, echoed those sentiments.

"Mark is a smart, passionate and dedicated staff member," Barrie said. "He strives to make work easy for PIH and Ministry of Health staff at KGH. He also is a great mentor."  

Dumbuya said his nickname, “Fire-jumper,” relates to his job as KGH’s operations manager, because of the daily need to tackle problems head on. 

He has been tackling problems—and overcoming extraordinary challenges—since childhood. 

Dumbuya grew up in the town of Makeni, near the Liberian border. Makeni is also near the majority of Sierra Leone’s diamond mines, making it a hotspot for rebel soldiers during the civil war.  

Conflicts escalated in 1991, when Dumbuya was 6, and continued for more than a decade. Rebel soldiers conducted much of the fighting, and looting, in small communities such as Makeni.  

“I still remember my family arguing in the kitchen about whether to stand our ground in Makeni or flea to a nearby village,” Dumbuya said. “On the day we finally decided to leave, in December 1998, I saw a government troop’s vehicle drive past my house. It was covered in blood on one side. It was then that I couldn’t believe we were still in the house. I thought we were going to die.” 

Over the coming months, Dumbuya’s family would travel from village to village in search of somewhere safe to settle. 

“We would walk between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m., because this was when the rebels were quiet,” Dumbuya said. “These were difficult journeys because we had to walk in complete silence, and my sisters were young so they couldn’t walk very far.” 

Old Photos
Dumbuya (second from left) with family; classmates (center); and colleagues (second from right). (Photos courtesy of Mark Dumbuya)

His family found safety for a few months at a village called Foryeahun. But safety could disappear in a moment—like one day, Dumbuya recalled, when he was with a few friends. 

“We were fishing when about 15 rebels jumped out on us from nowhere,” he said. “The other boys ran off quickly, in different directions, but one of the rebels ordered me not to move or he would shoot. The group of rebels circled around me, pointing their guns at me and demanding to know where the village kept their cattle. One of the men behind me began to beat my shoulder with a sharp stick. I’m not sure what would have happened at this point if it hadn’t been for a familiar voice suddenly shouting out in recognition—one of them knew me. It was a boy I had known when I was younger. He was my age. Luckily, they let me run back to my family unharmed and left the village alone.”

Not long after, when rebels occupied much of the country, Dumbuya’s family managed to get him to Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital and the home of his uncle. Dumbuya was able to finish secondary school there.   

“I feel lucky to have gained the qualifications that I did, because they’ve allowed me to do the work I do now,” he said. “During the years I spent studying, I would think about my family every day and whether they were still alive out there. I vividly remember the day I was reunited with them, after the rebels finally ceased fire in 2001, two years after the Peace Accord was signed on 7 July, 1999. It was truly the best day of my life.” 

Dumbuya said he still thinks about all the other people who were running from rebels in rural districts, like he was. He wonders if their outcomes were as fortunate as his own—and he knows there is more he can do to help heal his country’s wounds. 

“My history led me to PIH and, in a way, I feel I’m now helping communities like the ones I grew up in and experienced so much with,” he said. “I’ll jump over all the fires I have to, with PIH at my side, to ensure that the future’s as bright as I know it can be for us here in Sierra Leone.”