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This young Seattle woman from Sierra Leone has lots of quarantine experience

Parker Miles Blohm
Aminata Laminatu Kamara is just 20 years old, but she has a lot of experience with quarantining. She lived through a deadly Ebola outbreak in her native Sierra Leone and is now living in Seattle, which has been under a stay-home order due to coronavirus.

Aminata Laminatu Kamara has seen all this before: the lockdown, school closures, people falling ill with a deadly contagious disease. And she’s only 20 years old.

The collective trauma we’re all experiencing right now is something she lived through as a teenager in Sierra Leone. The West African country struggled with a terrifying outbreak of the Ebola virus for almost two years. Now, she lives in Seattle.

Aminata moved here with her youger sister and father in December 2018, to join her stepmom. She is a senior at Garfield High School doing classes at Seattle Central College through Running Start.

When the coronavirus hit here, her classmate was stressing about schools closing and the stay-home order. Aminata tried to reassure her.

“It’s going to be OK. She was like, 'No, it’s not going to be OK,'” Aminata said. “I said, 'You just need to accept, adapt to it.' Oh, this is my new normal now, let me just accept it.’”

She gained that wisdom through hard-won experience.


Aminata was 14 years old when the Ebola virus first arrived in Sierra Leone in the summer of 2014 after having first been discovered in a toddler boy in the neighboring country of Guinea. It was the largest ever outbreak of the disease, which causes fever, aches and pains, vomiting, diarrhea and hemorrhaging. The average fatality rate for Ebola is 50 percent, but past outbreaks have shown a case fatality rate that ranges as high as 90 percent.

She was living with her dad and two younger sisters in the capital city, Freetown.

It was really scary, considering the way the death keeps tolling up. It’s like it’s wiping away generations,” she said. “It starts from one mom and then the dad and then the kids — it just keeps going and going.”

Aminata said at first, people didn’t think it was real, but before long, it was obvious. People were dying.

And just like here, regular life shut down step by step. Schools closed. Businesses shut down. Troops patrolled the neighborhoods. Aminata’s dad was strict.

“He was like — you don’t go out, you don’t do this, you don’t go to neighbors, we don’t share cups, we were just at home,” she said.

In a poor country like Sierra Leone, staying at home is not easy. Not everyone has running water or indoor bathrooms or electricity. Aminata’s family lacked running water and had to trek a long distance to fetch it.

And forget about unemployment benefits, she said. Her father worked at a cement factory and if he didn’t go, they had no income.

People have to go and work and make money and provide food for their family,” she said. “It was hard because everything changed.”

Even her life as a student changed. When schools closed, the government started an education program over the radio. 

“But it wasn’t strong because not everyone has this radio,” Aminata said. And even if they did, some kids spent their time scrounging for food instead of studying, she said.

Credit Tolu Bade / Courtesy of UNICEF
Courtesy of UNICEF
Jimmy Kamara was one of the students in Sierra Leone who used radios to continue their education while schools were closed owing to Ebola.


Life became focused on survival. Her close family members avoided getting sick, but Aminata knows lots of people who did get it. Some neighbors she was friends with contracted Ebola. It’s hard for her to talk about.

“Their mom started feeling sick and within 24 hours, the whole family (was) sick,” she said. “And they quarantine them and pick them up, but one week later there is no one from that family. Everyone who was staying at that house died from the virus.”

She says one of the scariest times was when her father got sick. She thought maybe he had Ebola. He was vomiting and had a fever, and she didn’t know what to do. If she told people, they would treat her family like pariahs.

“They would quarantine the whole house or maybe put you in some place with so much chlorine and other things, so it was like this fear within us,” she said.

But she was scared of more than just being quarantined. Getting Ebola is like a death sentence.

“If the dad gets sick, everyone gets sick,” she said. “If one person at the house gets sick, everyone gets contaminated with the virus.”

If the dad gets sick, everyone gets sick. If one person at the house gets sick, everyone gets contaminated with the virus.

So imagine being a teenager, with your father sick, isolating himself in a room, while you’re trying to make sure your little sisters have enough to eat.

“We have to start rationing food. I was just trying to help them in my own little way while I was like, 'I need someone to help me, too,’” Aminata said.

Aminata said her uncle finally came and took her dad to the hospital. They were relieved to find out it was not Ebola, but malaria.  She was inspired seeing the nurses and doctors bustling around at the hospital and started thinking she might want to become one of them some day.


By spring 2016, Sierra Leone was finally declared to be Ebola-free. Almost 4,000 people had died.

With that Ebola nightmare behind her, Aminata moved to Seattle with her family and settled in as a high school student. She started doing Running Start at Seattle Central College. But then a contagious disease upended her life — again.

“Is it like this virus is like chasing me or what?” she laughed. “Because when I was in Sierra Leone, there was Ebola, and now I’m here and there’s coronavirus. So what’s happening?”

Humor helps her cope. She tries to get her dad to lighten up, too. She sometimes likes to freak him out as a way to tease him.

“I told him, 'Dad, did you know the coronavirus is transmitted now through the shoes, under the sole of your shoes?’” she said. “He was like, 'No, no, no!' It was fun, but I can see that he’s traumatized. He’s like, 'I’m not only thinking about myself, I have two girls I have to think about. You won’t know that until you have kids.’”

Aminata is grateful for things she has here that she did not have during the Ebola outbreak. She’s got a phone and internet. She can do classes over Zoom. She has electricity and doesn’t have to worry about food.

But in some key ways, things are the same. Medical workers are putting their lives on the line to save people. And Aminata still wants to be one of them.

“My friend was saying, 'Aminata, with these deaths, nurses are dying, doctors, maybe you should do something else. Maybe go into accounting,’” she said. “I’m like, 'No, this makes me want to do it more now. No.’”

She plans to attend Seattle Central College in the fall. Aminata wants to go into nursing and eventually become a cardiologist.

Like all of us, she’s looking forward to the day when we’ve conquered the coronavirus. And maybe that moment will be commemorated with a song — just like people in Sierra Leone celebrated the end of Ebola.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.