A family struck by hunger due to coronavirus

Bone Kortie is a trader who lost her source of income following the pandemic. Credit: Bettie Kemah Johnson-Mbayo / Oxfam

Bone Kortie is a mother of eight and a trader who lost her source of income as a result of the pandemic in Liberia. She recounts her ordeal.

"I told the children if they eat early Monday morning there will be no food in the evening."
Written by Bettie Kemah Johnson-Mbayo, Oxfam in Liberia

Before the Coronavirus pandemic outbreak, Bone Kortie, 43 years, was a petty business trader in Paynesville city, one of the cities surrounding Liberia’s densely populated capital city of Monrovia.

Bone is famously called by regular clients as ‘cold milk’ – a name she earned from the tasty cold milk she sold prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in Liberia.

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 the 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.

Bone takes care of these children all by herself since the father of last child disappeared three years ago: “My son’s father asked for the money we were saving for the family to go do business, but since he left I have no idea if he is alive or dead.”

People are afraid to buy milk

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 she has 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 get paid L$150.00 [about 75 cents] a day 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 keeps us alive right now.

“Sometimes when I think about my suffering I just want to commit suicide, my life now is not easy, the condition I find myself in, I can’t explain,” she said.

The “no food days” of the week

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, “This Saturday we didn’t eat but we ate Sunday, thanks to the help of a neighbor. I kept little 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 food and sometimes they don’t understand. Even on Monday, they ate at 4 pm but the food wasn’t enough, I made them drink enough water. I don’t know if they were okay, but they slept until 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 that 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] until now no food, the plan I have is, when it is late evening 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. “The landlord said the rent has increased, where am I going to take the money from?” she asks.

Cash transfer: a dream come true

Luckily, Bone is now one of the 300 project participants for the social protection project funded by Oxfam and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark (Danida). The project is locally led by two partners: Community Healthcare Initiative (CHI) and West Point Women for Health and Development Organization, both largely focused on women rights.

The project aims to minimize the socio-economic impact of Covid-19 on women and girls in six urban poor or slum communities, and it was pre-designed to address their basic food and non-food needs by providing a digital cash transfer via mobile phone.

However, not everyone has a mobile phone, explains Mohammed Massalay, the Oxfam Covid-19 focal point for the project: “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 SIM cards for these 50% participants and registered a mobile money account of their own.”

Each project participant received $109.50 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 through, 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.