Shahedah Fornah (’12) is president and co-founder of Pearls of Wata, a nonprofit that raises funds and collects supplies — everything from surgical gowns and bleach to a “burial team package” — to fight the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. Fornah and her cousin, Zainab Kamarah, co-founded Mami Wata (Mother Water) to develop clean water and energy sources in Sierra Leone. Now they’re focusing on the Ebola outbreak and have renamed their nonprofit Pearls of Wata. Fornah lives in Raleigh, North Carolina.
You call Pearls of Wata a “labor of love.” Why do you feel you have a responsibility to help fight Ebola in Sierra Leone?
The Ebola fight is a personal one; my grandmothers, brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles and friends are in Sierra Leone, and my father recently relocated back to the nation. I think each of us in the African Diasporan community have a responsibility to our family members back home. (We) could equip villages and urban centers in Sierra Leone with enough gloves, hand sanitizer, rubbing alcohol and the like to prevent further spread of the virus. The virus has claimed an unprecedented number of lives due to a lack of water, proper sanitary practices and the necessary infrastructure to provide those things.
Did Wake Forest instill in you a sense of Pro Humanitate?
I was raised in a family of nurses who instilled in me a sense of giving to others. Wake Forest provided the support I needed to figure out what unique impact I was capable of making in the world; an impact separate from the journeys I had witnessed others take. The motto gave me the necessary encouragement to re-establish (with the help of other students) the Habitat for Humanity chapter on campus and to push myself to choose a path in life that improves the human experience.
What professors influenced what you’re doing today?
I was fortunate enough to choose a major (chemistry) in a department full of professors willing to engage in dialogue about my professional aspirations. I was taught by professors who fostered a spirit of collegiality among the students, encouraging us to extend our chemistry foundation and apply our discipline to other realms.
How does Pearls of Wata work?
(Lack) of clean water and consistent sanitation are the foundation upon which diseases like malaria, cholera and Ebola flourish. Pearls of Wata is sharing modern methods of clean-energy technologies like rainwater collection that will give Sierra Leonean families, business owners, farmers and traders the peace of mind that there is enough water to have a sanitary and economically productive life. We are currently accruing supplies that will be shipped to social workers and medical students in Sierra Leone and distributed to the appropriate communities: community members, medical workers and burial workers. Our organization’s mission is moot without first ensuring that the Ebola virus does not ravage Sierra Leone.
The Ebola outbreak seems so large and so far away; how can one person make a difference?
The Ebola outbreak is indeed the largest it has ever been reported in the continent but I do not consider it to be completely remote from our experiences here. The primary treatment center for those United States practitioners that were infected is located right in Wake Forest’s backyard in Atlanta, Georgia. A virus that is geographically far removed from us has been brought to the doorsteps of the United States. I think people can first make a difference by recognizing the similarities in our experiences as humans. If we were asked to be without water for 24 hours, we would be greatly inconvenienced, some of us would be completely lost. Imagine that scenario on a grander scale. I also encourage people to find a reliable organization like Pearls of Wata and donate supplies.
Besides donating money, how else can people help?
Visit our website and provide a care package for community members, medical workers and burial team workers in Sierra Leone. There is also a specific list of items we are looking to send to Sierra Leone; we have several drop-off locations along the East Coast.