Why My Photo From Guinea Sparked a Soccer Star’s Search for One Boy

I recently took a photo of a classroom in a small, remote village in Guinea where the first case in the West African Ebola outbreak occurred. I was focused on the young children learning French. I barely noticed what they were wearing when I later posted the photo on Instagram.

2: Would love to give him my latest shirt. Great photo of what looks to be a great project!! pic.twitter.com/lSfGMCm97y

— Dries Mertens (@dries_mertens14) March 25, 2015

But Dries Mertens noticed. Mertens is an internationally renowned Belgian soccer star. And he was struck at seeing one of the young boys in the photo wearing a t-shirt with his name and number on the back.

So Mertens reached out to me on Twitter to find the boy. He initially wanted to send him his new jersey. On Friday, we connected with Mertens’s agent, Sam Kerkhofs, and now they hope to do much more to help the community.

Meliandou needs it. The virus spread rapidly in Meliandou, now known as ground zero, eventually claiming 24 lives in the village and more than 10,000 across Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. I was sent there on assignment for a National Geographic magazine story on Ebola that will be in the August issue. When I arrived in February, nearly one year after the last confirmed case, I was concerned by the complex layers of social disruption that the virus wrought. At first blush, we see Ebola as a medical emergency; a highly infectious virus with devastating health consequences. While that is certainly true, those outside of the recovery effort rarely hear of the challenges that linger long after Ebola relents.

I found the residents of Meliandou lamenting a lack of food, which they expressed as embarrassment over their inability to customarily offer me a meal. Food wasn’t entirely absent, but severely limited, as the outbreak disrupted last year’s planting season. In early 2014, as the death toll mounted and rumors swirled about the nature of the then unidentified illness, residents became frightened to venture into their fields beyond the village. They didn’t clear and burn the brush, they didn’t sow their seeds. They tended, instead, to the sick, buried the dead, and consoled the living. The essential annual yields of rice, cassava, and other vital crops never came to pass. As a result, each evening, families gather around bowls too modest.

Despite the current hardship, the adults of Meliandou still allocate the necessary funds for their children to attend school. So many do this, in fact, that the benches of Meliandou’s three-room schoolhouse are crowded beyond capacity. Young students squeezed tightly together during a French lesson when I made the picture that caught Mertens’s attention. A child at the head of the class led the recitation and the students enthusiastically followed. It was only a month before that schools across Guinea were closed due to the ongoing Ebola outbreak.

When Mertens reached out to find the student in that photograph, my photo editor Kurt Mutchler and I were happy to help. While Mertens and his sponsors intend to provide jerseys and balls to the children of Meliandou, we are also in discussions regarding the best way to help the students and villagers in a more sustainable way. Thank you Dries Mertens for your big heart.

As a photojournalist, you always hope that the images you capture resonate beyond the fraction of second of that moment, to impact people’s lives in ways you can never imagine. This occurrence reminds me of the enduring, connective power of photography and reinforces the value of the new social media through which images are so widely shared.

*****

Pete Muller is a photographic journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. His work focuses on conflict, male gender, and national identity in postcolonial states. See more of his coverage of Ebola for National Geographic, including a short video interview, here.

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