Spiritan News

A very fine line between life and death - Sierra Leone Update; 18th November 2014

Brian Starken C.S.Sp.

The dry season is fast approaching and it is getting considerably hotter here in Kenema where I have again been since earlier this month. Many of the 30-strong international team of Red Cross workers - especially from the Nordic countries - who are our guests at the Pastoral Centre, are not used to such tropical heat, and today they brought a new large electricity-generator to the compound. The ‘town supply’ of electricity is inconsistent and unreliable while our own two much smaller generators have been around for some time and we only use them for two hours in the morning to pump water and for four hours at night both to pump water and provide light. The Red Cross will operate the new generator and provide electricity allowing for rooms to be ventilated. The hope is that the generator will remain here even after the Red Cross has been able to move on.

With my fellow Irish Spiritan Paddy Ryan C.S.Sp. away in Bo for a few days, I took on responsibility for his ministry last week-end. Public places where people gather, such as cinemas, discos and video centres are closed until the present state of emergency has been lifted and football games are off. However, churches and mosques remain open to the public and services / prayers are held as normal.

Fr. Paddy’s main station is at Burma, by the old airfield outside Kenema. Where there had been just one Sunday Mass now there are two in order to avoid overcrowding during the Ebola crisis. Both Masses were very well attended.

Outside the building there was the compulsory container of chlorinated water. Of course, there is no handshake for the sign of peace – everybody just waves. Communion is taken only in the hand.

After each Mass in Burma there was a role-play presented by the local ‘Ebola Committee’. It began with the ‘Chief’ announcing that Ebola in the area is now finished. The people start celebrating and hugging each other. A nurse arrives and tells the people to be vigilant even if there are no new cases of Ebola locally. Nobody pays any attention and the celebrations continue until a woman arrives carrying a very sick child and crying ‘Ebola’. The celebrations stop and the people scatter immediately. A simple but effective message – do not let your guard down.

My third Mass was in the very rural Bandawo village, a few miles off the main road. It was also well attended and there was plenty of fruit and newly-harvested rice at the offertory.

On Monday morning I noticed about 40 pairs of wellingtons on the veranda outside the Red Cross office with the word ‘ebola’ being painted on each one. I enquired as to why this was necessary. It transpires that, after each use at the hospital, the wellingtons are treated with disinfectant and can be re-used but a number of pairs were stolen when left out to dry. The Red Cross hopes that, with ‘ebola’ written on them, the boots won’t walk.

Tomorrow we have to get firewood for the kitchen. All cooking is done on wood-burning earthen ovens.  We will get a large vehicle from the bishop’s office and we also have to get a pass for the vehicle and workers to travel.

To obtain a pass from the government office in town to travel outside Kenema, we have to apply and present all information – registration, destination and the names of driver and passengers.  With the reduction of confirmed cases here in the district, it is now a little easier to get travel passes but the restriction on travel outside and into Kenema remains in place. I believe this travel restriction has helped greatly in curtailing the spread of Ebola in this eastern region of the country.

Given that the number of confirmed cases and deaths has reduced so much, I enquired as to what factors contributed to this. In addition to the travel restrictions, it is believed that the 48-hour ‘lockdown’ of the country in September and the accompanying sensitisation programmes helped focus people’s minds. The deaths of two well-known and well-liked local doctors here in Kenema, and of many nurses and paramedics, really scared people into taking protective action.

But Ebola is far from over. Today the Red Cross had no fewer than 16 burials at the cemetery which is beside their field hospital.

One of the doctors just asked me if our chapel was open. It was closed but I offered to open it for him. On the way to get the key, he told me that he wanted to say a prayer of thanksgiving. Three weeks earlier he was working in the camp with Ebola patients. As he was removing his protective clothing, he noticed that he had somehow managed to cut his finger through the plastic glove and it was bleeding. His first reaction was ‘I am going to die’. He was horrified and lived the following three weeks in terror of getting a fever and of being diagnosed with the deadly disease. Today was the twenty-second day since the cut and, as three weeks is the maximum incubation period for the Ebola virus, he is now clear. He said that in those three weeks he had seen so many others die from Ebola. As I opened the door of the chapel, he said, ‘Brian, when you are working with Ebola, you realise that there is really a very fine line between life and death. Why did so many people die and I survive? Let me thank God that I can return to my family’.

In 2013 Brian Starken C.S.Sp. took up an appointment in Sierra Leone where he had first served in the mid-1970s. He is currently one of two Irish priests ministering with the Spiritan Province of Sierra Leone. The first Spiritans, including Dubliner Fr. Tom Bracken, arrived in the West African country in 1864.