Updates from Ebola-affected Sierra Leone – November / December 2014: Brian Starken C.S.Sp.

I Return to Sierra Leone – 11th November
II A very fine line between life and death – 18th November
III The Ebola Burial Ground – 24th November
IV Reflecting on Health in Sierra Leone in the wake of Ebola

Chapter III  The Ebola Burial Ground – 24th November

Photo for Ebola update

Andrew, a quietly-spoken New Zealander, is one of the IFRC team in Kenema.  His role as the Discharge Officer for Ebola patients has two very different aspects. As he puts it himself, ‘there is only one entrance to the field hospital but there are two exits’. 

One exit is to the main road, to continuing life and to a return to family and community.  Patients who no longer test positive for Ebola are moved to the recovery ward and, after three weeks, if still clear, are discharged. This is an occasion of much celebration, happiness and well-wishing – it is a victory for the staff and a ray of hope for other patients. The other exit, sadly, leads to the cemetery. 

For Andrew, who is assisted by a very well-trained burial team, the most difficult and dangerous aspect of work is the preparation for burial of those who have died from Ebola.  The virus does not die with the victim. In fact, it becomes more virulent in the dead body. 

To date 120 victims of Ebola – male and female, Christian and Muslim – ranging in age from 50 years old to a mere 3 months are buried in the new cemetery. The IFRC makes a great effort to contact the families of those who have died. If the deceased is from the local area, some family may attend the burial. But the majority of those who have died here are from far away and are buried with no family or friends present.  Each burial is an occasion of sadness. While mass graves have been used elsewhere to bury victims, the cemetery here is very well laid out with each individual grave marked with the deceased’s name, age, place of origin and date of death. A photograph of the grave is sent to the family.  As the IFRC does not always know the religion of a victim, Andrew recites the Our Father and one of the Muslim workers recites a passage from the Koran at each burial. 

Earlier this week Andrew informed me that his ‘tour of duty’ was soon coming to an end and he would dearly love to have the ‘Ebola cemetery’ consecrated before his departure.  We discussed the idea of a blessing for the cemetery with his team-leader; he was very supportive of the idea saying that ‘it is our duty to treat all our patients with dignity and respect. If a patient dies, we must offer the same dignity and respect to the deceased’. 

Having consulted with our local bishop, it was decided to have an inter-religious service. The local authorities, the District Ebola Task Force, the City Council, the Imams of the different Muslim communities as well as the Anglican and Methodist churches all agreed that they wished to be present and to take an active part in the ceremony. I asked Andrew to provide a small bottle of gin, a bottle of water and two glasses for the ceremony as ‘pouring libation’ is integral to all cultural ceremonies in Sierra Leone. Usually performed by a respected community elder, the purpose is to share with, and appease, the ancestors who have not been forgotten. The person designated to pour the libation addresses the ancestors and then pours a little gin and a little water on the ground, and also takes a little himself. 

The ceremony itself, on the morning of Friday 21st November, was a very simple one with Christian and Muslim prayers, readings from Scripture and from the Koran, short statements from the various religions and organisations present, interspersed with appropriate hymns and songs sung by an ad hoc choir.  

There was a very poignant moment during the ceremony when the bodies of the two latest victims of Ebola were brought by the burial team, all of whom were dressed in their protective clothing. The bodies, placed in ‘extra-secure’ body bags, were quietly and respectfully laid to rest under Andrew’s watchful eye. 

Bishop Patrick Koroma gave the final Prayer of Blessing and, after a few wreaths were laid, we departed in silence to the sound of workers filling in the two latest graves. 

Brian StarkenBrian Starken C.S.Sp. (pictured) was first appointed to Sierra Leone in 1975 and has spent a total of over 25 years there. Having returned to Ireland in December 2014, Fr. Brian takes up an appointment in pastoral ministry in a Dublin parish in early 2015.