The agony of an Ebola funeral

SIERRA LEONE — It was mid-afternoon when our World Vision team arrived in the outskirts of Moyamba, a town in southern Sierra Leone. We were guided to a small house, surrounded by at least 100 people. A woman named Betty had lived in this house. Here, she had shared food, love and laughter with her two sons and extensive network of family members. And here, Betty had suffered and died after contracting Ebola.

World Vision workers had come to carry Betty’s body to its final resting place. I had come to photograph all the correct steps, so as to help educate other communities on ways to safely handle the bodies of those who died from the disease, and provide a dignified burial.

James, Betty’s teenage son, stared at me, teary-eyed but with a hypnotic intensity. I couldn’t tell what he thought of my presence here, at his mother’s funeral. In a culture where physical contact is paramount, I couldn’t even touch James’ arm to show him that I cared. And despite my good intentions, I could see that the heavy camera I carried was threatening.

Feeling like an intruder at such a painful time was almost more than I could bear. I joined the burial team as they began doing their work. I know them and they know me, and I needed the distance away from the stares and quiet hostility of the family. I filmed the team’s precise preparation for burial, including the disinfection of the body and everything it had touched. I admire the team’s commitment to doing such a dangerous but absolutely necessary job. But while the act of filming removed my feeling of inadequacy, I continued to avoid looking at the grieving people standing nearby.

From a distance, I watched one of the workers spraying chlorine throughout the main room of Betty’s house. The too-familiar stench and acidity of the disinfectant is everywhere these days. As I watched, I realized that even such extreme, careful measures would mean little or nothing for Betty’s family. The fear of Ebola is so great that no one will ever inhabit the house again. In a courageous act of compassion, an older woman came forward and held the sister as she grieved.

I continued to photograph as the brief memorial ceremony took place … click, click, click. A local pastor, who had arrived with the team, began praying for Betty. As the family joined in, the silence broke as tears began to flow from many of those present, including me. The Lord’s Prayer has never been more intense and more meaningful than at this particular instant.

Through my viewfinder, my vision was limited to the sorrow and the pain of the family members. Then suddenly, I heard something. Betty’s youngest sister screamed and ran towards the body, calling out “Sister, my sister!” over and over again. Her face a mask of unbearable grief, she fell to the ground, clawing at the soil. My own tears flowed freely now. In a courageous act of compassion, an older woman came forward and held the sister as she grieved. At a time when all physical contact is discouraged, she gently helped lead Betty’s sister away from the body. Her cries continued “Sister, my sister!” for what seemed like an eternity.

The burial workers slowly carried the body to a pick-up truck, which transported it to a nearby burial ground. Betty was laid to rest among the others from the local community who had died from Ebola. She received the prayers and the dignity she deserved. It is all we can offer to the dead. In the meantime, we’ll continue our efforts, along with governments and countless other agencies, to help those still living in the shadow of Ebola.

32 graves

BO, Sierra Leone – 7 November 2014

The road to Moyamba is typical of what you imagine when travelling through Sierra Leone. The landscape is made of tall trees with tropical green leaves, thick bushes and forests of palms growing randomly along the banks of small rivers. The heat is humid.

The small town of Moyamba is in the southern part of Sierra Leone, 250 km from the capital Freetown. It is a quiet place with community and health centres, good roads, a few busy markets and people of different faiths living together.

Peaceful Myamba is now in the ‘red zone’ because of the numbers of Ebola cases confirmed here.
Sadly, Moyamba has become what’s known as a ‘red zone’ because of the numbers of Ebola cases confirmed here since the beginning of the outbreak. The ambulances rushing through the streets and the proximity of a construction site, managed by British troops to build an Ebola isolation centre, are the indicators of life being derailed by the monstrous virus.

We drive to the edge of town to reach the current isolation centre. Several young men and officials are getting ready to put on their personal protective equipment (PPE). The detailed and precise process takes a long time and the burial workers carefully monitor each other to make sure the layers of protective clothing are properly in place. These young men are from the town, they know each other well and have been training for months together to conduct the safe and dignified burial of numerous Ebola victims in the area.

I immediately feel for the burial workers fully covered and spraying each other profusely with the chlorine.
The first thing I notice at the isolation centre was the stench of the chlorine used to spray the PPEs, the shovels, the stretcher and even the car used to transport the victim. I can feel the acidity of the disinfectant on my face, in my eyes and on my lips. The burning feeling, in addition to the heat, is unbearable. I immediately feel for the burial workers fully covered and spraying each other profusely with the chlorine.

The victim we are here to bury arrived several days ago. She was on her own and already seriously affected by Ebola. She was 35 years old with no relatives to pray for her. She will be the last person to be buried today. It is already 5.00 pm and no burial can take place after 6.00 pm – as the sun sets it will be dangerous to supervise the strict security measures needed to perform a safe and dignified burial.

The men in white are slowly moving towards the isolation centre and enter by the furthest part of it which is marked by a thick orange barrier. Health workers have come out to pay their last respects. Others are looking at the scene from afar.

After several minutes, the burial workers come out with the victim; they put her gently but quickly in a body bag, while one of them sprays chlorine over the bag. At this stage, the body is considered safe but the chlorine is sprayed over and over again while they walk at a fast pace towards the pick-up vehicle which will carry her to the burial ground.

The sun is slowly hiding behind a beautiful mass of clouds and the end of the daylight is caressing the landscape. God’s nature is providing the last homage to this woman as we all walk silently behind the car.

She is finally put to rest under the trees.

The light is not going through the leaves any more but our hearts are still with her until the last shovel of soil covers her sick body. As I leave the ground, I have counted 32 graves, all Ebola victims.