“A promise to God and my sisters” for safe and dignified burials after Ebola

Last December, with West Africa reeling from the Ebola epidemic, Maseray Kamara became one of the first women in Sierra Leone to join a burial team established by World Vision, Catholic Relief Services and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development to provide safe and dignified burials. Working in the shadow of Ebola, shunned by their frightened communities, the team workers have been the unacknowledged heroes of an epidemic that has claimed more than 11,000 lives in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

On 1 June, Maseray, representing the 803-member team, received the Bond Humanitarian Award, recognising inspiring individuals working on the front line in some of the most challenging contexts around the world.

I am an Ebola survivor. My husband and my sister are not.

This is Maseray’s story, as told to World Vision’s Karen Homer.

“I am an Ebola survivor. My husband and my sister are not. They are among the 3900 Ebola victims who have died in Sierra Leone in the year since the epidemic began. Life as my family knew it ended when Ebola began.

Before, I was a multi-tasking mother, grandmother and wife. My husband, Issa, was a teacher, and I bought and sold used clothes to make money, earning about 80,000 leones ($9) per day. Together, we raised five children in Bo, Sierra Leone’s second largest city. My daughter, Augusta, gave us two beautiful grandchildren. We did not have much, but as I realise now, we were happy.

In late May 2014, we heard rumours that a deadly disease had spread to Sierra Leone from neighbouring Guinea. Many people argued that Ebola did not really exist. They believed witchcraft was killing people, not an invisible virus. Others heeded the wisdom of pastors and imams who preached about Ebola prevention. They saved many lives.

The Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone was the perfect storm: an unprecedented epidemic colliding with a collapsed healthcare system. In those early days, even the experts were unsure how to contain it. Few people understood that Ebola is spread through contact with infected patients and that the virus stayed in bodily fluids even after death. Our sacred tradition – shared by Christians and Muslims – of washing our deceased loved ones before burial soon became an unwitting suicide mission for grieving families.

By the time the government reluctantly declared a national public health emergency on 31 July, about 500 people were infected. Fear and stigma mushroomed. Police arrested suspected Ebola patients; the corpses of others lay in the streets.

Mourners watched helplessly as overwhelmed undertakers loaded their parents, their children into trash bags and tossed them into pickup trucks, never to be seen again.

Health officials organised “dead body management” teams, but often it took days for them to arrive. For Muslims who must bury their dead before sundown, this was horrific. Christians were denied their funeral rites that honour the deceased over several days. Mourners watched helplessly as overwhelmed undertakers loaded their parents, their children into trash bags and tossed them into pickup trucks, never to be seen again.

“How will I live with myself if I let my mother be buried like a dog?” asked a friend. Soon people resisted the authorities – hiding the sick and burying their dead in secret. For months my family escaped Ebola, relieved and grateful. But then my world collapsed in October when Augusta, 30, died after childbirth, leaving her two-month-old baby girl and her son, 11, in our care. Could I protect them from Ebola?

Issa worked in Freetown and lived in the home of my sister, Fallay, and her family. The capital was an Ebola hot zone. I begged them to be careful. Stay inside. Wash your hands constantly. Don’t attend the funerals of even close friends.

In November, I travelled to Freetown to see my family. While there, I visited a long-time friend, who didn’t know that he was in the early stages of Ebola. Shortly afterwards, I developed a fever. I was terrified when stomach cramps and vomiting hit me. I called 117 – the national Ebola hotline – and an ambulance soon arrived. Fallay and Issa felt ill, too, but they refused to come with me to the hospital. “No one comes back from the Ebola ward,” they said. “It is a death sentence.” How I regret not convincing them to get in that ambulance.

I tested positive for Ebola. For one month and one day, I lay among the dying and the dead. The pain crippled me, and at times I almost gave up fighting the virus. I watched nurses trying to manage the mayhem. They lacked plastic gloves to care for contagious patients let alone to clean the floors slick with vomit and faeces. They tossed food at us like prisoners for fear of touching the contaminated. Orderlies piled the dead in a corner, often dropping corpses on their heads. My heart especially broke for the women – naked, exposed – no one to protect their dignity in death. I vowed to God: if I leave here alive, I will do something to honour the memory of these sisters.

Surviving Ebola is a miracle of God. As a Christian, I joined the burial team as a way of giving thanks to him. I also see this work as a service to our country in the war on Ebola.

Pumped full of fluids, I defeated the dehydration that ultimately claims many Ebola patients. I was so weak that I couldn’t walk, but finally I was released. The celebration was short-lived. Relatives broke the news to me that Issa and Fallay, as well as my aunt, Josephine, had all died of Ebola.

Widowed. Unemployed. Unemployable. Ebola survivor. My new identity. At 53, I had two grandchildren to raise, but no one would hire me. Neighbours shunned me, blaming me for spreading the disease. While I was in hospital, they burned the goods I had bought to sell in the local market. My landlord threatened to evict me. In December, I heard that World Vision was hiring workers to conduct safe and dignified burials for Ebola victims and others. As a survivor, I am immune to the disease and faced less risk. I recalled my promise to God and to my sisters on the hospital floor. I was the first woman Ebola survivor to join the team.

Since then, I have buried more than 70 of my fellow Sierra Leoneans. My first burial was a one-year-old baby girl. Our team enables families a chance to say a proper farewell while protecting them from disease. As one of only ten women on our team of 803 workers, my role is to ensure that women are treated with dignity as we dress and place the body in a protective bag. A minister or imam is present to pray, and the family walks to the grave-site with the team. It is hard for people to put aside their comforting rituals and traditions of preparing our loved ones for burial ourselves. But extreme times call for extreme measures, as our President reminds us.

Surviving Ebola is a miracle of God. As a Christian, I joined the burial team as a way of giving thanks to him. I also see this work as a service to our country in the war on Ebola. Recovering from Ebola will take us years. But we will find comfort on the hard path to healing knowing that we did right by our parents, our spouses and our children in

The World Vision-led partnership, known as SMART (Social Mobilisation And Respectful Burials Through faith-based alliance), is funded by the British Government and to date has buried more than 16,100 people – Ebola victims and others – with grace and dignity.

Accepting the award, Maseray said: “I am of course elated and honoured to win this award, although I feel it belongs to many other selfless individuals – especially women – who are volunteering to bury Ebola’s victims in our country.”

Ben Jackson, CEO of Bond, said: “The Bond International Development Awards are about recognising the bravery of hundreds of unsung heroes like Maseray who work on the front line day in, day out risking their own lives so other people are safe. They save thousands of people from deadly diseases and humanitarian disasters like the recent Nepal earthquake, and fight for social justice and equality in some of the most dangerous areas in the world.”

Top Image: Maseray Kamara wearing protecting clothing for World Vision’s ‘safe and dignified’ burials in Sierra Leone.