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BO, Sierra Leone — Maseray Kamara cradled a baby’s body close to her as the girl’s family and neighbors prayed for the child's safe journey into the next life.
Kamara slowly carried baby Gina into the forest, community members trailing her, and laid the tiny body to rest. Kamara did not know Gina, whose cause of death is unknown, but in Sierra Leone all burials are now carried out as if the deceased had Ebola. Kamara, an Ebola survivor, is part of a burial team she joined to help families bury their loved ones with dignity and honor.
In Sierra Leone, families normally dress the dead before a burial as a final honor. That tradition became impossible once a “no touch” policy was implemented to help stop the spread of the virus. Kamara, 53, has brought that final comfort back to those she buries.
Gina, who was from Fayama, just outside the southern city of Bo, was dressed in a pale pink dress her family chose for her. Kamara and her team members dressed the infant before she was zipped up into a body bag, now a standard safety precaution for all burials in Sierra Leone.
The Ebola outbreak has tapered off significantly in Sierra Leone since the peak, but there are still roughly 50 new cases reported each week. As of March 17, at least 3,325 people have died, according to the World Health Organization, and the National Ebola Response Centre has announced a new lockdown for next week that will affect more than two million people.
Bodies are most contagious shortly after death because the virus is spread through bodily fluids, and the fever causes some to hemorrhage. Unsafe burial practices are a main cause of the spread of the disease.
Kamara caught Ebola in November and survived by getting treatment early. She said that while she was at the hospital she saw some bodies carelessly thrown into hearses. After she was released she joined the burial team in Bo to help provide dignified burials. She said she always tries to go the extra mile to comfort the deceased and their families — especially when burying children.
“I don’t feel good, when a baby has died,” Kamara said in her native Krio language. “And so I hold the baby like it’s my own, and then go and bury him or her.”
Kamara also knows what it’s like to lose a child; her daughter died while giving birth last year at the age of 30. Kamara said burying babies and children is one of the hardest parts of her job.
The burial team she works for is managed by World Vision, the global NGO that is coordinating and training burial teams across the country in partnership with other organizations. Kamara is one of few female burial team members — of the 60 personnel on World Vision’s six burial teams in the Bo district, only two are women.
Traditionally, only a woman can dress and prepare women for burial. Many were resistant to allowing the all-male teams to bury their female relatives, according to Grace Kargbo, base manager for burial teams with World Vision.
“But when we had females on burial teams, people were more wiling to allow them to bury,” she said. “And that has helped in controlling the infection rate.”
Elizabeth Jonimoh, the first woman to join one of World Vision’s teams in Bo, said, “I want to take care of my countrywomen, for when they died, they weren’t getting clothes to be buried in properly. I wanted to go and help to dress them with this burial team. Before it was only men doing it and it can give [the women] shame.”
There have been no new Ebola cases reported in Bo since January, Kargbo said. She believes this is partly due to the safe burials and that communities are now more accepting of having burial teams assist them. For months there was resistance to the burial teams, with some fearing they were intentionally trying to infect people. The teams alleviated those suspicions by talking and working with community leaders, said Kargbo.
‘It is the spiritual belief they must touch the dead and there are some places we cannot always reach, but there will always be an imam or pastor in that community,” she said. “People listen to them.”
Musa Lansana, the chief of the Fayama community, said he would do whatever it takes to stop Ebola from spreading. When he heard Gina had died he told her mother to call the emergency hotline for burials immediately.
“It’s good to have this law of safe and dignified burials and I’m happy with the way they are being done,” said Lansana. “I’m still worried about Ebola.”