By Maseray Kamara
I am an Ebola survivor. My husband and my sister are not.
Life as my family knew it ended when Ebola began. Before, I was a multi-tasking mother, grandmother and wife in Bo, Sierra Leone. My husband, Issa, was a teacher and I bought and sold used clothes to make money, earning about 80,000 leones (USD$9.00) per day. Together, we raised five children and had two beautiful grandchildren. We did not have much, but as I realize 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. 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 in late July, more than 500 people were infected. Fear and stigma mushroomed. Health officials organized “dead body management” teams, but often it took days for them to arrive. Mourners watched helplessly as overwhelmed undertakers loaded their parents and children into trash bags and tossed them into pickup trucks, never to be seen again. Soon people resisted the authorities—hiding the sick and burying their dead in secret.
In November, I travelled to Freetown see my family. While there, I visited a long-time friend, who didn’t know that he was the in the early stages of Ebola. Shortly afterwards, I developed a fever. I was terrified when stomach cramps and vomiting hit me. I called the national Ebola hotline and an ambulance soon arrived. My husband and sister felt ill, but they refused to come with me to the hospital. How I regret not convincing them to get in that ambulance.
I tested positive for Ebola. For one month, 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, and they tossed food at us for fear of touching the contaminated. Orderlies piled the dead in a corner. 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 honor the memory of these sisters.
Pumped full of fluids, I defeated the dehydration that ultimately claims many Ebola patients But when I was released, relatives broke the news to me that my husband and sister, as well as my aunt, had all died of Ebola.
Widowed and unemployed at the age of 53, I tried to find work. But no one would hire me. Neighbours shunned me, and 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 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. As one of only 10 women on our team of 800 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 gravesite 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 a Christian, I joined the burial team as a way of giving thanks to God. I also see this work as a service to our country in the war on Ebola. To date, our teams have buried more than 16,000 people with grace and dignity. Recovering from Ebola will take 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 death. We are winning the war on Ebola, but it is not over yet. Please keep fighting with us.
Maseray Kamara is one of 800 members of World Vision Sierra Leone & SMART Alliance Safe and Dignified Burial Teams who were honoured with the Bond International Humanitarian Award on June 1, 2015. Watch for an Ebola update article in the Sept/Oct issue of Faith Today, Canada’s Christian magazine.