IFRC


The story of a woman, a man, and a snake

Published: 16 July 2014 15:07 CET

By Katherine Mueller, IFRC

Katherine Mueller is the communications manager in Africa for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. She has been deployed to Sierra Leone to support the Red Cross response to the Ebola virus disease outbreak.

A woman living in the far eastern regions of Sierra Leone was going on a trip. As a member of something similar to a regional council, her duties often took her away from home. As she bid goodbye to her husband, she looked him in the eye and very seriously told him about a box that was in their room beside their bed. She told him that under no uncertain terms was he to open the box while she was gone.

Curiosity got the better of the husband and with the wife away, he lifted the lid of the box to find a big snake inside. The snake said to him, “You and your wife are the only ones who know about me. Do not tell anyone else.” But the man could not keep quiet and pretty soon many others knew about the snake in the box beside the bed. The snake did not like being disobeyed and started biting people.

At the same time, people also began to know about Ebola virus disease. This is how some believe the deadly virus came to Sierra Leone.

In many parts of the country, people practice voodoo or animism. Although I am aware of these practices, they are both rather foreign concepts to me and, I am sure, to the other international aid workers who have come to this West African country.

So, how do we break down these barriers, to ensure we are all speaking the same language? It is something we at the Red Cross, and our partners, are grappling with, as we struggle to prevent the virus from spreading to other parts of the country.

The Red Cross does have a bit of an advantage, I think. In 189 countries around the world, including Sierra Leone, there is a network of people who volunteer their valuable time to the Red Cross or Red Crescent. I myself started as a volunteer at my local branch in Canada. We live and work in the communities where we volunteer. We are already trusted members of our communities, and when you talk about the small, extremely remote villages in eastern Sierra Leone where some people practice voodoo, this is even more so, because everybody knows everybody. As a result, the Red Cross is often given access where other organizations are sometimes blocked.

But even here in Sierra Leone, our teams are also running up against resistance, sometimes from their own families. One volunteer with the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society has been told not to come home while he is involved in the Ebola response. His parents are scared about him being exposed to the virus and spreading it to them. They are also concerned about the stigma; being ostracized by their neighbours because they have a connection to the Ebola outbreak.

It is no wonder people are scared. When the outbreak first surfaced in neighbouring Guinea, the messages being delivered to communities was that there is no cure or vaccine for Ebola and that if you caught it, you had a 90 per cent chance of dying. Now the messaging is changing, but the die has been cast. When people have been convinced of something so horrific, how do you get them to now believe that Ebola is actually survivable if caught early? And it is survivable. Some good news received yesterday when two people were discharged from the treatment centre here in Kailahun, after recovering from the deadly disease. It is the kind of message we need to make sure is heard.

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The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world's largest humanitarian organization, with 190 member National Societies. As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, our work is guided by seven fundamental principles; humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. About this site & copyright