Sylla’s boys: ensuring safe and dignified burials in Guinea

تم النشر: 10 نوفمبر 2014 16:36 CET

by Helena Humphrey, IFRC

Sylla Fatoumata’s mobile phone vibrates every few minutes, making the table between us wobble. Occasionally she  glances at the screen and smiles. “My boys,” she tells me, shaking her head and laughing. “Since I arrived here in Guéckedou they contact me every day to see how I am.”

But Sylla is not a mother. At 28 years of age, she is the youngest of three sisters and, since the Ebola virus disease crept into the capital in March, she has been the Red Cross focal point for safe and dignified burials in Conakry.

It was there she was in charge of four burial and disinfection teams, some 48 volunteers, whom Sylla now fondly refers to as “her boys.” Their task, at best, could only be described as formidable; 97 per cent of burials are managed by the Red Cross Society of Guinea, and the number of Ebola cases is now doubling every two weeks.

“At 7 a.m. I would turn on my phone and await the call. Rarely would a day go by when we didn’t have a body to collect and bury. First, I would prepare all the necessary materials; the protective clothing, the sprayer, the chlorine solution and load it onto the pick-up.” As Sylla speaks, she counts the well-rehearsed checklist of steps off her fingers one by one. “Then I would jump in the pick-up, collect the team at the Red Cross branch in Matoto and together we’d go to the Ebola treatment centre at Donka County Hospital. If there was a death in a community, we would drive to wherever we had to, to bury the body.”

Their days were long, and so too were the distances they travelled - burying up to nine people a day as far away as Coyah and Forécariah, some 100 kilometres outside the capital.

“In the beginning we didn’t have enough people to do the work,” Sylla says, “so I’d pitch in wherever I could, putting on the white suit, googles and gloves to assist in the burials.” Was there a moment she felt overwhelmed by the gravity of the task at hand? “Not once,” she says, self-assured and without a moment’s hesitation. “I had been to so many training sessions, I knew what I was doing. Plus, I had the total support and respect of my team.”

Acceptance, however, was not guaranteed in Sylla’s community nor at her home. “Ebola does not equal death, but I had to make my sisters understand that. I ended up educating them in just the same way I educated entire communities. I also described the protection I wore, the protocols I observed, so that they knew nothing could happen to me.”

While Sylla’s sisters quickly came around to the idea, her neighbours grew suspicious. “They were used to seeing me carrying out my work, handing out soap and chlorine. But once we had the first death in our community, their voices would drop as I walked by. I heard them say that we were spreading the disease by handing out the hygiene kits.”

Unwavering determination

The challenges, borne out of a lack of understanding about the disease and pure fear, did not stop there. “When we went into some villages to bury bodies, we were threated. But what could we do? We couldn’t leave a body there, at its most infectious. So we persevered. We talked with the families. We talked and talked and talked some more.”

And it was through this process, Sylla says, that she discovered what could be described as her own distinct advantage in a male-dominated undertaking. “Often it is the mothers in families who wash, dress and prepare the body for burial, so woman to woman, I could enter into a dialogue with them about what my teams were doing and why. Sometimes that really helped diffuse a tense situation.”

Sylla’s ready laughter seems to come as a direct antidote to the fair share of tense situations she has encountered. She says she struggles to keep a straight face when people ask her if she is not scared, as a woman, to enter the cemetery behind the Grand Mosque Faisal in Conakry to supervise burials. “Listen,” she says, re-enacting the lines she has delivered to her doubters time and time again, “it takes a lot to shake me and I’ve done this before. When cholera broke out in 2012, it was me on the frontlines then, too.”

Her phone buzzes again and this time she takes the call. Her face lights up but her tone is insistent. “I’m good,” she says, “don’t worry about me.” And I leave her to continue her work, safe in the knowledge that, in a crisis, this is one fail-proof pair of hands the people of Guinea can count on.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has launched a revised emergency appeal of 8.9 million Swiss francs to reach more than 11 million people who could be affected by the Ebola outbreak in Guinea. In total, IFRC has launched 15 Ebola operations in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, targeting 39 million people. For more details on the Red Cross regional Ebola response, visit