“I explain to these ghosts why I had to bury them this way.”

Published: 11 May 2015 10:00 CET

Abdul Karim Conte, 27, was a first year university student studying mass communications when the Ebola outbreak hit Sierra Leone. Like thousands of others, his studies were suspended while the outbreak raged and case levels climbed. Since the start of the Ebola outbreak, Abdul has been working as a Red Cross safe and dignified burials (SDB) volunteer in Waterloo, in Western Rural Area, about 45 kilometres from the capital Freetown. Although Abdul  and his colleagues have shown courage in the fight against Ebola, he has been emotionally and psychologically affected, as he has seen the full horrors of the crisis unfold and has been excluded by his community. Abdul is learning how to manage his feelings in a positive way and support others through psychological first aid. This is his story.

The general profile of a volunteer in the Red Cross burial team is a young male aged 18-35, perhaps they were a student like me before the outbreak. We would not normally have had contact with bodies because the older relatives would normally wash the corpse and prepare it for burial. Since the outbreak, we have been burying five bodies a day or, at the worst time, ten a day. As I said before, it is not a normal situation for us to see so many dead people. I decided to get involved with the burial team because it was my way of helping my loved ones and country to get back to normal and get rid of Ebola.

We are fighting an unseen enemy. It doesn’t get any easier but we learn how to cope and support each other. We are volunteers and we do this from our commitment to help people and humanity. Prayers are a very important thing for us. When we assemble in the morning, we have our briefing and pray together. We thank God for his protection; so far we have had zero cases of infection in the burial teams in Sierra Leone - something for which I am grateful.

At the start of the outbreak I saw several decomposed corpses. I had flashbacks and my appetite was disturbed for a while. Sometimes I have dreams about the bodies that I have buried in the day and I dream that they are not happy about the way they have been buried because it is not traditional. When I dream this, I explain to these ghosts why I had to bury them this way and I feel that they understand better and are no longer angry with me.

"I would return home in the dark so no one would see me." 

I have not been able to talk to my family or friends about my work, they would be frightened or not understand. At the start of the outbreak, I would return home in the dark so no one would see me. For my own protection and for those close to me, I decided to move out and live alone because I was worried about infecting other people through my work. When people found out that I was working in the burial team, friends didn’t want to visit me and  I started to feel very lonely. I used to play instruments at my church, but when others found out about my work they came to my house and took the instruments away. I was no longer welcome at my church and they accused me of having Ebola. Even the pastor turned away from me. I just couldn’t understand why. It was a lonely time.

One day I was collecting a corpse with the team in Waterloo and heard a different pastor speaking to the community. He blessed us and celebrated our work. It was only then that I realized I should not listen to slander and became more positive. This is something that my colleague, Emmanuel, a driver for the burial team, had been trying to tell me. I just could not understand how my own pastor could reject me while this one embraced me.

My colleagues have become my new family and we talk about our experiences together. We really support each other. Many of us have bad dreams, don’t sleep well or have become isolated from our communities because of our work. We look out for each other. In the mornings if we see that one of our colleagues is tired, we will replace them so that they can rest. We are also able to speak to the psychosocial supporters if we are feeling bad.

I’m currently learning about psychological first aid which is very important for us as the burial team and how the public sees us. We need to be able to understand the needs of the community from where we are collecting the corpse. I have learned about new interaction techniques, the importance of listening and how to ensure we are working together in a team; how to support each other. Learning to deal with stress is important because sometimes we might have problems with our colleagues and we need to know how to listen and relate to them to be able to solve the issues.

After the psychological first aid workshop, I plan to assemble all the other volunteers in Waterloo to encourage them to accept other people’s stress and show them how to support each other by coming together and not isolating themselves.

I think all these techniques will be helpful for me now and also when my life gets back to normal. I hope to go back to study, but I am worried about people’s reactions towards me. We will need support to go back to our normal lives, our lives after Ebola.