‘Do it safely or don’t do it at all.’

Publié: 20 juillet 2015 9:30 CET

Before the outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in Sierra Leone, it was a taboo in most parts of the country for young people, especially those of child bearing age, to witness the washing and preparation of corpses for burial. In line with tradition, women prepared female corpses for burial and men would prepare male bodies. However, as the death toll from Ebola escalated and the majority of burial teams were composed of only men, such a provision could not be made for women.

Seeking to preserve the dignity of their deceased loved ones, some families objected to the all-male teams attending to a female corpse. Or, burial teams would arrive in a community to find that the deceased had already been washed and dressed. Such interaction with a potentially contagious body will have resulted in new chains of transmission. To counter this, the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society specifically recruited women to join its Safe and Dignified Burial teams. There are now more than 30 female volunteers embedded into these teams across the country.

Despite their heroic contributions, these courageous women, along with their male counterparts, have frequently been ostracized and stigmatized by their communities, and even loved ones.

Aminata Alie shares her experiences and the memory of an Ebola victim who will stay with her forever. 

Aminata Alie, 28, has been a Red Cross volunteer since she was in class six. “It all started when the Safe and Dignified Burial training began, I was called upon to join the training. I hid myself because I was afraid, and I actually ran home. The programme administrator of the local Red Cross branch office called and asked me to return and join the training. Because I missed out on the first day of the training, the lead trainer did not allow me to work with any of the burial teams until the next training session which I attended in full.

“I must confess that I had never seen the dead body of anyone who is not my relative. Yet volunteering with the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society to fight Ebola has made me strong as I have seen and touched so many dead corpses with protective clothing to help save my people. Our team has a slogan which states ‘Do it safely or don’t do it at all’. Secondly, when I realized that Ebola has affected and killed more women and children than men, I became more motivated by this thought to serve.

“On my first day on the job we went out to collect the corpse of a lady.  Being a new member of the team and the only female member at the time, I was asked to prepare the body for burial. I was so afraid but I had no alternative so I did as I was asked. My entire night was terrible, I couldn’t sleep nor was I able to explain to my mother what was going on.

“We went out one day to do our routine. That week was my worst since I started working as a burial volunteer. The scene was so grim that I can never forget it. It was a woman who died with her child during labour. The labour room door was shut by the nurses and the corpse was left naked. I asked the sprayer to enter the room; he went in and ran out noting that he could not bear the scene. I had to go in to help prepare my fellow woman for burial. This image has always been in my mind and it’s a situation I will never forget in my life, seeing that woman and her child dead.

“As a sign of thanks,  the people in the village gave me two live chickens but I refused to accept the offer, even though they pleaded with me that it was their culture to give gifts to people who help them. My comment was that I was there to support them and not to take away what they have. By the time we returned to the office I was called in by the programme administrator and he commended me for a job well done. It motivated me a lot and I have made a pledge to continue to support Red Cross in serving humanity.”