The burial man with a big smile

Publié: 1 avril 2016 8:00 CET

By: Katherine Mueller, IFRC

Alpha Sesay has a smile that can light up a room. But for more than one year, while he was a member of a Red Cross safe and dignified burial team in Sierra Leone, that smile was not often seen.

“Ebola, that was the name they gave us. Alpha Ebola,” says the 23-year-old. “Wherever you go, they will call you Ebola. Those Ebola boys are coming. That boy is part of a burial team. It was not really easy with us.”

Alpha signed up to be part of the burial team when few others would. He lives in Kailahun district, the epicentre of the outbreak in Sierra Leone, and was one of the first to receive training. Demonstrating leadership skills, he became a team leader, and even though he was burying upwards of ten people every day, and was cast out of his home by his family, he persevered. He admits that when he first heard of the deadly disease, he thought he would die, however, “with fate and good training, today I am safe,” he says, sitting on the front stoop of a new family home, built with incentives he received to do the dangerous work.

Rejected and then embraced

Recognizing the risk involved, members of the safe and dignified burial teams, all of them volunteers, received an additional financial incentive from the Red Cross. But that incentive, although appealing, came with its own set of challenges. “At first, I was saving some of the money,” explains Alpha. “Paying house rent. Feeding myself. I bought clothes. When my family realized that I had saved, they embraced me again.”

Distant relatives and friends, even those who had abandoned him, also approached Alpha, hoping he could also assist them with their own financial struggles. “As soon as they were aware that I was working, I’m having money, all of them were expecting something from me. Calling me ‘Alpha, I’m not feeling okay, Alpha I’m not having food at home, Alpha my child is sick’.”

Red Cross safe and dignified burial teams provided approximately half of all burials in the country during the Ebola outbreak, laying more than 28,000 people to rest safely and with dignity. Not one team member became infected with Ebola, a testament to the training received by the World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders, and the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

As members of the burial team, Alpha and his colleagues are eligible to take part in a joint pilot project between the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and UNDP. The project aims to support 800 Red Cross burial team members in Sierra Leone as they reintegrate back into their communities. They can return to school, access business grants, or take vocational training.

Alpha has decided to return to school to study accounting.

When asked what they call him now, he replies “Alpha,” with a big laugh and even bigger smile.

In Sierra Leone, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies’ (IFRC) recovery plan of 44 million Swiss francs focuses on providing support to people affected by the outbreak, and includes activities related to strengthening resilience to future disease outbreaks, improving access to health care and psychosocial support, improving food security and livelihoods; and National Society development. The recovery plan is currently 1 per cent funded. 

On Monday 4 April, we'll talk to another burial team member in Guinea, who was on the frontline of the emergency response, and who has now signed up to be part of Red Cross recovery efforts.