By Tatiana Flowers

From March 23, 1991 to January 18, 2002, unspeakable horrors took place in Sierra Leone that left physical and mental scars on its people. Fast-forward to December 2014, 12 years later, and the country’s wounds are re-opened by the Ebola crisis.

One could argue that there are many factors, which exacerbated the Ebola crisis but some of the most prominent are environmental factors. Scars from the decade-long civil war and distrust of the government, unbalanced reporting on the Ebola crisis, and cultural tradition all played a large part in helping Ebola spread, not only in Sierra Leone, but in West Africa in general.

  1. Scars From The Civil War

Dead bodies were sprawled about in the streets, their limbs tied together, many of whom were maimed, raped, and amputated before they were killed by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a violent rebel army that fought to oust its president from power (Joseph Momoh).

So many people were killed that bodies piled up outside local mortuaries. Children were forced to join the fight in an attempt to obtain and sell blood diamonds, end years-long poverty, stop government corruption, and cease economic instability. The decade-long Sierra Leonean Civil War has been called one of the most brutal civil wars in Africa and the trauma from that war as well as the deep, centuries-long distrust in the government could have exacerbated the Ebola Crisis.

When compared to the other West African countries affected by Ebola, Sierra Leone suffered the most damage, with more than 14,000 cases total. There were more than 10,000 cases in Liberia, and more than 3,000 in Guinea, according to the Centers For Disease Control And Prevention.

“You became glad when you didn’t recognize the next body you came across,” said Sorius Samura, a Sierra Leonean who documented the RUF first-hand during the Sierra Leonean civil war.

Survivors of atrocities like this, often say that such trauma brings people together, and many turn to religion and cultural traditions as a guide through such tumultuous times.

  1. Cultural Traditions

Cultural beliefs, superstition and suspicion became apparent during the beginning of the Ebola Crisis, making it harder for healthcare workers to do their jobs. West Africans continued carrying out rituals that put them at risk of contagion, one example, the washing of the dead body during traditional funeral rituals. This became a major catalyst during the Ebola outbreak since contagion is highest just after an infected person dies. But for suspicious, superstitious Sierra Leoneans, letting go of this tradition was not an option. If bodies were not handled in a traditional, specific, respectable way, the belief was, negative consequences would occur.

So burial teams were introduced. Families retaliated at the thought of strangers burying their loved ones. They started pelting rocks at healthcare workers’ emergency vans, in hopes of ousting them from the country. Some even began to conjure up conspiracy theories.

 

“Prohibiting families from performing such rites is not only viewed as an affront to the deceased, but as actually putting the family in danger,” according to Dr. Barry and Bonnie Hewlett, who wrote a book called, “Ebola, Culture, and Politics: The Anthropology of an Emerging Disease.” They continued, In the event of an improper burial, the deceased person’s spirit will cause harm and illness to the family.”

 

People thought Ebola was some sort of curse or witchcraft, a punishment for infidelity or some other type of sin. Some thought pharmaceutical companies created Ebola to financially and directly benefit from the treatments they were creating. Others thought healthcare workers put Ebola-ridden bodies in plastic bags to hide body parts that were removed by doctors for witchcraft. Many thought white foreign healthcare workers brought the disease to West Africa on purpose, and some who were contagious even fled their villages in hiding, because they were afraid to be stigmatized by their communities. Family members began hiding loved ones, and ultimately put themselves at risk of contagion. In considering the remnants of the wounds from the civil war, a history of government corruption, inadequate healthcare, and economic instability, it is no wonder that Sierra Leoneans were apprehensive about foreign healthcare workers who offered them treatment.

 

There isn’t much information on how these kinds of traditional, cultural beliefs originated but evidence of this that dates all the way to before 1834, according to a book called “White Man’s Grave.”

 

“Among them, who have been sent to England for education, cannot shake off their absolute belief in spirits and charms, both for good and for evil. It is extremely difficult to describe the origin of some of their superstitions, for anything may be a gre-gre or fetish. Thunder, lightning, rain, an eclipse, drought, torrents, waterspouts, a landslip, wild animals, any illness — in fact all forms of destruction either by accident or disease are associated with superstition, and the charms against them vary at the absolute will of the medicine men and witches among the pagans; while certain texts of the Koran, if blessed by the proper medicine man, possess the same curing or preventing power. Even the failure of the witches only strengthens the belief of the people, and thus enables the medicine folks to continue practicing upon credulity of the people.”

  1. The Media

Given the seriousness and archaism of the superstition, critical activists urged public broadcast news outlets and stations to quickly and thoroughly address the public about how Ebola spread, despite superstitions. Critical activists say the Ebola crisis was mishandled, arguing that local leaders didn’t do enough to educate suspicious and superstitious people. Many argue that changing the mentality of Sierra Leoneans should have been at the forefront of the agenda, to dispel the myths surrounding the disease. “The problem was that the people handling the intervention only looked at this as a health issue; they did not try to understand the cultural aspects of the epidemic,” said Julienne Anoko in an interview with National Geographic.

Signs on local streets read, “Ebola is real” and “Ebola kills,” which may have caused disbelief among Sierra Leoneans. As Ebola continued to ravage West Africa, healthcare workers, academics, and local leaders started spotting a dangerous trend that ultimately helped spread the disease.

Much of the coverage during the Ebola crisis hardly even included the perspective of those who were affected. Perhaps, analyzing the root of these superstitions may have worked to help dispel such myths.

News media may have also been to blame. There is lots of reporting about what kinds superstitions people had, but not much in-depth analysis of where that superstition came from, and certainly not many relatable, intimate accounts. Much of the coverage feels far removed, lacking the possibility of a connection to the people at the forefront of the crisis. A journalist’s job is to help readers understand a situation, which often comes through thoroughly the fair representation of a story’s main characters. This is a prime example of a reported print piece that is missing this kind of critical context. This kind of inclusion is necessary in order to help in understanding, addressing, and then dispelling myths.

 

It’s as simple as this scene from a New York Times article about a family member’s choice to be exposed to Ebola.

“He had suspected that Kaizer had Ebola. The unease felt by the Doryens’ neighbors in Capitol Hill had unsettled him.

But he had blocked out those doubts when Edwina got sick. What else could he do but take care of her?

“Edwina and I were like one person,” he said. “I would bathe her. She was toileting all day. I would clean her, and then after two, three minutes, she would toilet. I would clean her again.”

 

It’s this kind of simple coverage that allows us to relate to a situation that seems far off. Only by making the subject relatable can we start to understand the problem. By doing this, we move a step further than labeling people as enablers. We put ourselves in their shoes and then realize, that could be us too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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