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The hero group: meet the team burying Ebola victims in Sierra Leone

Alex, centre, with his burial team (Cafod/Laura Purves)

Alex Musa Koroma is a science teacher of 29 years. His smiling eyes and thoughtful replies to questions let you know that the 45-year-old is an accomplished teacher.

When asked about the effect Ebola has had on his community in Kambia, Sierra Leone, he talks about how his children have been unable to go to school since May 2014, how the school where he has taught for the last seven years has been closed and about his commitment to teaching every evening after he’s finished his new job.

We are sitting in the middle of a car park full of ambulances, hearses and burial supplies. Alex’s work today is far removed from the classroom: he leads a safe burial team, supported by Cafod’s partner Caritas Makeni. He is wearing his dusty pink scrubs that go under his spacesuit-like protection outfit. His phone is placed next to him, and as soon as an alert comes in, Alex and his team will travel across the district – which is the size of Derbyshire – to collect the deceased.

On average, the burial teams respond to seven or eight alerts in a day, the highest being 17 in one day. Teams like Alex’s provide the deceased and their families with a safe and dignified burial.

“I volunteered because Ebola is not just for medical staff. As a teacher I have to play my part,” says Alex.

Kambia, in the north of the country has been a particularly difficult area to support, on the country’s border with Guinea, with remote and hard to reach villages. Cafod has set up six burial teams to ensure that people who have died from the disease can be laid to rest safely and with dignity. This means that individuals are buried in a way that is both as safe and as close to observing family and community customs as possible.

As the Ebola crisis gripped the country last year, and trained burial teams started entering communities, many Sierra Leoneans were sceptical of the new approach. They could not reconcile the practice of a safe medical burial with their traditions and customs surrounding how they sent off their loved ones.

In some areas, unsafe burials continue, exposing families who wash bodies and have other direct contact with them to the virus when at its most contagious. Where fear and uncertainty remains there are protests against burial teams and a number of teams were attacked or barred from collecting bodies.

To reduce this fear and opposition, Cafod and our partners have taken great steps to educate communities about the ways Ebola spreads, and have worked with faith and traditional leaders to educate their communities on the risks of the virus and how to prevent it.

Cafod’s burial teams have made sure that a religious leader can attend the graveside, to offer prayers or conduct burials that don’t involve body contact.

“I imagine that it is me lying there,” says Alex. “Would I want the burial team to delay or treat me bad? No! Today it is the person lying in front of me. Tomorrow it could be me. Being respectful and dignified means everything to the family and the community we are in.”

Cafod has worked hard to include and promote female members on burial teams, giving women an opportunity to earn a living.

Kadiatum, 55, says: “I was working in the local market making a poor living from trading, because Ebola has driven people away from the marketplace.”

Most importantly, the women on the burial teams are able to decontaminate female corpses and ensure their modesty before the bodies are taken to the graveside by teams of both men and women.

Kadiatum’s slight frame belies her physical strength, but it hasn’t be easy for women to be accepted on to the burial teams, This kind of work isn’t considered suitable for women in Sierra Leonean culture. But Kadiatum says that she and the other women have overcome this.

“Some people accept us, some don’t,” she says. “But overall we are generally treated well and people appreciate women being on the teams.

“Some doubted we would be strong enough to pick up and carry the bodies, but we have proved we can do it. They prefer older mature women on the teams. They listen to us and we also show respect to families who are grieving.”

As of January 21, the Kambia burial team have safely buried 402 people. Being on a safe burial team is not easy for Alex or Kadiatum and their families. Before the virus hit, Alex’s 14-year-old daughter Rachel would ask him: “Daddy how was your day?” Now she asks: “Are you being careful?”

Alex’s landlord initially requested that he and his family isolate themselves from the local community, while Kadiatum was initially rejected by her family.

“They were very scared and some refused to talk to me,” she says, “but they learnt more about Ebola and they see I’m not sick so they now accept me and my work.”

There is much we can learn from the resilience and strength of the Sierra Leonean people. When Sierra Leone finally reaches zero new cases, we must not forget about its people who have been affected by this appalling disease. There is still a lot of work to do to rebuild lives, jobs and trust in communities.

But until then burial teams will continue to work flat out to bring an end to Ebola, aided and encouraged by the ongoing international effort, and by the words of comfort, prayer and solidarity from Cafod and its supporters.

Alex says: “It reminds me how close God is to us when we hear about the prayers and solidarity of people so far away. It is also a reminder that we should all do whatever we can, no matter how small, in the service of others in great need.”

Kadiatum also feels encouraged by the solidarity of others: “We all appreciate the support we receive from so far away, but also here in Kambia. We hope that Ebola will finally leave our country very soon.”

Thanks to the work of people like Alex and Kadiatum, the number of Ebola cases in Sierra Leone is starting to fall. Alex is rightly proud of his role and hopeful for the future.

“We are part of the hero group,” he says. “We are fighting the battle. I hope that after the final eradication of Ebola, Sierra Leone and its future generations will prosper.”

To find out more about CAFOD’s Ebola response work in Sierra Leone visit cafod.org.uk.