It’s the winter season here in Sierra Leone, which means hot, dry weather, nothing that people back home would recognise as winter at all.
You have to look hard to find some of the trappings of the festive season here.
I spot that one of the bigger hotels has a large glittery Christmas tree in its foyer window. Small signs that Christmas has arrived here in Freetown but I don’t hear people exchanging season’s greetings. Some of the team members who have been working hard since April haven’t had any time off to be with their families, they’re tired and worn out. There isn’t much Christmas cheer around, people are totally focused on their work. We know we’ll have to keep it up over Christmas, because Ebola won’t take a holiday, so it’s almost like we haven’t noticed it’s the holiday season at all.
Christmas here normally is all about family, with relatives coming together and celebrating the day with a special feast – usually of rice meals served with chicken, beef or goat stew. People get up early to cook and send dishes to loved ones and neighbours, as a symbol of sharing and thanksgiving for God’s blessings. There’s always plenty on the stove, ready to welcome the unexpected guest.
Gatherings have been banned
However this year Christmas and New Year gatherings have been banned by the government, because there is a real fear that people will relax and forget to keep to the preventive measures to stop the spread of the Ebola virus. There will be police patrols along the beaches, ready to break up any festive beach parties.
I’ve been spending time with the team in Kambia in the north of the country, the main trading route between Freetown and Conakry in neigbouring Guinea. The red clay road to Kambia takes us past acres of dense green forest, the lush rural environment which belies the challenges of tackling Ebola here.
Although this area isn’t currently a ‘hot spot’ like Kenema was, there is still a lot of misunderstanding about Ebola. We’ve received reports of health teams being chased away, because people are fearful, as Ebola prevention messages haven’t reached some of these more remote places.
CAFOD has dealt with this by rapidly rolling out training with faith leaders in the seven chiefdoms of Kambia, which will provide sessions for Christian, Muslim and indigenous faiths leaders who are trusted in their communities. The messages they bring are the difference between life and death.
Burials go on Christmas might be ‘cancelled’ but the burials go on.
In Kambia we have trained four burial teams made up of ten people each, and we are really pleased that we have six women working across the teams. It’s difficult for a woman to be part of a burial team, they face double stigma; firstly being a part of an Ebola burial team, secondly, being women doing what is considered ‘men’s work’, however this isn’t stopping them, the women here have an amazing resilience and are hard working.
The women who have joined the team are committed to doing the work, and they are so vital, as safe burial is also about bringing dignity to the deceased. Especially when a women has died, placing a cloth over the body is a simple act of compassion that helps the grieving relatives. While burial work is hard, it also provides a valuable income for the women and their families.
Christmas is not going to be like any other for people affected by the devastating impact that Ebola has inflicted on communities and their culture.
The burial teams will keep working over the Christmas period and I will be with them coordinating the work. We know that we can’t stop now, we need to keep the preventive messages alive and we need to remove the dead so as not to cause further infections.
A different Christmas
There will be other Christmases with my family, I know that they are safe, that they have plenty of food and have access to the best health care in the world. By contrast, here life is more fragile, and even more so because of Ebola.
The one gift this Christmas that Sierra Leoneans are passing on to each other is the gift of hope, the hope that they will see the end of the Ebola virus, and celebrate next Christmas with bear-hug embraces.