Enduring the Stigma: diary of safe and dignified burial workers

‘I’ve seen a lot in this job, but that was the saddest day of my life,” reflects Francis Cole.

Eyes downcast, Cole recalls the day he buried a mother and her two-day-old daughter—victims of Ebola Virus Disease in Sierra Leone.

“This pregnant woman had escaped from an Ebola quarantined home in Freetown,” explains Cole, a burial worker with World Vision’s Safe and Dignified Burial Team, based in Bo, the country’s second largest city. “She went to her village and her people rejected her. She later delivered her baby in the bush alone. Two days later, both of them died.”

Discovering the bodies, community members called a hotline that dispatched the burial team of six men, including Cole.  “I took care of the bodies and ensured they were safe for burial, while taking precautions to stay safe myself, too,” says Cole, explaining that the bodies of Ebola victims are highly contagious.

World Vision is leading the consortium of NGO partners in six districts—Christian Relief Services, Red Cross, and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development. They are ensuring that Ebola victims are receiving safe and dignified burials. They have buried more than 2000 people since November 2014.The government of Sierra Leone had ordered safe burial of the dead (be they Ebola positive or not) to ensure contamination containment.

“I joined the burial team because I am a patriotic citizen who could not sit by and watch things going bad in my country,” says Cole. “Ebola victims were dying by the minute but millions of people shied away from taking responsibility to help bury them properly.”

Volunteering for the burial team has not been without recriminations for Cole. “My cousin ordered the entire family not to have anything to do with me. I was told not to set foot in our compound or contend with the police. My wife abandoned me, taking our daughter with her. Friends despised me, too.”

Homeless, Cole tried renting a room. “On finding out that I am a burial worker, the landlord gave me an eviction notice without refunds,” he says.

The rejection and alienation followed him to the marketplace. “Commercial bike riders [motorcycle taxis) would not take me, although I was paying for their services,” says Cole, with more sadness than bitterness. “One day I went to buy a plastic packet of cold water. Because I touched several in the cooler, the seller threw away the entire Coleman full of packets.”

Cole previously worked for a government services burial team at the beginning of the epidemic outbreak. The team was sometimes attacked by angry grieving relatives who believed they had not treated their dead loved ones respectfully during the burial process.

“It was getting heavy for me to bear,” admits Cole, showing a scar on his right arm from one such attack.

Despite their dedicated service, the government burial teams were not paid for two months last fall, and went on strike for several days to obtain their wages. They were eventually only compensated for one month’s wages.

The 276 burial workers (266 males and 10 females) on World Vision’s 27 burial teams come from various backgrounds, but all have had their share of rejection.

Like Cole, Siddie Kanu was motivated by a sense of duty. “I joined the burial team not because of money, but to help eradicate Ebola in Sierra Leone. If we do not, who else will? We cannot expect Liberians (casual workers) to do the work we are supposed to do,” says Kanu, a teacher in a primary school for deaf children, which closed last March. This well-spoken father of two holds a teacher’s certificate in education and an advanced certificate in computer technology. He is in the final year of a Bachelor of Arts program at the University of Makeni. He should have graduated this month, but all courses were cancelled due to Ebola. Out of work and out of class himself, he signed on to the burial team.

“My relatives, including my wife, were not happy. So I had to move out temporarily, but I am in constant touch with them,” he says. “I will contribute toward fighting Ebola until it is eradicated in this country. One of my roles in the recovery stage will be to reunify survivors with their communities,” he concludes.

Alhaji Abu Mansaray is another committed burial worker who has endured rejection. “I told my relatives that I was working as a cleaner at the government hospital in Bo,” he says. “My work with the burial team was exposed when we went to bury a corpse in my village. I could not play the dodging game any longer. My worried mother asked, ‘Abu, is it money that you want?’ I told her that my work is a national sacrifice. If I had told my family that I was going to join the team, they would have driven me out of the house, so I left of my own free will. We are being stigmatized by the very people we are working to protect,” he says.

Cole admits that the social pressure almost became too much to bear. “I planned to abandon the very work for which I have passion,” he admits. “But when World Vision took over the Safe and Dignified Burial project, things changed. My hope and courage were restored. Today, we are paid and paid on time. We earn 2 million Leones (USD$ 400 ) every month and personal protective equipment is provided. We are given breakfast and lunch every day. During Christmas, we even received a bonus. I am able to send support to my wife and daughter.”

Cole joined the burial team as a body carrier and was promoted to disinfectant sprayer and is now a team leader. He holds a diploma in Social Work and intends to use his skills to help his country recover from the epidemic. “I want to educate communities on hygiene practices to avoid a reoccurrence of the Ebola virus,” he says.

 On February 25, Bo became the fourth district in Sierra Leone to go 42 days without a single new case of Ebola being reported. The contributions of World Vision’s burial workers in achieving this goal cannot go unnoticed.