For One woman, Working on an Ebola Burial Team Cracked Her Life Open

As the virus tore through Sierra Leone in 2014 and 2015, the resulting chaos also toppled social norms — scrambling power relations and gender roles in unprecedented ways.

Fellows 2016

By Ryan Lenora Brown

September 06, 2016

Also published by New York Times

At the height of the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, the rumors came fast and furious: The government was injecting patients with Ebola to shake more aid money out of the West; the best way to prevent Ebola was to drink salt water – gallons of it – or maybe bleach; the disease could be cured by onions, exorcisms, condensed milk.

But there was one story in particular that 23-year-old Isatu Sesay couldn’t shake. She was told that when women died of Ebola, their bodies were being prepared for burial by teams of strange men. Of all the rumors she heard, this seemed the most improbable. In her community, after all, cleaning and preparing a woman’s body was strictly the job of other women. Anything else would be far too humiliating to ever be tolerated, even at a time like this.

A health worker from Sierra Leon's Red Cross burial team. Photo: Francisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images

It was a barometer, then, of just how quickly Ebola warped the shape of both life and death, that this was the one rumor she had heard that turned out to be true.

These men, she learned, were members of specially trained Ebola burial teams, ghoulish looking figures in head-to-toe protective gear sent to carry off the bodies of the dead from their family homes before they could infect anyone else. Sesay didn’t dispute the value of that job — at the time, as many as 70 percent of new Ebola cases in Sierra Leone were linked to unsafe burials. But she also thought it could be done better if women were involved.

In Isatu Esay’s community, cleaning and preparing a woman’s body was strictly the job of other women.

So in October 2014, she walked into the Freetown headquarters of the Sierra Leone Red Cross and applied for the job.

It was a move with little precedent. At the time, the Red Cross had just two female burial workers among the hundreds it employed. So masculine, indeed, was the profession that they were known colloquially as the “burial boys.” Her mother scolded that it wasn’t “a decent job for a lady” and then kicked her out of the house.

But joining a burial team thrust Sesay into an unprecedented position in another way as well. For the first time in her life, she became her family’s primary breadwinner. She paid the rent on her family’s house and her mother’s business expenses, her younger brother’s school fees and the tuition for her older brother’s driving course. “I felt very good doing that – when you have, you are meant to help,” she says.

As Ebola tore through local communities in 2014 and 2015, the resulting chaos also toppled social norms — scrambling power relations and gender roles in unprecedented ways. In November 2014, for instance, as the epidemic roared to its height, the country banned female genital mutilation (FGM) — a cutting of the clitoris and labia that nearly 90 percent of Sierra Leonean women have undergone — to help stop the spread of Ebola via bodily fluids. Nearly overnight, the practice stopped almost entirely.

Countless women, meanwhile, were thrust onto the disease’s front lines as healthcare workers or into new social roles within their own families as old hierarchies and social ties dissolved under the pressure of death, disease, and suspicion.

Two years later, however, with Ebola all but gone from Sierra Leone, much of that progress is in jeopardy. FGM, for instance, has come back to life, and many women — including Sesay — are once again jobless, leaving them buffeted by the same poverty and economic uncertainty as before the outbreak.

But however temporary, their gains have given many women there a glimpse into an alternate world — and from that, they say, there is no turning back.

“It’s now women running our family,” says Fatmata Sesay (no relation toIsatu), who survived Ebola along with her aunt, her sister, and her mother. What didn’t survive were their nuclear families — her sister Meminatu, for instance, was kicked out of her home by her grief-stricken husband, who blamed her for his mother’s death from the disease. Now the women share a small house in eastern Freetown, supporting each other as petty traders. The only man in sight is Fatmata and Meminatu’s teenage brother.

That fierce independence isn’t exactly new to Sierra Leonean women, but it has taken on new forms in Ebola’s wake, says Tina Davies, formerly the coordinator for Ebola survivors at Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children’s Affairs. Some 60 percent of survivors are women, according to statistics provided by her ministry. As the country’s caregivers, they were disproportionately affected by both the disease and the country’s recovery process, she says.

For Sesay, working on a burial team cracked her life open. After seeing how gratefully she was received by the families of women who had died of Ebola, she decided to pursue a career in healthcare, and is now training to be a nurse with the assistance of the Red Cross. “Anytime we got a call that a woman had died, I went in first,” she says. “For that, the families were so grateful.”

On her burial team, she realized, her gender didn’t inhibit her. Instead, it allowed her to play an outsized role.

At times, however, the burden of the job threatened to overwhelm her, she says. At the epidemic’s height, her team buried as many as 20 bodies per day, and she sometimes thought of quitting. “But I just said to myself, ‘just be patient, just be patient.’ If I don’t do it, then who will?”

Ryan Lenora Brown was a fellow of the International Reporting Project in Sierra Leone.