'Will We Be Forgotten When the Cameras Are Switched Off?'

Ebola Crisis has Eased but for Priest in Sierra Leone, Sorrowful Memories Remain

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In West Africa, the Ebola epidemic claimed some 10,000 victims in 2014. Almost a year ago, the outbreak spread from Guinea the neighboring countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Thanks to national and international aid, the number of new cases is now falling. Father Peter Konteh, Caritas director for the Archdiocese of Freetown in Sierra Leone experienced the Ebola crisis first hand.

He spoke on March 3, 2015 with international charity, Aid to the Church in Need.

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Q. What was your first response to the outbreak?

Father Konteh: «We looked for strategies because initially little was known about the disease. We had to learn a lot so as to keep the people informed and to sensitisze them to the problem; after all, 60 percent of the population of 5. 7 million is illiterate. Every day there were broadcasts over the radio. We also used megaphones to inform the people, and we went onto the market places and into the villages. It wasn’t easy to convince the people. Because the dead were initially buried without their relatives present, the rumor spread that they had been killed so that their organs could be sold.

Q. What was the collaboration between the different religions like?

Father Konteh: The relations between the religions are traditionally very, very good. This unity is one of our country’s strengths. Around 60 percent of the Sierra Leoneans are Muslims and 30 percent are Christians, with 10 percent following traditional African religions. Although the Catholics are in the minority, the Church enjoys great respect because many Sierra Leoneans have attended Catholic schools. Numerous Catholic priests are converts, and two of our bishops have parents who are practicing Muslims.»

Q. How did the country finally manage to contain the Ebola virus?

Father Konteh: There was a lot of support, both international and local. A country which only had 8 ambulances now has more than 200. The international community recognized the enormous danger. I have received to report to the US Senate on my experience and to speak to the British Parliament on the role of pastoral workers in the fight against Ebola.

Q. These pastoral workers are lay faithful, who played a hands-on role?

Father Konteh: The government realized that Muslims and Christians together make up more than 80 percent of the population. When someone dies the pastoral workers are important, and not only for the funeral ceremony. They exercise considerable influence. They talk to the relatives and comfort them. There are large number of traumatized individuals who seek help and want to talk to a pastoral worker about their depression. Pastoral workers get through to and accompany people in their difficulties and sufferings.

Q. What is the present situation?

Father Konteh: It’s still too early to rejoice, even if the number of newly infected has fallen considerably. Thanks to international aid we now have a sufficient number of treatment centers. We are very, very grateful for this support. The government has now announced that the schools are scheduled to reopen March 31. However, it still be some time before things return to normal. Business life and farming are severely impaired. Sierra Leone therefore needs further support. In the wake of the Ebola epidemic, medical treatment has improved considerably and we must ensure that this continues to be the case after the crisis. But we are already concerned that we will be forgotten again when the cameras are finally switched off.

Q. What was your most distressing experience?

Father Konteh: Two experiences still cause me sleepless nights. One day we found a child of about two, who was alone with four dead bodies. We notified doctors but by the time help showed up the child had already died. This still haunts me today because I sense I should have intervened earlier. Then, one of our female colleagues lost her whole family: parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces—a total of 27 individuals. We tried to comfort her in her pain and told her that we were now her family.

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Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See, providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org (USA); www.acnuk.org (UK); www.aidtochurch.org (AUS); www.acnireland.org (IRL); www.acn-aed-ca.org (CAN)

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