Ebola outbreak: Braving threats to bury Sierra Leone dead

Andrew Harding
Africa correspondent
@BBCAndrewHon Twitter

  • Published
Mariatu Kagbo in Sierra Leone
Image caption,
Mariatu Kagbo volunteered to join the burial team to protect the dignity of women

As Mariatu Kagbo makes her way up the steep hillside from her family home and walks towards the main road, several people shout out "Ebola!"

At best, they mean it as a taunt.

At worst it is a threat - an expression of the fear people hold in Old Wharf, a poor suburb outside Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, that Ms Kagbo could bring the virus back home with her from her new job.

"They're mocking me. They call me names. Sometimes they attack," says Ms Kagbo, a 37-year-old mother of six, who volunteered to join a Red Cross burial team a fortnight ago.

"They can say what they want. I say to myself - if I don't do it, who will?" she declares with conviction.

After half an hour squeezed into the back of a public taxi, Ms Kagbo catches up with her teammates in Waterloo - a town badly hit by the Ebola outbreak.

"Two dead," says her supervisor, as their two-vehicle convoy sets off for the first job, in a nearby fishing village called Tombo.

A crowd has gathered outside a small home near the water's edge.

Some women are wailing.

A man approaches to say that someone else has fallen ill.

"We're only here for the dead - you need to call the hotline," says one of the burial team.

Image caption,
The burial teams in Sierra Leone face threats and sometimes violence
Image caption,
It is hot in the protective gear which takes time to put on
Image caption,
Ms Kagbo's neighbours fear that she may bring Ebola back to her family and community

It takes perhaps 10 minutes for Ms Kagbo and her male colleagues to put on their orange protective suits, gloves and goggles.

"It's hot. I sweat and sweat. I drink so much water. But I'm used to it. I'm not scared to go in for now. We have good protection," she says.

Ms Kagbo is first to go into the house.

"When it's a woman that dies, I cover her to give her some dignity - so the men won't see them naked. That's why I joined this job - for the women. That's why I do this," she says.


Ten minutes later, and the team has finished.

Both bodies have been put in the back of an old van.

In another life, the vehicle was used by a German radiator installation company.

"Oh my God. It was not easy. I saw the signs. I see the signs [of Ebola] there - blood running. I was so frightened because she was very young. A young girl and an old man. Oh my God," says Ms Kagbo.

She takes a swig of water and goes to stand on her own, staring at her boots, shaking her head slowly for several minutes.

"At night when I lie down I see their faces. I have nightmares," she says later.

Read Andrew Harding's other reports from Sierra Leone:

Most of the other team members are students.

Schools and universities are all closed because of the outbreak.

A young man - working as a contact tracer - questions a relatives of the two dead, asking if either of them had attended a funeral in the past month, and writing down the answers on an official form.

The aim is to help hunt for others who might have been exposed to the virus.

The team moves on to the next location - another poor, crowded neighbourhood.

A sullen group quickly gathers around the burial vehicle, and when one man tries to take a photo, Ms Kagbo's colleague grabs the phone and stamps on it.

No ceremony

Then the routine of suiting up and spraying disinfectant begins again.

"It's a baby - a one-year-old boy," says Ms Kagbo.

This morning's other two bodies will be taken to a special Ebola cemetery in Waterloo.

Media caption,

'If I don't do it, who will do it?" -Mariatu Kagbo, body collector, Sierra Leone

But the team decides to try to calm the looming hostility of the local population here by burying the infant in the overgrown cemetery nearby.

Minutes later, Usma Bangura's tiny body is laid to rest in an unmarked grave.

There is no ceremony.

A bag containing gloves and other soiled protective gear is placed on top, followed by some branches and leaves, and then a few shovels-worth of red earth.

"We try to give people dignity," says Ms Kagbo.

She finishes work each day at about 17:00, but often waits another hour before taking the bus home.

It is easier, and safer, she explains, to walk back through her neighbourhood in the dark.

Ebola deaths

Figures up to 13 January 2016


Deaths - probable, confirmed and suspected

(Includes one in the US and six in Mali)

  • 4,809 Liberia

  • 3,955 Sierra Leone

  • 2,536 Guinea

  • 8 Nigeria