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Ebola, Secret Burials and Secret Society Covenants

January 14, 2015 By Emmanuel Aiah Senessie

We have tried in every way to end the Ebola Virus Disease. Apart from our own efforts as a Government and people, the International Community has joined us in this fight against Ebola. A lot of money has been poured into this fight, both from within and without. Mass social awareness and mobilization programmes are going on all over the country, involving every district. But with all our combined efforts, we have still not broken the chain of transmission. Our people continue to be infected on a daily basis.

Our people continue to be infected because some of our compatriots are still washing corpses and burying them in secret. This has baffled most Sierra Leoneans. They wonder why, in spite of all what the Government is doing, in spite of the continuous repetition and reinforcement of the key message that in case of death we should call the Burial Teams on 117 who are scientifically equipped to handle dead bodies, our people are still burying their dead. As late as Friday 9th January 2015, reports received from the Western Rural District say that in a village called Mammah, just five kilometers from Newton on the way to Masiaka, some of the villagers washed and buried a dead secret society member without calling the Burial Team. Now those who washed and buried the corpse have all died. As a result, the entire village has been quarantined, according to reports from people in nearby Newton.

Why are people still continuing to wash and bury dead bodies? We have not yet found the answer to this question. It does not mean that our people are in denial of Ebola as a killer disease. No, that is far from it. It does not mean that the messages have not got to them. They have received the messages. Does it mean they do not want to obey the government? That is also not the case.  Our people continue to wash and bury the dead because of their membership of traditional secret societies.

This is the area in the fight against Ebola that we have not properly explored, or understood. Some time towards the end of last year, traditional healers, secret society heads and traditional rulers were invited to a one-day workshop at the Kingtom Bank Complex where His Excellency the President and the First Lady Sia Nyama Koroma addressed them. I remember the President telling the participants that the secret society Agbas (elders) should show themselves to be real agbas by putting their people under control and telling them to stop washing and burying dead bodies. Indirectly, the President was telling the agbas that their members were still washing dead bodies. And that is why we have not yet broken the chain of transmission.

It is a firmly held belief that Africans are notoriously religious. One survey on religion shows that in Sierra Leone, there are 60% Muslims; 10% Christians and 30% animists, that is, people who practise traditional African religion. Secret societies belong to the group of traditional African religion. In a population of six million, members of traditional African religions are in the region of over two million (30%). This is not a small number. And the problem becomes compounded when we realize that they live mostly in rural, hard to reach areas of the country.

 And we should bear in mind that members of secret societies are neither Christians nor Muslims. But they make up a significant proportion of the population. This is the frightening reality.

What holds secret society members together is the Covenant. A covenant is like an agreement or contract between two parties, sealed with a binding oath that involves the shedding of blood. It is usually an agreement between a higher power and a lesser power, with the understanding that the higher power will protect the lesser power if the lesser power does not break the covenant. But if the lesser power (member) breaks the covenant, he will face the consequences, most times at the pain of death.

One other aspect of traditional secret society covenants is that the members of the secret society to which a man belongs immediately take over his dead body when he dies. They are responsible for washing and burying him, with the attendant traditional funeral secret society rites. If they don’t, it is believed that the dead person’s ghost will visit the members and torment them for not burying him according to the rites of the traditional secret society.

We who are educated in the Western tradition find it difficult to believe this, or accept it. This writer, a born again Christian, finds it particularly difficult to believe this, or accept it. But reality will always remain the same whether we believe or accept it. The reality is that some of our compatriots believe in secret societies. They believe that this is what they met their ancestors practising. This is what they were initiated into. Traditional secret societies have ruled their lives all along. They therefore feel incomplete if they do not adhere strictly to its rites and customs, even at a critical time like this.

To change in a year what a man has believed in throughout his lifetime is difficult, nearly impossible. It is like changing a man’s brain and replacing it with another brain. In that case he becomes a completely different personality. That is the problem with these secret burials. People are afraid of not being seen to disobey the Government. At the same time they are afraid of what will happen to them if they do not wash and bury their dead secret society members. So they wash the dead bodies in secret. For most of these people, government is an alien institution. But they live everyday under the influence of their traditional secret societies.  If they obey the government they will die. If they don’t they will die. They are therefore caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

Traditional African religion is real. And if we don’t find a way to understand this reality, and help our people out, then we are going to live with the dreaded Ebola Virus disease for a long time to come. I am not being pessimistic. I am just being realistic.

Emmanuel Aiah Senessie is the Domentation and Communications Officer, Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Secretariat, Office of the Vice President)

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