January 27, 2015 By Mohamed Massaquoi from Kailahun
There was a tense atmosphere in the township of Kailahun last Friday when members of the female secret society – Bondo – took to the streets to protest against a government regulation which bans private burials.
The ban on private burials means the thousands of Bondo women in the eastern district were prevented by law to bury their head Sowie, who had died after a protracted illness.
Madam Fatu Bongawoto was the head of Sowies – initiators – in Kailahun district prior to her death in the government hospital in Kailahun town.
According to the members of the Bondo society, she was entitled to special traditional burial rites by virtue of her position as chief Sowie, not least because she did not die as a result of the deadly Ebola disease.
However, their insistence on observing tradition was clearly in conflict with burial regulations imposed by the government countrywide, in the wake of the Ebola outbreak, which stipulates that all burial ceremonies should be performed by a burial team comprising health workers and trained volunteers.
Clearly unperturbed by the ban, which health experts say explains part of the reasons the virus has lost momentum in the country, including Kailahun which has gone for 43 days without recording a positive case, the women took to the street to protest peacefully, singing, dancing and drumming cultural songs.
For most of them, it was an opportunity to drum home their strong culture beliefs and custom.
President Ernest Bai Koroma, during his countrywide social mobilization tours, advised citizens to put aside their normal cultural activities, especially those dealing with burial rites.
The president did emphasize that the Ebola virus is more active in dead bodies and urged people to stop burying corpses, and to instead call on health workers who have better expertise to handle highly contaminated corpses.
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But the women insisted of burying their leader in order to give her a befitting burial
“We are not violating the rules but we have the right to bury our love ones when they did not die of Ebola. We have seen severally when rich people buried their family members. This is a complete discrimination against the poor. We will not allow non-initiates to touch our Sowie leader. We must have respect for culture and that makes us different from other people,” Aminate Finda, one of the protesters, told Concord Times.
Meanwhile, Chairman Kailahun District Council, Alex Bonapha, said the clash between culture and health precaution during a deadly Ebola outbreak was later resolved amicably, although the women insisted that the male burial team should not handle the corpse of their leader.
“It was finally resolved that trained nurses who are also members of the Bondo society wear the Personal Protective Equipment to bury the remains of madam Bongawoto; the event did not hamper normal business activities and people are still going about their normal activities,” Chairman Bonapha said.
Kailahun district recorded the first case of Ebola in May 2014, which went on to spread to all districts in the country, including Freetown the capital.
The district was declared “Ebola free” Sunday, 25 January 2015, after recording zero Ebola cases for 42 days. It was initially one of two epicenters of the virus, the other being Kenema, with 565 persons contracting the virus and at least half of that number reportedly dead.