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A funeral ceremony in Guinea’s forest region

By Remco van de Pas
on January 16, 2015

Remco Van de  Pas is currently for a research assignment in Guinea, one of three countries in West Africa affected by Ebola. Together with the national research center for training and promotion of rural health (CNFRSR) of Maférinyah, Conakry, the Institute of Tropical Medicine will explore policies and possibilities to strengthen the public health system in Guinea during the ongoing Ebola outbreak and afterwards.  During his visit, Remco  keeps a journal.  Below you find the second episode (12/1/2015).


During my first days in N’zerekore, one of the main areas of the Ebola outbreak in Guinea, I met several health authorities & health staff and visited the regional hospital. I attended the funeral ceremony of my colleague Eugene’s mother who  passed away some days ago. And, as  you might remember from my first blog, I developed diarrhea and had to vomit. Before people are starting to get worried, let me explain a bit further.

In this district (prefecture) of N’zerekore, encouragingly, there have been no new cases of Ebola over the last 2 weeks. The Ebola coordination team follows up some contact cases but it seems that here the epidemic is really decreasing. This is not the case for all of Guinea as new cases have emerged in other districts. The Ebola control program (‘The fight against Ebola’) is in full swing, including a new program launched by the government to stop Ebola in 60 days. The international humanitarian system is also working in overdrive, with major UN agencies (UNICEF, UNFPA, WHO, UNHCR) present under  the coordination of the umbrella agency UNMEER (United Nations Ebola Emergency Response). There are several NGOs present as well (Guinean Red Cross , Save the Children, Plan Guinee, Alima) here. The district head and health authorities are coordinating the response. One person tells me ‘the epidemic that is (still) going on here is Reunionites”.

The funeral ceremony was a colorful one. The woman who passed away belonged to the Kpellé ethnic community. The majority of people here are Catholics but they still follow customary practices. It was  just wonderful to see this expression of solidarity. People and extended family came from far-away villages to attend the ceremony, bringing with them a financial contribution for the funeral. Each time an envelope with money was given, the master of ceremony (a designated elder) announced this publicly and accounts were kept  by a younger aide. Food was shared and people were given chicken(s) and rice to take home. Ritual dancing and singing took  place. People shook hands and (most likely) the women in the family washed the body of the deceased. And yes, in times of Ebola, the ceremony attendees were diligently washing their hands (frequently) with chlorinated water. They also know perfectly well now to distinguish between somebody who died because of “Le Maladie” (Ebola) and people who did so for another reason.

I also attended the Sunday morning mass in N’zerekore’s cathedral as part of the ceremony. The pastor let the choir sing extra loud and extremely long. In a charming and humorous  way he urged his community members to donate generous gifts to the church. This has obviously nothing to do with the Ebola response, but with the simple fact that the catholic mission celebrates its centenary anniversary this year and requires sufficient funds for the celebration activities. I had to smile as the whole thing looked remarkably similar to fundraising events in the North, including recently for  Ebola (see for example national television shows in European countries to boost aid when there are natural and humanitarian crises in the world).  And no, the pastor and choir unfortunately (?) didn’t sing “Do they know it’s Christmas”. That is already patented by Sir Bob Geldof, as you know.

And the diarrhea, you wonder? That must have been a  nasty gastro-intestinal microbe that I picked up while on the road. By now I have more or less recovered, thank you very much.

The panic and chaos which characterized the first period of the Ebola outbreak are over now. The government, health authorities, and communities are learning to deal with it. Ebola will however have a lasting impact on society in Guinea and the broader region.

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