Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Notes From The Field: Makeni Part II

     The morning after I arrived in Makeni we left the hotel to head to the CCC and when I arrived, I met with Aminata who is responsible for monitoring the burial teams and gravediggers. She’s an amazing person. She’s from the area and has been doing community work with NGO’s for eleven years. I was 14 years old when she started doing this work. She told me how when she first started in this response effort she was afraid of Ebola, but once her predecessor explained how to be safe she felt a lot better. Aminata provided me with a lot of information about both the technical challenges the workers face (the app they use to send in data is glitchy, they don’t have enough credits to send reports in, teams are being forced to work at night by the military, lack of action taken by the appropriate authorities when an unsafe burial has been conducted, etc.) and the psychosocial issues that come with working in this situation. Many members of the burial teams have started to have nightmares. Both burial team members and grave diggers have been stigmatized and many have been kicked out of their homes by their families. After speaking with Aminata, I had the opportunity to meet both the burial teams and the gravediggers in person. I had known that I might have the opportunity to witness a burial (I didn’t actually get to see one though), but I was still surprised when Aminata asked if I wanted to go meet the burial teams. The teams are headquartered across the street from the CCC so we just walked over and spent a little time talking with them. They reiterated many of the concerns Aminata had raised. Being so close to people who spend their days burying Ebola victims was a bit unnerving. It was definitely the closest I had been to Ebola (especially since there has been a big increase in cases in this area recently) up to that point and it made me pay a lot more attention to handwashing and the no touching rules. I was quite close to the burial team members, but obviously I never touched any of them. In retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been so close, but Aminata was just as close so I’m sure it was fine. They wear PPE when they do burials anyway.

     After meeting with the burial teams, Aminata shocked me again by asking if I wanted to go meet the gravediggers AT THE CEMETERY. Um. Okay. I had absolutely no idea that was something I’d be doing, but I’m so glad I went. As we were getting ready to leave, one of my colleagues, John, came over to me and started giving me some very serious instructions. He said to be sure to keep my distance from the workers and told me that if they look me in the face while talking that I should quickly turn away to ensure that no spit gets anywhere near my face. Then he asked if I had a long sleeved shirt I could put on so I had less exposed skin. It’s like a million degrees here in Makeni so no, John, I don’t have any long sleeved shirts with me (apart from one or two in Freetown), but thanks for scaring the crap out of me for about 2 minutes. Sometimes I forget that most of the people I work with are not public health people. They’re development people or emergency response people, but they’re not necessarily involved in public health activities regularly. I think that makes them more likely to be concerned about things that aren’t really going to get you infected. A healthy level of concern and respect for Ebola is necessary, but to be unnecessarily fearful just makes people nervous. Anyway, the gravediggers are some of the most amazing people I have ever met. When we arrived, every single one of them started walking towards us from where they were digging, stopped about 15-20 feet away from us and waited for us to explain what we needed. 

The pit where personal protective equipment (PPE) is burned each night
Cemetery in Makeni
     As you might expect, a group of people who serve as gravediggers during an Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone is not comprised of a bunch of people with PhD's. They are people who have been looked down on by society constantly since this outbreak began and probably beforehand as well. They should, however, be some of the most respected individuals taking part in this response. The heat in Makeni is intense (but I hate the heat so maybe some of you wouldn’t think it’s quite so bad) and these men work all day digging 8 feet deep graves so that every single person is buried properly and safely. I could see the sweat pouring off them (one guy was wringing out his shirt and I’m pretty certain you could have filled a pool with the amount of sweat that came out) which is probably why we stayed so far away. They articulated their concerns and the challenges they face clearly and respectfully. It was obvious that they thought I have far more power than I actually do, but I was happy to listen to the issues they presented and I will do my very best to make sure they are addressed. They also talked about how they were so grateful to God and to CRS for all the progress that has been made. After they finished and I thanked them for their hard work, someone began praying. I'm not actually sure if it was in English because it's sometimes hard for me to understand the accents here and because Krio has roots in Pidgin English I often can't tell if people are speaking Krio and I'm just catching some words that are the same in English or if they're speaking English and I just can't understand their accents. It was cool to be a part of it regardless of what language it was in.

     When I got back to the hotel after work, I took my temperature and it was 99.0 degrees which threw me into a panic for a few minutes. Logically I knew that it was likely just because I had been outside for a good portion of the day in hot weather while wearing long pants. I know there’s no way I would have symptoms if I had been exposed that day, but my temperature hadn’t been elevated once in my first month here and I had just spent a day with Ebola workers so my immediate conclusion was not a positive one. But thankfully my temperature was down just a few minutes later and all was well again. My next post will be up within the next couple of days. It will be the last (and most exciting) post about my week in the field and will feature some stories about my excursion to pay burial teams in some of the more rural chiefdoms, playing in a canoe, being trapped in a car with a chicken (aka Sriya's worst nightmare) and a day trip to Port Loko. 

No comments:

Post a Comment