Sierra Leone

Faith leaders and the fight against Ebola

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When an Ebola outbreak was declared in West Africa in March 2014, Islamic Relief began to offer assistance. Imran Madden, head of our humanitarian department, shares what he learned when he travelled to Sierra Leone to see how faith communities have helped in the Ebola response.

Ibrahim is a member of the Muslim community in the village of Madina. He is young, articulate and flanked by leaders from both the Muslim and Christian communities. They were all keen to tell us how the training of faith leaders has made a difference to the fight against Ebola. It is a message we heard again and again in a number of villages in the chiefdom of Kambia.

“Before the training, radio messages were the only way we could hear about Ebola. It was hard to take them seriously when they played music after a message. And how do you ask questions? There were so many confusing messages. You are told that there is no cure, but that people should call a number to have relatives taken to hospital. This didn’t make sense and left us as faith leaders feeling confused and powerless”. The others nodded in agreement with Ibrahim.

Cafod and Islamic Relief have been working together on a number of inter-faith initiatives and an opportunity presented itself for a group of agencies to look at the work of imams, priests and other faith leaders in the response to Ebola. Could we learn from this? Is there the potential to roll out similar programmes in future disaster responses? We needed to meet with faith leaders in Sierra Leone to find out.

We were keen to ask Ibrahim how the training has made a difference.

Making a dramatic effect

Ibrahim added: “As soon as we were approached about the Ebola training we accepted. After two sessions of three days we felt we had the confidence to go into communities and deliver the key messages about washing, not shaking hands and reporting sickness. But there were challenges. For years imams had told communities that washing bodies is part of the burial process. Now we had to send a completely different message due to unsafe burials.

“If it wasn’t for the high level of trust in faith leaders we could not have succeeded. We used verses from the Qur’an and stories from the Hadith to change behaviour. From December onwards we were able to make a dramatic effect on halting the spread of the disease.”

Before my trip to Sierra Leone I had my own impressions on whether faith leaders could help with the fight against Ebola. If I am honest, I was thinking in terms of supportive, incidental and supplementary. But after a week of travelling around the north chiefdom of Kambia it became clear that their contribution was much more. It has been pivotal, transformative, and inspirational.

Sierra Leone has suffered with 12,200 reported cases and 3,857 deaths due to Ebola, but is now turning a corner. Faith leaders have been instrumental in this and it’s important that the world knows their story.

Islamic Relief has worked with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to produce guidance on how those who have lost their lives to Ebola should be buried with dignity.