How our faith leaders proved their worth in the Ebola crisis
Francis Wahome is Tearfund’s Country Representative for the Mano River countries in West Africa.
Keeping the Faith has been published in advance of the World Humanitarian Summit, which will be held in Istanbul in May 2016. The full report is available here.
Above: Acting a drama of Ebola affecting villagers, in Oblela village, Liberia
Credit: Mairo Retief / Tearfund
At Tearfund, we’re used to working through the local church. So it was no surprise to us that Christian and Muslim leaders played a key role in tackling the Ebola virus in West Africa.
Keeping the Faith, a report published by Tearfund along with CAFOD, Christian Aid and Islamic Relief, shows faith leaders delivered health messages in parts of Sierra Leone and Liberia that governments and NGOs couldn’t reach.
Faith leaders are rooted in their communities. They spend time with their people daily and accompany them through the joys and sorrows of life. They know how to communicate with people effectively and, as trusted sources of information, they can quash false rumours.
It was church leaders who helped people accept life-saving advice from health workers, delivered important health information, and taught people that Ebola was not being spread deliberately. They continue to play a crucial role in counselling survivors, challenging stigma and helping survivors and their families.
But, as the report says, I believe faith leaders should have been involved far sooner. More lives – and money – would have been saved.
For example, traditionally in Sierra Leone mourners touch or wash the dead body, but of course this helped to spread Ebola: in May 2014, 363 deaths were traced back to attendance at a single funeral in Sierra Leone.
Emotions began to run high when authorities started to cremate bodies – which goes against cultural practice – or bury them in unmarked mass graves.
Naturally, people started to bury their loved ones secretly. The disease continued to spread.
Eventually, the Sierra Leone government called on clergy and Imams to help. They were able to identify passages in the Bible and the Quran showing the new burial practices were acceptable to their faiths.
My colleague Rev Jonathan Titus-Williams, CEO of Tearfund’s partner the Evangelical Fellowship of Sierra Leone sums it up. He said: “During the Ebola crisis, I, along with other faith leaders, was able to provide congregations with critical information about staying safe from Ebola. At first we faced many challenges, but we soon learnt the best way to respond. We now have a role caring for orphans, challenging stigma and seeking to build bridges, bringing communities back together. We are restoring hope.”
It’s my heartfelt desire that we will remember what we have learnt. I hope the treasures we have in our midst – our faith leaders – will be valued and used to their full potential as soon as the need next arises.