Guinea: Families find peace as Ebola souls finally laid to rest

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Maurice Ouendeno stares silently at the arm of his blue plastic lawn chair. He waits a few minutes before beginning his story.

Sadness mixed with anger flashes across his face. The forty-six-year-old begins, “They said we did not have the right to bury him. We understood why, but it was painful … not to be able to give him the send-off he deserved.”

Mr. Ouendeno’s 73-year-old father died from Ebola in March 2014. He was one of the earliest confirmed victims of the outbreak in Guinea. The retired doctor had accompanied a good friend who was “quite ill” to the hospital. His friend died that night and he helped dress the body. His symptoms began a few days later.

At first, Mr. Ouendeno’s father thought he had contracted cholera. His son recalls: “He asked us to stay away from him … as a doctor, he knew it was contagious. We brought him to the hospital for treatment. They took his blood and the next day told us it was Ebola. They tried to help him, but it was too late.”

Health workers told the family not to enter the hospital room because Ebola is infectious even after death. After years working as a miner, Mr. Ouendeno knew not to question safety protocols. So he convinced his mother and siblings to obey the hospital workers. He says, “Luckily, we listened. We understood that this was something bad. Otherwise, we might not be here now.”

The Red Cross took his father’s body away, and the family was unable to give him a proper burial. They didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye.

In Guinea, there are several traditional practices associated with death. Family or close friends almost always wash and dress the body. Everyone who attends the wake touches the corpse. After a 40-day mourning period following the burial, family and friends come together to perform a special ceremony which sends the spirit to the next world.

But government restrictions on public gatherings during the Ebola outbreak prevented Guinean families from performing the traditional death rituals. Nor could they hold the customary ceremonies after the mourning period.

Fina Marie Tenguinano lost her husband, brother-in-law and father-in-law to Ebola. She says, “First you endure the pain of losing someone to this Ebola disease. Then they tell you that you cannot bury them. No. It is just not right.”

Many families suffered great anguish. They feared their loved ones would not find rest.

Last month, the Ouendeno family finally managed to hold their ceremony. They chose an iron object to represent their father’s body in place of his corpse. They carried it from his native village to the cemetery, and placed it in a special tomb.

Mr. Ouendeno sacrificed five cows to ask forgiveness for the delayed funeral, and to ensure that his father’s soul was set free. The family cooked rice and provided traditional white wine for the guests at the ceremony. He says, “Some people cried, but it was really a moment of joy. There was a lot of laughter.”

At the end of the four-day ceremony, Mr. Ouendeno’s uncle flipped two halves of a kola nut onto the ground. Both pieces landed face up.

Mr. Ouendeno says, “It was a great moment. We finally knew that our father was … at peace and that we had given him his freedom.”

To read the full article on which this story is based, A year on, Guineans finally lay Ebola souls to rest, go to:

Photo: Some Guineans waited a year to bury their Ebola dead because of local customs and government restrictions on public gatherings. As part of traditional rituals, friends and family impersonate the career or characteristics of someone who died. In this case, Tamba Lamine Ouendeno, was a retired doctor so people went around doing “checkups” and writing prescriptions. This was part of his funeral celebrations in April 2015, more than a year after he died of Ebola. Credit: Maurice Ouendeno/IRIN