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How a village in Sierra Leone fought effectively against Ebola long before the aid workers arrived


Devils dance madly among the rattling inhabitants of the village of Njala Giema in Sierra Leone. The spirits, who are masked and draped with colourful strings of beads, press their pelvises suggestively against the visitors to welcome them. These rainforests where the three borders of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea meet, formed the epicentre of the Ebola epidemic which swept across West Africa from the end of 2013, killing 11,300 people.

The epidemic is still not completely under control. But residents of Njala Giema managed to bring the disease under control long before international aid workers dressed in moon suits took action.

What did the locals do right, what did the foreigners do wrong? How can Sierra Leone better defend itself against a possible future epidemic? With these questions in mind, researchers from the universities of Wageningen in the Netherlands and Njala in Sierra Leone travelled to Njala Giema. With financial support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs they want to research and learn lessons of the indigenous response to the Ebola epidemic, because the international response fell so far short in what was needed.

The welcome ritual belongs the visible world. But who hide behind those devil masks? These are the invisible village leaders. The ancient secret societies in the rainforests of West Africa maintain a parallel power structure, an essential part of the daily management of a well-organized society. But invisible to anyone outside of the village.

DSC01286Devil dancer in Nyala Ngiema

This morning the spirit of an old village man departed this earth. Although everybody is aware of this nobody weeps because his death is not yet official. First, the chief Musa Kallon and members of the secret society will perform the proper rites, so that the deceased makes a peaceful transition to the afterlife. Without touching the body an Ebola test is taken. “That lesson we have learned,” said Musa Kallon. “Soon after the beginning of the outbreak, I told my people not to touch dead bodies and not to shake hands. We took those measures because there were no aid workers. “

DSC01397The play begins

Today in the community hall the villagers perform a play that will show how the epidemic struck Njala Giema. Tears appear in the eyes of the chief when weeping women throw themselves on a fictional Ebola corpse. Musa Kallon’s wife was one of the first victims. Spectators look sombre, the devil dancers do not move, the play has become real. The village has 500 inhabitants, 89 were in 2014 infected by Ebola, of whom 68 died.

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Give value to the spirits in the fight against ebola

Roadblock in Sierra Leone

“Mi no dae” – I do not want to die – says Alpha through the window of the isolation room. The doctor of the small hospital in Yele, a little town in the heart of Sierra Leone, tries to comfort her. But the doctor knows her chances of survival are small: Alpha has diarrhoea, blood in her stool and she vomits. All symptom of ebola.

Yesterday, Alpha and five other suspected ebola patients were brought from neighbouring Maraka to the hospital. One of them died last night. Several weeks ago, the first ebola workers travelled over the dirt road, lined with long grass and towering palms, to Maraka village to spread the news. None of the 700 inhabitants took them seriously. Not even when a little boy died. They buried him in the dead of night, many villagers touched his body. Then his brother became ill too, followed by his mother.

It’s dead silent in Maraka. Terror has stuck. This morning the deceased child’s grandmother died. Ebola, the invisible enemy, has become real. Everyone hides indoors. “Finally they believe us,” grumbles an ebola officer dressed in plastic jacket and helmet.

Village head Fodo Tulli, who wears an orange hat decorated with two tassels, peeks through a wooden shutter. The ebola workers persuade him to gather his people under the big mango tree, where he sits on a bench. Some bewildered men rally around, each keeping a distance from one other. “Are you infected?” whispers one to the other. When the ebola officers tell them everyone could be infected and everybody should stay home for three weeks, some people start to grumble. “I still have to get the harvest in,” protests an old man.

Villagers are being told by ebola workers that Maraka has been hit by ebola              The head of the village calls a meeting. The ebola workers on the left inform the inhabitants of Maraka, while keeeping a distance


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