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.
Devil 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. “
The 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.