Lection Connection - Spirit Sightings

February 2, 2020: Blessed

From Sandra Rooney

We haven’t heard much about Ebola since the 2013–16 outbreak that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa. We’re more likely to hear about the armed militias, the continued fighting and kidnapping, and the killing of aid workers. Fortunately, a highly effective vaccine has been developed and treatments are improving.  Nevertheless, in remote villages of eastern Congo, where massacres and kidnappings by militia groups continue, the current Ebola epidemic has infected at least 3,200 people and killed 2,200 over the last year and a half. Villagers often distrust the Ebola responders and resist treatment.

Take the example of a man who got sick last fall in the isolated village of Butiaba. His family did what the radio announcements said they should do and reported his illness. When he died at the clinic 50 miles away, his grieving family reluctantly agreed to allow him to be buried there, “in a cemetery with strangers.” Back in Butiaba, however, the chief, not knowing about the arrangements, already had a grave dug. And an open grave was considered a bad omen. The situation became so heated they decided they would no longer allow Ebola responders in their community.  

That’s when Dr. Julienne Anoko, a Sorbonne-trained anthropologist from Cameroon, working with the World Health Organization in Mombasa, was called in. She is tasked with heading off conflict between the Ebola responders and the communities they’re trying to help. Her basic approach is to talk less and listen more. As she tells her colleagues, “Disease outbreaks are often social crises as much as they are health emergencies.”  

“What people want in times of suffering is empathy and compassion,” she says. Often what they get is impersonal directives from some distant bureaucracy, with no understanding of local mores and customs. Dr. Anoko works to change that. When people complained that the dead were being disrespected and carried roughly, she got into a body bag and asked to be carried in order to understand their complaints. After she instructed the teams to carry the bodies more gently, the people stopped objecting.

She also came to understand why the people often didn’t trust the outsiders who came into their villages. They arrived driving new SUVs, booked hotel rooms, and built fine treatment centres, neglecting crumbing public hospitals. It turned out what they wanted was to be involved. They wanted to dig the graves for their loved ones. They want to be hired to help with safe Ebola burials. “We don’t know these people who are taking our families away,” they said. They wanted to do the building of the clinic, saying that a place built “by the sweat of their women would be sacred.”

Back in Butiaba, the village with the empty grave, they requested “50 kilos of rice, enough neon-red palm oil to fill a bathtub and a goat.” The chief explained that they would perform a ceremonial burial to make amends to the spirits angered by the open grave. Then they would celebrate the man’s life with a party. “It’s easy to forget that Ebola cases aren’t just numbers,” Dr. Anoko says. “They are people, people we are meeting at the worst moments of their lives.”

Explore…Matthew 5:1–12

  • What was Jesus trying to say to his followers with these words n Matthew?
  • What words might he use today with those of us who seek to follow him?
  • How might behaviours such as Dr. Anoko’s be instructive for us today?

Prayer links…
We seek to understand what it means to live as Jesus would have us live. Our world seems so different from his. Help us to understand what it means to be fully human, recognize our limitations and use our differing gifts and strengths responsibly. Amen.

Learn more…
Congo Ebola crisis


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