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Ebola +1: The Burial Teams

The "Unsung Heroes" of the Ebola Crisis are re-integrated into their communities

Story by United Nations Sierra Leone May 26th, 2017

when ebola came

to Sierra Leone, traditional burial practices contributed to its rapid spread. Touching and washing dead bodies, which is typically done by female relatives, meant exposure when the body was at its most contagious.

That is when the Safe and Dignified Burial Teams (SDB) stepped in. These volunteers (2300 in total) were trained in how to handle the body in a way that was both safe and approved by cultural and religious leaders. It was a dangerous work and many many were ostracized by their communities both because of the new, nontraditional burial methods and because friends and families feared the volunteers carried the virus themselves.

Burying up to twenty bodies a day at the peak of the epidemic, they worked from early morning to late evening, often without breaks or food.

December, 2014: A burial team member collects the body of a suspected Ebola victim. UN Photo/Martine Perret
December, 2014: The team suits up to remove the body of an Ebola victim. UN Photo/Martine Perret

the road to recovery

After the outbreak, UNDP and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, with support from the Government of Finland through the Ebola Multi-Partner Trust Fund, collaborated to give these volunteers the skills they needed to reintegrate in their communities and be able to make a living.
With funding from the Government of Finland, the project to date has seen a total of 402 volunteers entered into vocational training, 462 volunteers supported in business development ,374 into tertiary eduction and 62 into internships and career advisory services. Support for the program among beneficiaries, their families and community members is encouraging.
"The majority of the burial team members lost their jobs during Ebola; schools were shut, universities closed and people lost their businesses. We want to help them return to the lives they had before the outbreak.’ UNDP Project Manager, Lynda Buckowski
Sanpha, Ibrahim, Abdulai and Ibrahim are former burial team members, now plumbers
‘My father lost his job and then soon after our home was gutted by fire. My father passed away soon after Ebola hit the country and I became the sole bread winner for my family of five. I volunteered for the Red Cross to provide for my family and now after the crisis they are helping me gain a new skill for employment. I am studying data analysis and I feel it will help me in the long run’- Onikeh, SLRCS volunteer
Onikeh volunteered during Ebola.
Leveraging UNDP’s recent partnership with ECOBANK, the project also encourages financial literacy and inclusion amongst all 1,300 volunteers.
"Because of this project, more people found out about the possibility of taking out small loans to start a business. They also learned the basics of personal finance, which means they can make smarter financial decisions and start saving money for future projects." -Samai Rahman Bureh, ECOBANK
In the class room with Suliaman Koroma (centre) and Sumaila Lamboi (left) , both former SLRCS burial team members
‘In the beginning nobody wanted to know me or be my friend. I faced stigma every day. Thanks to the Red Cross and UNDP my community has been educated and have now welcomed me back’- Isatu Sesay , SLRCS volunteer
Isatu Sesay (center), 25, with her Mother , Kadiatu Yillah (left) at home
IT skills is quickly becoming a sought after skill in Sierra Leone
Alhaji Kamara (left) wishes to pursue a career in Law following the support from UNDP
As part of an initiative to combat such stigma, the project provides psycho-social support in the form of one-on-one individual therapy, group counselling sessions and training on psychological first aid and stress coping mechanisms for the volunteers.
Placed within their communities, these sessions have to date helped over 53,880 male and female community members and has contributed to decreases in violence/disputes among the volunteers and increased acceptance by fellow community members.
Now, they feel they are being recognized for their efforts.
Sumalia Lamboi (centre) , former SLRCS burial team member , now studying IT skills in Freetown
Cyril Bockarie (left) and John Smith (right) former SLRCS volunteers , preparing for University exams in Freetown
Isatu Sesay , former SLRCS female burial team member
Sulaiman Koroma is one of the volunteers who has been able to fully re-integrate with his family.
Hesitant to approach him during the height of the infection, the community is now proud of his sacrifices and have welcomed him back.
Sulaiman with his niece Martha Ismail
Family time with Suliaman Koroma and his brother Gabriel Koroma
Frank Koroma, 88, with his son Sulaiman
Cyril Bockarie (far right), Alhaji Kamara (centre) and John Smith (far left) are all former burial team members with their sights set on attending university - a dream that now can become a possibility, thanks to the UNDP/IFRC project.
University Aspirations with Cyril Bockarie (far right) ,Alhaji Kamara (centre) and John Smith (far left) ( all early 20s) and former SLRCS burial team workers. .jpg
Footnote: Cover photo: UN Photo/Martine Perret. Photos of Onikeh and Plumbers by John Terry UNDP . All other photos by Olivia Acland, United Nations. To learn more please visit
Freetown, Western Area, Sierra Leone