Interview with Peter Konteh,
Executive Director of Caritas Freetown, Sierra Leone
In West Africa the Ebola epidemic claimed thousands of victims in 2014. From Guinea it spread to the neighbouring countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia. It mainly affected the capitals and the border regions between the countries. Thanks to national and international aid, the number of new cases is now falling. Peter Konteh, priest and Caritas Director of the Archdiocese of Freetown in Sierra Leone, experienced the Ebola crisis at first hand. Talking with the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need, which has funded a number of aid programmes, he reported on what he had experienced.
- When did you first hear about the recent spread of the Ebola virus?
Caritas Director Peter Konteh: “Officially Ebola was confirmed in Sierra Leone in May 2014. It had begun in the neighbouring country of Guinea. A doctor from our region was there to examine someone. She then became infected herself. After her return she treated other women and thus spread the virus further. Neither our health system nor those responsible in government and Church were ready for what then followed. The first two or three months surprised everyone.”
- What was the first thing you did?
Caritas Director Peter Konteh: “We looked for strategies because initially little was known about the disease. We had to learn a lot so as to keep the people informed and to sensitise them to the problem; after all, 60 per cent of the population are illiterate. Every day there were broadcasts over the radio. We also used megaphones to inform the people, and we went onto the market places and into the villages. It wasn’t easy to convince the people. Because the dead were initially buried without their relatives present, the rumour spread that they had been killed so that their organs could be sold. As a result relatives were allowed to attend the funerals and the Christian and Muslim community councils were involved, which eased the situation greatly.”
- What was the collaboration between the religious groups like?
Caritas Director Peter Konteh: “The relations between the religions are traditionally very, very good. This unity is one of our country’s strengths. Around 60 per cent of the Sierra Leoneans are Muslims and 30 per cent are Christians. 10 per cent are adherents of the traditional African religions. Although the Catholics are in the minority, the church enjoys great respect because many Sierra Leoneans have attended Catholic schools. Numerous Catholic priests are converts, and two of our bishops have parents who are practising Muslims.”
- How did you finally manage to contain the Ebola virus?
Caritas Director Peter Konteh: “It became very clear that this was a virus which demands decisive measures. There was a lot of support, both international and local. A country which only had 8 ambulances now has more than 200. The international community recognised the dimension of the danger. Testimony to this are the invitations I have received to report to the US Senate on my experience, and in the British parliament on the role of pastoral workers in the fight against Ebola.”
- What do you mean by the “role of pastoral workers?”
Caritas Director Peter Konteh: “When the Ebola virus broke out, no-one thought about pastoral workers. But then the government realised that Muslims and Christians together make up more than 80 per cent of the population. When someone dies the pastoral workers are important, and not only for the funeral ceremony. They exercise considerable influence. They talk to the relatives and comfort them. And when someone is sick they are called to pray and to heal. These are essential aspects of our service. In addition there are the large number of traumatised individuals who seek help and want to talk to a pastoral worker about their depressions. Pastoral workers get through to and accompany people in their difficulties and sufferings. In the fight against Ebola they therefore certainly played a key role.”
- What was everyday lifelike during the crisis months?
Caritas Director Peter Konteh: “When I woke in the morning and looked at the back of the house, I could see the newly deceased being brought in for burial, about 50 a day. When I stood at the front window I looked out on to the Ebola treatment centre. On the way to my office I met people, starving people, people seeking comfort. Day after day it wasn’t easy. And then there was the pressing concern about the orphans. There are now more than 800 in our region, and in the whole country there must be around 8,000. At the present time we are setting up three emergency centres where we will be able to provide the children with the absolute necessities. We are looking for their families; but many children have lost all their relatives. About 8,000 people have died of Ebola in the whole country.”
- What is the present situation?
Caritas Director Peter Konteh: “It’s still too early to rejoice, even if the number of newly infected has fallen considerably. Thanks to international aid we now have a sufficient number of treatment centres. We, and that means 30 full-time helpers and around 120 community volunteers, are very, very grateful for this support. The government has now announced that the schools are to be reopened on 31 March, but there will still be some time before things return to normal. Business life and farming are severely impaired. Sierra Leone therefore needs further support, even though we have already received a lot. On account of Ebola medical treatment has improved considerably and we must ensure that this continues to be the case after the crisis. But we are already concerned that we will be forgotten again when the cameras are finally switched off.”
- What was your most depressing experience?
Caritas Director Peter Konteh: “I’ll mention two which still cause me sleepless nights. One of our tasks was to visit the quarantine house to supply the people there with food. One day we encountered a child of about two years old who was alone there with four dead bodies. We reported this to enable the doctors to take care of the child. We were there again later but the child had already died. This still haunts me today because I sense I should have intervened earlier. And one of our women co-workers lost her whole family: parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, a total of 27 individuals. We tried to comfort her in her pain and told her that we were now her family.”