Democratic Republic of Congo

Terror Outweighs Tradition: Confronting an Ebola Outbreak in DRC

As an ongoing ebola outbreak halts daily life in eastern DRC, Senior Reporter and columnist Merveille Kavira Lunghe reflects on local customs.

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Terror Outweighs Tradition: Confronting an Ebola Outbreak in DRC

Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC

Prior to the ebola outbreak in a neighboring territory, community members in Kirumba would dress and perfume the dead before carrying the coffin to its grave.

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KIRUMBA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — A cosmic and tribal brotherhood has always been an integral part of life for the Nande, my people.

We live together. We share. We always greet our own with a hug and a handshake. We spend our evenings sitting and talking.

On one recent evening, when I was visiting my grandfather’s house, the neighbors gathered to talk and drink our famed local banana brew, kasiksi.

We passed a single container, as is our custom, each of us looking like we were taking a turn at the mic.

Our kinship is also on display during funeral rituals. We wash, perfume and dress our dead before putting them in their coffins. The whole community accompanies the coffin to the grave, with a keen understanding that this will be a shared fate for us all.

But all of our rituals came to a halt in August, when the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization declared an outbreak of Ebola in the neighboring Beni territory.

Ebola is a highly contagious hemorrhagic fever with no cure. Fatality rates range from 60 to 90 percent. Locals trace the outbreak to two young children who ate a dead cat. A few days later, their parents say, fever, diarrhea and eruptions of blood overtook their children. So far, more than 100 deaths have been recorded since August 6. Authorities say containment is “difficult.”

As of this writing, there has been one death in Lubero, where I live and work. But the man was from Beni.

As this side of DRC deals with an ebola outbreak, we are eschewing our prized cultural values in order to preserve their health.

Hugs and handshakes are too risky now. When we meet our brothers in the streets we stand at a distance, hands behind our backs, lamenting the terror that is ebola. Our church services stopped offering baptism. Too much contact. Too much risk.

And today, we don’t pass our evenings sharing kasiksi. When someone dies, I wonder if we will honor their corpse with the dressing it deserves.

Ebola has brutally imposed a new way of life here. The solidarity of our ancestral values have taken a back seat to our desire to survive.

Ndahayo Sylvestre, GPJ, translated the column from French.