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Protecting families at a time of celebration

While Guinea celebrates Eid, Red Cross is helping families to avoid contracting Ebola

Tuesday October 21, 2014

Protecting families at a time of celebration
In Guinea, Red Cross volunteers meet with residents to help them understand how Ebola is spread. Photo: IFRC/Moustapha Diallo

From nine o'clock in the morning, the call to prayer went out across Guinea. Muslims were invited to come together in fields, squares and mosques on Saturday to celebrate Eid Al-Adha, one of Islam's most important holidays, known as Tabaski in many parts of West Africa. But in the capital, Conakry, it was quiet on the usually busy roads. Many of the faithful stayed at home, taking note of the government's warning to avoid large gatherings in the wake of the Ebola virus disease outbreak. 

At five of the largest prayer sites across the capital, Ebola preventative measures were in place. Volunteers from the Red Cross Society of Guinea had set up barrel taps, filled to the brim with a carefully measured mix of water and chlorine. Dressed in their brightly coloured Tabaski-best, prayer mats tucked under arms or skillfully balanced on heads, worshippers bent as they washed their hands in the chlorinated solution, under the supervision of Red Cross volunteers.

"During Tabaski everyone normally spends time with their family," said Dr Facely Diawara, head of the health department at the Red Cross Society of Guinea. "But this is not business as usual. This year, many of our volunteers gave up their time so that others could enjoy a safer celebration."

At 10 o'clock the national sermon was delivered with one main message: to fight against the disease which has already killed over 700 people in the country. With the religious observances fulfilled, the party should have been about to begin - but this was Tabaski with a difference.

"Those of us who have mobile phones received text messages in the run up to the holiday," said Amadou, a medical student from Conakry. "The messages wished us a happy Tabaski, but told us to avoid touching each other during the traditional greetings to stop the spread of Ebola. I know it's necessary, although it does feel a bit strange not to embrace my family during this time of Eid."

The text messages were from Guinea's National Commission against Ebola, of which the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the Red Cross Society of Guinea are both part. The intention was to harness modern technology to change - temporarily - age-old behaviours during the religious holiday, which could spread the deadly disease. A second message from the Commission advocated hand washing as often as possible, in anticipation of the slaughtering of sheep - a traditional rite of Eid - and the sharing of the meat between neighbours, before preparing and sitting down to enjoy the feast together.

Regardless of the holiday, life, and death continues in Guinea. Volunteers from the Red Cross Society of Guinea have safely managed 97 per cent of burials in their country since the outbreak began. The disease, however, undermines the very foundations of long standing traditions, including burial practices. If text messages and modern technology can help spread advice, when it comes to fostering understanding and acceptance, there are few replacements for talking through things face-to-face. Hundreds of Red Cross volunteers have gone door-to-door in their respective communities to explain their solemn task of burying the dead without ceremony, to protect the community at large.

"Not being able to touch, wash and prepare the body of a family member may seem inhumane," says Dr Diawara. "But we need to get the message out that by protecting yourself from Ebola, you protect your family from the disease too, and that, in itself, is an act of love."

Helena Humphrey, IFRC. First published on IFRC website.

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