Salimatu Bangura was wearing her favourite ‘meeting clothes’ when I snapped her on the outskirts of Freetown. Ribbon lace is something you don’t see enough of these days, but Sal reinvents the classic 80’s mother-of-the-bride go-to, with this elegant page boy collared cream blouse. The unexpected combination of a pink and grey Mende lappa and matching head wrap ties the whole thing up nicely while the gold jewellery adds a touch of lux.
Salimatu’s meeting was in fact a gathering of Freetown’s traditional healers. Known commonly as witch doctors, they are often the first port of call for those seeking medical attention in Sierra Leone.
In times of Ebola though, the role of a witch doctor has changed drastically and their lives have been vastly affected. Communities are now being told to not visit traditional healers because it is un safe to touch people with Ebola symptoms without the protection of PPE. Most traditional healers are complying with the new by-law to not treat sick patients and are referring them to health clinics or calling the emergency line 117.
The first case of Ebola in Sierra Leone can be traced back to a traditional healer who had been treating sick people in Kenema district. In May 2014 a well-known and widely respected trad healer was seeing patients who travelled from over the border in Guinea (where the outbreak was already raging). Not surprisingly the healer became infected with Ebola and died. Mourners turned up in droves to her traditional burial, a practice which involves touching and kissing the body of the deceased. It was estimated that that one funeral can be linked to 365 deaths.
The Ebola outbreak has meant that Salimatu and hundreds like her are currently unemployed, “Ebola has taken my money”, but it has also placed this group at the frontline of the community response. Without the co-operation of traditional healers Ebola will continue to spread.