Fear and resilience in Uganda’s Ebola epicenter

Fear and resilience in Uganda’s Ebola epicenter


As Ugandan farmer Bonaventura Senyonga prepares to bury his grandson, age-old traditions are forgotten and fear hangs in the air as a government medical team prepares the body for burial — the latest victim of Ebola in the East African nation.

Saying goodbye to the dead is rarely a quiet affair in Uganda, where the bereaved seek solace in the embrace of parishioners who gather in their homes to mourn the loss together.

Instead, 80-year-old Senyonga is accompanied by just a handful of relatives as he digs a grave on the family’s ancestral land, surrounded by banana trees.

“At first we thought it was a hoax or witchcraft, but when we started seeing dead bodies, we realized that this is real and that Ebola can kill,” Senyonga told AFP.

His 30-year-old grandson, Ibrahim Kyeyune, was a father of two girls and worked as a motorcycle mechanic in the central district of Kassanda, which, along with neighboring Mubende, is at the epicenter of Uganda’s Ebola crisis.

Both districts have been under lockdown since mid-October, with a morning-to-evening curfew, a ban on personal travel and closed public places.

The resurgence of the virus after three years has sparked fear in Uganda. Now cases have been reported in the capital Kampala as the highly contagious disease makes its way through the country of 47 million people.

A total of 53 people, including children, have died in more than 135 cases, according to the latest figures from the Ugandan Ministry of Health.

In Kassanda’s impoverished village of Kasazi B, everyone is afraid, says Kyeyune’s uncle Yoronemu Nakumanyanga.

“Ebola shocked us beyond what we imagined. We see and feel death every day,” he told AFP at his nephew’s grave.

“I know when the body finally arrives, people in the neighborhood will run away because they think the Ebola virus is airborne,” he said.

Ebola isn’t airborne — it spreads through body fluids, with common symptoms including fever, vomiting, bleeding, and diarrhea.

But misinformation remains rife and poses a major challenge.

In some cases, victims’ relatives have exhumed their bodies after medically supervised burials to perform traditional rituals, leading to a rise in infections.

In other cases, patients have turned to witch doctors for help instead of going to a health facility – a worrying trend that led President Yoweri Museveni last month to order traditional healers to stop treating sick people.

“We are committed to the fight against Ebola and have followed President Museveni’s directive to close our shrines for the time being,” said Wilson Akulirewo Kyeya, a traditional herbalist leader in Kassanda.

– ‘I saw her die’ –

Authorities are trying to expand health facilities in the countryside by setting up isolation and treatment tents in villages so communities can access medical care quickly.

But the fear of Ebola runs deep.

Brian Bright Ndawula, a 42-year-old merchant from Mubende, was the sole survivor of four family members diagnosed with the disease and lost his wife, aunt and four-year-old son.

“When we were advised to go to the hospital for an Ebola test, we feared going into isolation … and being detained,” he told AFP.

But when her condition worsened and the doctor treating her at the private clinic also showed the first symptoms, he realized that she had contracted the dreaded virus.

“I saw her die and I knew I was next, but God intervened and saved my life,” he said, consumed with regret at his decision to postpone the test.

“My wife, child and aunt would have been alive if we had contacted the Ebola team early enough.”

– ‘Greatest Hour of Need’ –

Today, survivors like Ndawula have become a powerful weapon in Uganda’s fight against Ebola and share their experiences as a cautionary tale, but also a reminder that patients can survive if treated early.

Health Secretary Jane Ruth Aceng urged recovered patients in Mubende to spread the message: “Anyone showing signs of Ebola should not run away from medical staff, but approach them because if you run away with Ebola, it will kill you.”

It’s a commitment that many in this community have taken to heart.

Doctor Hadson Kunsa, who contracted the disease while treating Ebola patients, told AFP he was scared when he received his diagnosis.

“I begged God to give me a second chance and told God I will leave Mubende after my recovery,” he said.

But he said he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

“I will not leave Mubende and betray these people in their greatest need.”

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