RETURNING from the orphanage, I was left trying to take in all
the images of the many children who had so very little. Some just
had a toothbrush and a small, dirty, worn-out teddy.
I found two children, about 18 months old, who had lost their
parents to the Ebola virus two weeks earlier. One was actually
found in the gutter of a road. Nearly all the children were Ebola
survivors, or orphans of parents who had died from the disease. I
thought, along with the soldiers who had accompanied me, "Where is
God in all this mess?"
The Ebola virus has ripped through the land, a bit like an Old
Testament plague. Historically, this beautiful country has seen so
much horror before, losing many of its people to slavery just over
200 years ago, to the recent bloody civil war, to the struggle
against HIV and malaria, and now to Ebola.
Despite this, the churches remain full, and the mosques are
packed, with everyone praying desperately for an end to this
vicious, deadly virus. As the Deputy Chief Imam of the Republic of
the Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) ran up to me to welcome me on
my return to this country, I realised that this is the only place
where I have found a real sense of togetherness across the
The no-touch policy meant that we could only slap our chests
instead as a greeting. With a 70-per-cent Muslim population, you
would never believe that the Chief Christian Chaplain would be able
to lead an RSLAF battalion, just back from recent operations in
Somalia, in saying the Lord's Prayer, but he did - and everyone
Churches across the country and around the world have prayed
that God would deliver Sierra Leone and West Africa from this
disease. The 400-strong church next to our army camp, where 200
children attend Sunday school, is no different, and they pray
desperately for an end to Ebola.
Within days of landing on African soil, where it was dry season
and there'd been no rain for two months, I saw the black
stormclouds gather, and suddenly the land was unusually soaked with
rain. It felt like a small miracle, as if God was saying that the
country was being washed and cleansed. From that day, incredibly,
the numbers of new Ebola cases started to drop significantly.
BACK at camp, the duty phone rang. "Padre, it's the CO. We have
another death at the KTTU (Kerry Town Treatment Unit). How quickly
can you get here?"
Within 20 minutes, I was back at KTTU making my way across the
Ebola Virus Treatment facility in the intense heat, with my
"buddy", the Sergeant Major, and heading towards the changing area.
Grabbing a bottle of icy cold water from the fridge to hydrate
myself, I was soon changed into my extra-long scrubs and white
Having checked my temperature, and hands for any scratches, my
hydration, and been to the loo, I was good to go.
We made our way to the donning area to put on the Personal
Protection Equipment (PPE), at the entrance to the red "danger"
zone of the unit. En route, from the green to the yellow zone, we
had to wash our hands yet again in chlorine. Your hands permanently
smell of chlorine.
Then, unexpectedly, we walked into the family of an Ebola
patient who had just died. They had come for their daily visit, and
were thrown into a state of shock and grief, not expecting to see,
before their own eyes, their loved one die.
I shared brief words of condolence, and said a short prayer, as
we were keen to get the body to the mortuary in the heat of the
day. The family had made a long journey, taking three taxis from
Freetown, but at least the father just got to see and speak to his
young son before he died. The heartbroken sister tried to control
her tears, but the grief was too intense.
The young man seemed OK the day before, when I had chatted to
him and his sister. We had prayed, and she sang a hymn. But today
it could not have been more different. The man had suddenly
deteriorated during the night.
AS I DUG deeper into their story, it was yet another set of sad
circumstances. As someone said, the superhighway to the spread of
Ebola has been compassion and kindness. So often someone had rushed
to help a family member, or agreed to babysit for a child who had
Ebola, or had been to a funeral, and, in so doing, contracted
The family graciously thanked the courageous doctors and nurses
who had worked tirelessly in extreme conditions. "It must be God's
will," said one of the brothers, holding his large preacher's
Bible. I was less convinced, as I found myself complaining to God
that this was the outcome.
It was a tragic end, but there was something special about this
particular family. They certainly had a deep faith, and all
genuinely trusted in Jesus Christ. They clearly had hope that he
had gone to heaven. They knew he would have a better life with
Jesus for eternity, and looked for the day when they would meet
again. "We must give God the glory," another family member said,
and they all said "Amen".
The family, clutching nothing but a photograph and memories,
drifted off. The world had just collapsed around them, but they
walked in faith talking and praying aloud to Jesus as they went. I
was able to put the taxi fare into the sister's hand to get them
home, thanks to all those back home who had donated money for such
PULLING myself together, I joined the "Care of the Dead" team to
get ready to enter the red zone. It normally took about 15 minutes.
Today it was at the hottest part of the day, and it was sweltering.
Sweat was pouring off us, and my scrubs were damp even before we
had put on the protective gear.
I found my PPE suit, the visor, the mouth mask, the apron, the
two pairs of gloves, and the hair net. In buddy pairs we slowly and
carefully donned the gear, all done to specific drills. The
temperature rose rapidly and my breathing rate soon increased. It
felt more claustrophobic than usual - it was the heat.
The CSM completed a final check, and in the same way I checked
him, to see that all the kit was fitted correctly. Finally, using a
black marker we wrote the time of entry on to our aprons, and the
CSM wrote Padre on my apron. He liked to draw a cross, too.
I was hoping he might have written "Simon", to give me some
sense of personality, but I was going to face only a dead body
rather than a patient; so it didn't matter. The PPE completely
takes away our humanness, and almost manages to transform us into
WE TOOK down the plastic chain, and entered the red zone. The heat
was penetrating. Black body-bag in hand, we walked through to where
the deceased lay on the bed. To see him, now dead, was a shock to
us all, given that we had been talking with him only a few hours
earlier. His face was left visible between the sheets.
The two medics and the CSM respectfully bowed their heads before
the young man, as if on military parade. It was the cue for me to
lead prayers. We all knew the drills. Almost at a whisper, knowing
there were patients in the next tent also with Ebola, I asked God
to graciously receive this young man into his Kingdom, to be at
rest for eternity.
All Sierra Leoneans have their own understanding of the
spiritual world, and, in addition, many believe in ghosts and
spirits. And there lies a serious concern for the spread of Ebola,
as the washing of the dead bodies and secret burials continue in
some places, and often it is at huge cost to the families.
Prayers finished, the drills for moving the dead patient took
over, including spraying everything with 0.5-per-cent chlorine. The
period around the time of death is one of the most dangerous for
the virus, as it then sheds itself. Sierra Leone has become a
rollercoaster of emotions for all the army personnel and everyone
who has volunteered to work in this country. Today was no
THE following day, the family returned, and a local burial team
arrived, headed by the Red Cross. I stood with the family in the
clean area, feeling as if we were on a science-fiction film-set.
Men in PPE suits transferred the body in a double body-bag from the
unit into the burial team's vehicle. I shared a further prayer, as
we all respectfully bowed our heads for the second time.
The father proudly showed me a photograph of his younger boy,
before turning away to try and hide his grief. As they left, the
family were given a hygiene kit to allow the family to clean their
home, and a few other bits of support and advice. We would probably
never see them again.
THANK God that the world woke up to this virus, and the
international community, along with the British armed forces, has
helped tackle Ebola. To see so many volunteers helping the people
of West Africa has been comforting.
God is in the mess. He always has been, and always will be. Why
would anyone doubt that? Without God there is no hope, there is no
future -and the African people know it.
Even those who have lost a loved one in such a horrific way are
seen to hang on to their faith and love of God, who remains above
all things and leads us from this world to the next, whenever that
I pray that God will heal Sierra Leone and West Africa of this
virus, and that the world helps these countries to put in place a
health-care system that is robust enough to prevent further
pandemic outbreaks in years to come.