The funeral of Ibrahim Kyeyunepere, a 30-year-old motorcycle mechanic and father of two daughters, will take place far from traditional rituals, with reunion of the extended family and hugs. Only a handful of relatives are present to help dig up the family’s historic land at Kasazi B village in Kassanda district.
This district in central Uganda, and the neighboring district of Mubende, are the epicenters of the recent Ebola outbreak, which was made official by the Ugandan government on September 20. It has since claimed 53 lives, according to official figures dated November 6.
The virus had not been spotted in this East African country since 2019. “At first we thought it was a joke or witchcraft, but when we started seeing bodies, we realized it was real and that Ebola could kill”says Bonaventura Senyonga.
Since mid-October, the two districts have been confined, with a night curfew, a ban on private travel and the closure of public places. The virus was reported in the capital Kampala, 120 kilometers from Kassanda.
“We are scared. Ebola has shocked us beyond belief. We see and feel death every day”says Yoronemu Nakumanyanga, the uncle of Ibrahim Kyeyunepere. “I know that when the body arrives, people in the neighborhood will run away, thinking that Ebola is spreading through the air”he adds.
The virus is transmitted through bodily fluids – with symptoms of fever, vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding – but anxiety and misinformation fuel irrational behavior.
“I saw them die”
Before the psychosis, recklessness posed a great challenge to the government of Uganda, a country of 47 million people.
Despite official warnings, relatives of Ebola victims have sometimes exhumed buried bodies under medical supervision to perform traditional rituals, causing peaks in contamination.
In other cases, patients have sought help from traditional doctors rather than going to health facilities. This worrying trend last month prompted President Yoweri Museveni to order healers to stop taking in suffering people.
Authorities have set up isolation and treatment tents in rural villages so that people can quickly access care.
Brian Bright Ndawula and three members of his family delayed getting tested. This 42-year-old trader from Mubende is now the only survivor. His wife, four-year-old son and aunt died.
“When we were advised to go to the hospital for an Ebola test, we were afraid that we would be placed in quarantine”, he says.
It was when their health deteriorated and the doctor treating them also began to show symptoms that he realized they had contracted the virus.
“I saw them die. I knew I was next but God intervened and saved my life”he sighs, eaten away by regret at having delayed the screening: “My wife, my child and my aunt would be alive if we had gone to see the Ebola team soon enough”.
Survivors like Brian Bright Ndawula are now working to raise awareness against Ebola, sharing their painful experiences but also remembering that an infected person can be cured with rapid treatment.
Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng has urged recovered patients in Mubende to spread the message that “Anyone showing signs of Ebola should not run away from medical personnel but rather run to them”: “If you run away with Ebola, it will kill you”.
Hadson Kunsa, who contracted the disease while treating patients with the virus, remembers being terrified when he learned of his diagnosis. “I begged God to give me a second chance and told God that I will leave Mubende after my recovery”he says.
But he could not bring himself to do so: “I will not leave Mubende and I will not betray these people when they are in the greatest need”.
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Mourning and anguish at the epicenter of Ebola in Uganda
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