After surviving Ebola, Maseray Kamara made a vow to restore the dignity of women who die of the disease. She is now one of the first female undertakers in Sierra Leone.

I am an Ebola survivor. My husband and my sister are not. They are among the 3,900 Ebola victims who have died in Sierra Leone in the year since the epidemic began.

I am also one of the first female undertakers in Sierra Leone.

In November last year, I travelled to Freetown see my family. While there, I visited a long-time friend, who didn’t know that he was in the early stages of Ebola. Shortly afterwards, I developed a fever. I was terrified when stomach cramps and vomiting hit me. I called 117 – the national Ebola hotline – and an ambulance soon arrived. Fallay and Issa felt ill, too, but they refused to come with me to the hospital. “No one comes back from the Ebola ward,” they said. “It is a death sentence.” How I regret not convincing them to get in that ambulance.

When I was suffering from Ebola last year, I was scared like anyone who contracts the virus. I experienced stomach cramp, vomiting, diarrhoea, severe headaches, skin rash and general body pain.

I was in the treatment centre fighting Ebola for one month and one day. I watched nurses trying to manage the mayhem. They lacked plastic gloves to care for contagious patients let alone to clean the floors slick with vomit and faeces. They tossed food at us like prisoners for fear of touching the contaminated. Orderlies piled the dead in a corner, often dropping corpses on their heads. My heart broke as I was seeing female corpses lying down on the floor, naked, exposed, with no one to protect their dignity in death. It was like abuse. I wanted to honour the memory of these people. As I lost my husband and sister to the virus before I survived, it inspired me to do the work I do now.

When I was there I took an oath to God that if He protects me and I survive, I must serve humanity and give maximum respect to women who die of this disease.

Widowed. Unemployed. Unemployable. Ebola survivor. My new identity. At 53, I had two grandchildren to raise, but no one would hire me. Neighbours shunned me, blaming me for spreading the disease. While I was in hospital, they burned the goods I had bought to sell in the local market. My landlord threatened to evict me.

In December, I heard that World Vision was hiring workers to conduct safe and dignified burials for Ebola victims and others. As a survivor, I am immune to the disease and faced less risk. I recalled my promise to God and to my sisters on the hospital floor. I was the first woman Ebola survivor to join the team.

Traditionally, only male undertakers are allowed to bury the dead in Sierra Leone, but it is unacceptable here for a man to dress a female corpse. This meant families were not calling the centre to report burials, especially for female victims, out of fear that their corpses will not be given a dignified burial. But now there are six burial teams and 12 women working at World Vision, so it is the responsibility of the women to go into the house and dress the female victims.

The integration of me and other women into the burial teams has given more confidence to bereaved families, which has had a great impact. The command centre is receiving more calls because there is now maximum respect and honour for this loved one who has died. I believe victims of this disease deserve respect to the grave.

The president once said about the outbreak of Ebola that it is an extraordinary time, which needs extraordinary measures. Looking at this organisation, we took that to mean respect and honour should be given to our fallen heroes. After I survived, I took an oath to serve humanity, to serve the fallen heroes. It is a promise and I am fulfilling it. But the challenges are great and many, especially the stigmatisation by the communities I serve. Landlords have driven me out three times because they say I am an Ebola survivor and think they must not go near me. People also move away from me at social gatherings, and some traders refuse to sell me goods at the market thinking they will contract the virus if we exchange money. Despite these risks, I have the confidence that I cannot contract the virus a second time, and I have all the materials to keep me protected.

Being confronted with death every day is hard, and obviously very sad. But I cannot think of doing anything else after my experience. It feels good to help other families – this is my motivation every day.

Surviving the Ebola virus made me this kind of person, and I am grateful every day of my life. It is like a rebirth, and I have vowed to live for other people in my second life.

I am honoured to win this humanitarian award. I have been working in silence to help other people, and never considered having any recognition, so to get this award is like a dream. I just hope that it will encourage other women to help with the burial teams.

Source:  – The Guardian