Break with tradition: ebola prevention and burial customs

An outbreak of the deadly ebola virus in DR Congo has highlighted how deeply-held burial customs can all too easily clash with disease prevention efforts.

As reported in France24, aid agencies in the country have adopted the practice of sanitised burials of those killed by the virus in an effort to reduce new cases of infection.

But in a culture where the body of a loved-one is often seen or touched prior to burial, this break with tradition has been met with resistance rising to outright hostility.

The current ebola outbreak – the second-largest recorded after the epidemic which struck West Africa in 2014 – is already at risk of spiralling out of control in the conflict-ridden state, raising fears it could spread to neighbouring countries.

Obtaining the consent of local communities to follow strict disease prevention protocol will be a crucial part of stemming the current epidemic.

Tangiers International operates across sub-Saharan Africa and is acutely aware of how social or religious customs can conflict with the demands of public health or local law.

Hafiz Ibrahim, a Tangiers field agent working across Sudan and South Sudan, explained that burial customs were often seen as sacrosanct across the various communities which populated this corner of Northeast Africa.

He said: “In Sudan, most people are Muslim so they are obliged to follow Islamic rules when it comes to burial. Essentially, burial should take place as soon as possible. It is also customary for the family to wash the body before it is buried.

“Of course, if the death is due to an infectious disease like ebola this can cause a big problem.”

Hafiz explained that potential conflict over burial customs could often be avoided by obtaining the backing of community elders or religious leaders.

“We usually talk to the imams – the Islamic leaders in the community – about the necessity of not following traditional customs in this particular case.

“In Islam, there are many things you are not supposed to do, but when there is a  necessity, you can obtain permission to disobey them.

“The imams are usually very accommodating. They will talk to the families and convince them that, yes, there is a tradition, but there is also a public health risk.

“Of course, there is sometimes some friction, but at the end of the day, if we have the support of the elders we can get things done.”

The cultural sensitivities that can be inflamed around death and burials are not limited to the spread of infectious diseases.

Death investigations, international regulations on the repatriation of mortal remains and even local laws governing compensation to the deceased’s family can all rub up against local customs.

In a region such as South Sudan where burial customs may differ from tribe to tribe, community engagement is even more crucial. Hafiz explained that understanding the etiquette around burial helps him to build trust with grieving community members.

“My own way of approaching this is to contact the family directly and pay my condolences in the traditional way,” he said.

“This might mean visiting the graveyard and saying dua [prayer for the deceased] with the family, speaking to the elders of the community, ensuring that I have their support before discussing Tangiers International’s assistance and ultimately settling the claim.”


Photo credit: Julien Harneis (CC 2.0)