As Ugandan farmer Bonaventura Senyonga prepares to bury his grandson, ancient traditions are forgotten and fear is in the air as a government medical team prepares the body for funeral – the East African nation’s latest Ebola victim .
Saying goodbye to the dead is rarely a quiet affair in Uganda, where mourners seek comfort in the embrace of community members who gather in their homes to mourn their loss together.
Not this time.
Instead, Senyonga, 80, is accompanied by only 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 joke or witchcraft, but when we started seeing bodies, we realized that this is real and that Ebola can kill,” Senyonga told AFP.
His 30-year-old grandson, Ibrahim Kyeyune, was the father of two girls and worked as a motorcycle mechanic in central Kassanda district, which along with neighboring Mubende is at the epicenter of Uganda’s Ebola crisis.
Both districts have been in lockdown since mid-October, with a dawn-to-dusk curfew, a ban on personal travel and the closure of public places.
The reappearance of the virus after three years has raised fears in Uganda, with cases now reported in the capital Kampala, as the highly contagious disease makes its way through the country of 47 million people.
In total, 53 people have died, including children, from more than 135 cases, according to the latest figures from the Ugandan Ministry of Health.
In the impoverished Kasazi B village of Kassanda, everyone is afraid, says Yoronemu Nakumanyanga, Kyeyune’s uncle.
“Ebola has impacted us beyond what we imagined. We see and feel death every day,” he told AFP at his nephew’s grave.
“I know that when the body finally arrives, people in the neighborhood will start to flee, thinking that the Ebola virus is airborne,” he said.
Ebola is not airborne: it spreads through body fluids, and common symptoms include fever, vomiting, bleeding, and diarrhea.
But misinformation is still rife and poses a major challenge.
In some cases, relatives of victims exhumed their bodies after medically supervised burials to perform traditional rituals, leading to a spike in infections.
In other cases, patients have sought help from witch doctors rather than go to a health center, a worrying trend that led President Yoweri Museveni last month to order traditional healers to stop treating sick people.
“We have embraced the fight against Ebola and complied with President Museveni’s directive to close our sanctuaries for the time being,” said Wilson Akulirewo Kyeya, leader of traditional herbalists in Kassanda.
– ‘I watched them die’ –
Authorities are trying to expand rural health facilities, setting up isolation and treatment tents inside villages so communities can quickly access medical care.
But the fear of Ebola runs deep.
Brian Bright Ndawula, a 42-year-old trader from Mubende, was the sole survivor of four relatives who were diagnosed with the disease and lost his wife, aunt and four-year-old son.
“When we were advised to go to the hospital to get tested for Ebola, we were afraid of being isolated… and being arrested,” he told AFP.
But when their condition worsened and the doctor treating them at the private clinic also started showing symptoms, they realized they had contracted the dreaded virus.
“I watched them die and I knew I was next, but God stepped in and saved my life,” he said, consumed with regret over his decision to delay the trial.
“My wife, son and aunt would all be alive if we had approached the Ebola team soon enough.”
– ‘The greatest hour of need’ –
Today, survivors like Ndawula have become a powerful weapon in Uganda’s fight against Ebola, sharing their experiences as a warning, but also as a reminder that patients can survive if treated early.
Health Minister Jane Ruth Aceng urged recovered patients in Mubende to spread the message that “whoever shows signs of Ebola should not run away from medical workers, but run towards them, because if you run away with Ebola, it will kill you.” .
It is a company that many in this community have taken very seriously.
Dr Hadson Kunsa, who contracted the disease while treating Ebola patients, told AFP he was terrified when he was diagnosed.
“I begged God to give me a second chance and told God that I would leave Mubende after recovery,” he said.
But he explained that he did not dare to do so.
“I will not leave Mubende and betray these people in their time of greatest need.”