Interview: Ebola - Sierra Leone

Local chiefs refuse to be blamed for spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone, interview

Photo: Daniel Finnan

The head of traditional leaders in Sierra Leone has defended local chiefs who have come under fire for not doing enough to prevent the spread of the deadly Ebola virus. President Ernest Bai Koroma warned traditional leaders that they must make greater efforts to help break the chain of transmission. RFI spoke to paramount chief Charles Caulker, chairman of the National Council of Paramount Chiefs.


Interview: Charles Caulker

Do you feel responsible for the continued Ebola epidemic especially in light of traditional burial practices and other measures not yet put into place?

No, but I sympathise with the situation. Ebola came as a surprise and traditional burial practices survived this nation for generations and generations. You cannot just change overnight and to say one person could be responsible for it, I think no. It’s because we were taken by surprise and with time we’ll probably begin to know what to do if ever we have anything like this again. And we’re trying now to cut down that sort of practice or to stop it.

What sort of effect does that have on society in Sierra Leone?

It does have a big impact because first of all when you talk of courtesy, it is always usual for Sierra Leoneans to give their loved ones their last courtesies or their last honour. Now we are trying to stop some of the practices it means that they are losing that behaviour to give honour to the dead. Moreover, it has different impacts - for example in traditional settings like ours - people claim rights through burials in a way. If you want to become a chief or something in the village, your claim to that village is also contingent on where your parents lie. Somebody could just come and say, ‘no, this man has no right - his parents were not buried here’. So these are some of the problems we have to face and these are problems we’ll have to face even after this Ebola crisis. Because we have to make it known to people that those who are not buried there is not because they haven’t tried to be buried there, but because of circumstances at the time. And we have to find every means possible to make sure they can locate their dead ones, where they were buried, because we have instances where people were not buried in their homes.

The president has threatened draconian measures against chiefdoms in the fight against Ebola. Do you think he’ll carry out this threat?

I don’t think so because there would be no cause for it in the very short run. I don’t see it as a threat. I see it as an empowerment. The president is very au fait with the fact that chiefs have the authority at the lowest level, they have that traditional, they can reprimand, they can punish for wrongs, for things done against bylaws, against society. In circumstances like this, I think it is only that type of authority that can put behaviour in the right context. Therefore, the president thinks the chiefs have not done much to put behaviour in the right context, not because he believes its their fault, but he believes that the complaints chiefs are now making, saying, ‘our jobs are being interfered with’, he says, ‘no, look I have given you the authority, put in place those bylaws, enforce them and if you enforce them I’m sure this thing will be something of the past in 21 days’. You don’t allow anyone to get in your way - it’s more or less an empowerment.

President Koroma has commended some chiefdoms for their vigilance against Ebola and admonished others. Is this fair of him to do so?

Maybe he’s just been stating the truth. I don’t think there’s any unfairness if you just state the truth. If there are chiefdoms which have not measured up, I think he has a right to say it. Apart from being the president, everybody has the right to say the truth.

Do you agree that higher infection rates in some areas can be equated with a lack of concrete action by local chiefs? For example, in Port Loko district or Bombali district.

I don’t want to blame it on chiefs entirely. Maybe there are some lapses, every human being has lapses, but I don’t want to blame it entirely on chiefs, there are many other things that could be responsible for it. The citizens themselves may be stubborn and considering that at some point in time this country lost focus of the importance of chieftaincy and the institution was marginalised. But under President Koroma we’re trying to build status, we try to give it a new status, a new focus. And I believe to get everyone on board to accept the position of chiefs and the authority they carry, it’s not easy. There are maybe lapses and in the circumstances you’ll have results like that. I don’t blame it entirely on them. Maybe, or perhaps, or yes, some chiefs have lapsed in their responsibility.

Do you think that maybe if the chiefs had been given more responsibility then this might have been contained earlier?

When you say given responsibility, if they had been encouraged to take on board their functions or an enabling environment had been created, provided for them to carry out their natural responsibilities, yes I think so, and if the resources were available. But don’t forget the fact that even the state was ill-prepared for this kind of thing. In terms of resources, it was not very easy to come by and get all the chiefdoms resources to carry out such a function. But you’re very correct to say, if at an earlier stage, everything being equal, then I think we would have gone far with that.

Do you feel as if you are getting enough support from the government, from the president?

Truly speaking, the actual support required for us to carry out our responsibilities is not coming by easily. We think some efforts must be made by the government and our international partners to help us because if they all acknowledge the fact that it is only us that has that authority at that level to contain some of these issues then they should try to match up that belief with providing chiefs enough resources to carry out their responsibilities.

Are there any traditional herbalists or so-called “pepper doctors” treating Ebola in the chiefdoms still?

I think that’s being cut down. But I believe some people will be treating, I don’t know whether it’s Ebola, but I can’t rule that out completely. Some herbalists or pepper doctors, but this is very hard to catch, might be treating patients whether for Ebola or something else. But that bylaw is saying for treatment of any sickness, it’s not limited to Ebola.

Is bush meat still being consumed?

To my knowledge no, but I cannot rule that out because I don’t have an eye to see everybody.

Anything that we’ve missed or anything you feel important to point out to our listeners?

I want to let them know that we have the traditional authority by customs, practice and statute to look after our people. The 1964 Local Councils Act says it is the tribal authority of the chiefdom, which includes myself, and the heads of traditional authorities to be responsible for the management of epidemics like this one. Therefore, I want them to understand that that is our role and they must accept it, be it the government, be it the people or be it international bodies. Because for now, everybody accepts or acknowledges that that is our role, but nobody has come out strongly, like government is doing now, to come and support us. So, I want them and our people to understand we’re now back on our functions and want all the support required to make us succeed so that we can be the foundation against future epidemics.

Interview originally broadcast on 9 November 2014

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