Seeing Ebola firsthand: Missionary shares her story
On October 6, 2014, Beatrice Gbanga, the United Methodist missionary and medical coordinator for the Sierra Leone Conference, served as an expert witness on the Ebola epidemic for some 50 clergy and laity who filled a meeting room at the North Texas Conference headquarters in Plano, near Dallas. United Methodist News Service reporter Sam Hodges asked her a series of questions about the hard realities those in West Africa are facing and what United Methodists across the globe can do to help. The North Texas Conference shared this video of her response.
Beatrice, could you talk a little bit about what you’ve been doing here in the United States the last few weeks in terms of educating United Methodists about Ebola?
I came here in July to have meetings with community-based summer healthcare projects. But then the Ebola incident escalated, widespread in Sierra Leone. So I have been visiting churches and speaking. I have been to like 17. I’ve been to Texas now. I’ve been to Nebraska. I’ve been to Indiana, all speaking on Ebola.
What is the summary of the message you are telling United Methodists about where the situation stands in Sierra Leone?
I’m telling the United Methodists in the United States what activities the United Methodists in Sierra Leone have been involved in and making requests as to what United Methodists here can do to help us in put a stop to Ebola.
You mentioned in your talk here today in the North Texas Conference that the disease has devastated Sierra Leone in different ways. Can you summarize some of the ways in which Sierra Leone is suffering from Ebola?
The disease not only affected the fabric of our humanness. It has affected the economy of the country. The health systems have all broken down, the means of living, you know for common people. Like markets, markets cannot meet. So people are not raising the basic monies that they are used to for their survival. Markets cannot meet. Only a few people can even go to the market because of the fear of Ebola. Educational system is closed. Schools have been closed since June. And now we have the challenge to keep those young people out of school in homes. Some of them, I’m sure, have been infected and died. So that’s how much, the industries, all those educational institutions have been closed. Also the social life, our social fabric, our cultural fabric, all is broken down. For example, we are a touching community. We touch people. We greet by shaking hands. We greet by hugging. Ebola has made us to learn not to greet, not to shake hands. We bow down with our arms crossed across our chests. To honor people you could wave or gives a thumbs up, which is very difficult to adopt. But we have had to adopt it to save our lives.
The United Methodist Church and other religious groups there, including Muslim groups, have come together to communicate that message.
Yes, they have. One of the first responses we had was by the leaders...religious leaders task force that was formed, which included Muslim, Catholics, all the religious denominations, they came together and said, ‘We came together to help end the civil war; we have to work together to end the Ebola from our community.’ So they were the first organization that started giving education for the prevention of Ebola. That education based on giving authority to all their leaders--the Muslim clerics who would cooperate, the pastors, everybody-- has been admonished to speak on Ebola at each sermon, speak on Ebola at every Friday meeting for Muslims. It is the first time those two have really come together to make an impact. And now they continue...that task force continues to meet, to educate, to know what are the issues, and to work constructively for education on Ebola.
Talk a little bit about malaria and Ebola and the confusion you see in Sierra Leone about that.
The transmitting...the symptoms of Ebola is so similar to that of malaria. With Ebola you have malaise...general malaise, you have a headache, you have fever and sometimes you vomit. Those are the same symptoms you have if you have malaria. So it’s been so difficult to be able to differentiate between an infection of Ebola and an infection of malaria. Hence we lost a lot of health workers because they have been treating Ebola patients for malaria...as malaria patients. And in the process they got themselves infected. And we lost more than 150 health workers in Sierra Leone to Ebola. So that’s how difficult that means for health workers to be able to differentiate between the two disease conditions that are so similar in symptoms.
Speak a little, if you would, about what specifically you would encourage United Methodist individuals and churches to do to be of help at this point.
We want to ask our brothers and sisters who are United Methodists and even those who may hear our voice message, help us with funds, with materials so that if we have funds, we have money, we could buy some materials that we need in country. But there are a lot of materials that cannot be...that are not available in Sierra Leone. But those funds, give thanks to UMCOR—the United Methodist Committee on Relief—at the General Board of Global Ministries, New York. They’re the ones who can get to us so that we can buy the necessary materials. And they, too, can use those funds to buy materials and things we need that are not available in country.
Also, we are asking our brothers and sisters to continue in prayer, to pray for us, to pray for our leaders, to pray for even the countries that are willing to help us so that their hearts can be with us, so that together we can be able to eradicate Ebola.
You mentioned how difficult the situation is, but you are hopeful. Speak about that.
Yes. It is devastating. It is difficult. But for me nothing is impossible for God. For God all things are possible. And I know soon we are going to see Ebola as history. Can you imagine a Sierra Leone without Ebola? Can you imagine all our schools, our colleges would be in session? Can you imagine if we didn’t have Ebola how much economic development could continue? Can you imagine how many lives can be saved without Ebola? That would be a big achievement not only for Sierra Leone, but mankind, for even the world generally.
You’re speaking here from Dallas. It has been emotional to you to witness all the attention on one case of Ebola here in Dallas. Speak about the disparity you mentioned.
I was really taken the day I saw the response on TV (I saw it on TV) ...the response to the Ebola incident of one family. And today they want to take the family to be quarantined. You have a fire truck. You have a private cleaning agent. You have the police. You have so many workers, so many people, all just to work with a family of four. If we in Sierra Leone and in Liberia had a third of those facilities...if we had a third of those facilities, I am sure we would have controlled Ebola by now. It just started to touch me and I was so... I just thought... I froze in the chair. I said, ‘For one family look at how much services are available.’ Will that happen to us? This is the appeal we are making, just let us have even just a third of that facility. Those facilities are very good to our communities, to our countries that are infected with Ebola.
When are you scheduled to return to Sierra Leone?
I am scheduled to return on the 21st of October. And I don’t even know what I am going to do once I get in country.
But you’re not afraid to go? You want to go?
It’s a calling. I’m a missionary for the United Methodist Church. I’m a health worker and I’m a family member. I have those three aspects compelling me to go back.
Learn more about the church’s response to Ebola at www.umc.org/ebola.
Special thanks to Wil Murphy with the North Texas Conference for the video.
This video was first posted on October 10, 2014.