Honoring Liberia’s Ebola Fighters: How a Group of Imams Helped Save Their Community

The recent reports of three new Ebola cases in Liberia—including a woman who died on March 31—remind us of the difficulty of fully eradicating the virus from West Africa. They also remind us of the human impact of Ebola, which has killed over 11,000 people in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone since December 2013.

While the loss of yet another life to Ebola is tragic, the likelihood of the situation erupting into another large-scale epidemic is extremely low. Liberia is well-equipped to contain the virus, thanks to the tireless work of an array of local and international officials, activists and organizations who turned the tide on the initial outbreak, which peaked in mid- to late 2014. AJWS is paying tribute to these Ebola fighters with a series highlighting the efforts of the Liberian organizations we supported at the height of the crisis.

We began our tribute with a story on the National Imam Council of Liberia (NICOL), which mobilized imams around the country to educate Liberians about Ebola and how to protect themselves from it. This photo essay offers a deeper look at NICOL’s Ebola response and the people it has touched.

Liberia’s Ebola outbreak began in late March 2014. Initially, response workers were able to contain the virus to less than dozen cases concentrated in the northeastern corner of the country. But in June 2014, Ebola struck Liberia’s densely populated capital of Monrovia, triggering a spike in cases and deaths—especially among Muslims, who make up 12 percent of the nation’s four million people.
Recognizing the urgent need to act, the National Imam Council of Liberia (NICOL), which oversees some two to three thousand imams across the country, launched an awareness campaign to educate the public about the virus. NICOL tapped Imam Harouna Kabbah to coordinate their efforts in the hard-hit counties of Bomi, Grand Cape Mount and Montserrado. Imam Kabbah took up the role with zeal, travelling throughout the counties to ensure that local imams received the training and support they needed to help save their communities.
Imam Abdullah Trawally co-leads a mosque in Banjor, a community near Monrovia. When his friends and neighbors began dying rapidly in June 2014, he realized Ebola was the likely cause and began canvassing his district to warn people about the virus. In August 2014, NICOL selected him to help coordinate their Ebola response in Banjor. His work often brought him in close proximity with the sick. “There was a brother who died, and I used to bring food to him. And then I got sick,” he said. Fortunately, Imam Trawally did not have Ebola and recovered from his illness. “I was afraid … but decided to help our people.”
NICOL trained its members, including Imam Trawally, to recognize the signs and symptoms of Ebola and to teach their congregants how to prevent the spread of the virus. Ebola had been spreading rapidly in Liberia in part because many people didn’t trust the warnings issued by government officials and foreign aid agencies. The imams were essential because the people trusted and listened to them and heeded the life-saving messages that they preached—often using teachings from the Koran.
One of the most important messages reinforced during NICOL trainings was the need to avoid touching the corpses of Ebola victims. Traditional Muslim funerals involve close contact with the body of the deceased, which is blessed and bathed before burial. In the early days of the Liberian outbreak, this time-honored practice caused Ebola to spread like wildfire among Muslims. To discourage the practice, imams trained by NICOL emphasized the Koranic directive forbidding followers to knowingly endanger their lives or the lives of others. They recused their followers from the burial ritual and advised them to avoid all physical contact with the sick or dead during epidemics.
NICOL’s tireless awareness efforts paid off: According to Imam Trawally, as early as September 2014, the number of Ebola cases in Banjor began to fall because “everyone was aware.” Despite the drop in cases, NICOL continued its outreach, instructing imams to continue educating people about the virus, lest it return to their communities.
AJWS learned of NICOL’s heroic work in early 2015. Our country consultant, Dayugar Johnson (“DJ”), reached out to Imam Kabbah to ask how we could help. The imam said that NICOL needed funds to continue its awareness activities, and to help the many children who had lost parents during the outbreak. So AJWS delivered a grant to support refresher trainings for imams and financial stipends for children orphaned by Ebola in Bomi, Grand Cape Mount and Montserrado Counties.
Mohammed Samah and his 11-year-old daughter, Watta, are among the people who received emotional and other support from NICOL—including financial support through the AJWS grant. Mohammed’s wife and Watta’s mother, Hawa, died of Ebola in August 2014. Within days, both Mohammed and Watta had fallen ill with Ebola; but thanks to early treatment, they survived. “Imam Trawally found all means [to help us],” said Mohammed, who is visited regularly by NICOL members. “They did many things. They prayed for us. They say we should keep courage,” echoed Watta, who still misses her mother.
Fatu Kamara and her daughters, 15-year-old Zainab (right) and 8-year-old Mama (left), were also supported by NICOL. A taxi driver by profession, Fatu’s husband and the girls’ father, Jacob, died of Ebola in September 2014. “He went … to work, he came back and said he’s cold,” recalled Fatu. Doctors made a home visit to take a blood sample from Jacob, who tested positive for Ebola but died before he could reach a treatment unit. The family was quarantined for 21 days, during which time NICOL imams brought them food. “Imam Abdullah [Trawally] is a good man,” said Fatu.
“I tell [the imams] thank you so much. They gave us rice [and] money to buy clothes for the children,” said Hawa Kroma, who also lost her husband to Ebola in September 2014. “They were helping us so much, we were very happy,” she continued. “They still come and talk to me.” Like many families who lost primary breadwinners, Hawa and her two daughters, 8-year-old Musu (center) and 13-year-old Kema (left), continue to struggle. But with NICOL’s help, Hawa has been able to keep the girls in school. “I want to be a doctor [when I grow up] so that when people are sick, I can cure them,” said Kema.
“I miss my parents because they made me feel good, we used to joke and talk,” said 11-year-old Kabuneh Kanneh (right), whose mother and father died of Ebola in August 2014. His brother, 9-year-old Vamuyam (left), shared similar memories, “[Our dad] made us laugh. He would tell us stories. He told me to be serious [in school].” Imam Trawally and NICOL have regularly visited the children, who now live with their aunt, to provide emotional, financial and other support. Unfortunately, due to lack of sufficient means, they are still not enrolled in school—though they want to be. “If you learn, you can support your family,” said Vamuyam.
“[The imams] used to go around … talking to people to help the orphaned children,” recalled Zainab Kanneh, who remembers seeing Imam Trawally even before her brother and his wife died of Ebola. The couple’s sons, Kabuneh and Vamuyam, are now in her care. “[The imams] gave us money, I bought food for the boys,” she said. “They did well for us … they brought us buckets with Clorox and soap. Without them, everybody would have died.”

Photos by Jonathan Torgovnik.


Carolyn ZivCarolyn Ziv is a Communications Officer for Human Rights and Story Development at AJWS.