SIERRA LEONE – The Filipino Recollect missionaries working in Sierra Leone could have easily opted to pack their bags and go home during the harrowing outbreak of Ebola virus in late 2014. But they chose, instead, the less-beaten path of staying put and serving the people they had considered their own.
The four (4) Filipino missionaries were: Fray Russell Lapidez, OAR (local prior), Fray Jonathan Jamero, OAR; Fray Roy Baluarte, OAR; and Fray Dennis Castillo, OAR. They were accompanied by two other Spanish missionaries: Fray Jose Luis Garayoa, OAR & Fray Rene Gonzales, OAR.
The Order of Augustinian Recollects or Recoletos started their missionary activity in Sierra Leone, West Africa in the year 1997, administering the Our Lady of Sierra Leone Parish in Kamabai, Biriwa Chiefdom. Due to the civil war, the missionaries suffered the effects of the conflict. After defending and accompanying the flock they were compelled to leave Sierra Leone. After peace has been restored in the country, the second batch of Recoletos missionaries returned in the year 2004.
There are about sixty (60) small Christian communities under the community’s mission. The Diocese of Makeni entrusted to the missionaries the administration of the thirty-three (33) primary schools. Besides the work of evangelization, the missionaries are also engaged in charitable works such as, but not limited to, medical help, installation of water-wells in remote villages, and other humanitarian services to the people who are in need.
“I’m proud of the brothers who are brave enough on deciding to stay amidst the danger, let us support them with our prayers,” said Fr. Edgar Tubio, OAR, head of the mission, who got back to the Philippines for vacation few months before the Ebola outbreak.
“Let us continue to intensify our support to the Recoletos missionaries who are working with the Sierra Leonean people.”
Lately, the missionaries created preventive measures to contain the outbreak, devising practical strategies to quarantine affected areas, and providing water-cleanser in the chapels and convent compound.
Decision to stay
“Few days ago, after conferring to each other we, the Augustinian Recollect missionaries have decided to remain steadfast to the mission entrusted to us. We are all afraid but we choose to be with our people to continue to give hope to them especially during this time of difficulties. Preaching the Gospel and at the same time sensitizing the people about the Ebola virus gives new meaning to our work of evangelization. May God protect us from Ebola virus” said Fr. Russel Lapidez, OAR.
The work of the Recoletos missionaries in the Diocese of Makeni mostly involved in education and community organizing, fomenting a holistic development of faith-experience. Actively engaging the people and being part of the local community.
Fr. Lauro V. Larlar, OAR, the Prior Provincial of the Province of St. Ezekiel Moreno, in whose jurisdiction the Sierra Leone mission belongs, reiterated “May we ask the Augustinian Recollect family and our people to please offer prayers and sacrifices for the people in West Africa, especially to our missionaries stationed in Sierra Leone, who are now in a frightening situation due to the deadliest Ebola virus outbreak. Together we humbly beg the help of God’s grace and mercy to protect them from all harm and allowing them to see His beam of light in the midst of this darkness. For this and in solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters, may we ask you dear people of God to pray with us that the good Lord be their comfort and strength in this time of uncertainty.”
First hand experience, evaluating realities
Fr. Lapidez provided this reality-check experience in his communication to fellow Recoletos: “It was early April when I heard the Ebola outbreak for the first time, and from that time on I tried to follow the issue, since we are not really far from Guinea, and my fear at that time that the EVD will enter Sierra Leone is now a reality. Based on the testimonies of those who were directly involved in handling the cases and other sources of information, these are the contributing factors that led to the rapid wide spread of the Ebola Virus disease in Sierra Leone in the span of six months. First is the delayed imposition of the government for stricter movement of the people in the borders of Sierra Leone after the first case of Ebola contagion in neighbouring countries (Guinea and Liberia) erupted. Second is the ignorance and incredulity of some people regarding the reality and dangers of Ebola virus. There are those in the villages whom we have tried to sensitize about the existence of EVD and warned not to eat monkeys or bush meat that could possibly infected by the EVD but they just shrug us off for a simple reason that, from the time of their ancestors up to this moment they have been eating monkeys and bush meats, and so far they have not yet infected by the Ebola virus. It was only when Doctor Sheik Umar Khan, the only virologist in Sierra Leone and the head of the task force fighting EVD outbreak, got infected of the virus and later on died, the people then begun to realize that Ebola virus is really real and deadly. Third is the traditional washing or ritual cleansing of the dead bodies which usually done in the house. The immediate family members are the most susceptible in contracting the EVD. Just like the sixteen year old boy who took care of his sick mother and afterward died with Ebola virus. Consequently, the boy got infected also and later on died as well. Fourth is the poor health facilities and shortage of trained personnel that capable of handling Ebola infected patients. In fact, three medical doctors and over 20 nurses who took care of the patients also got infected and died. This terrible situation stimulated some of the medical staffs to abandon their work as a protest to the government for neglecting them in spite of their sacrifices and putting their lives in danger. Fifth contributing factor is the stigma of being infected by the virus or just being suspected which compelled the victims not to go to the hospital or to seek any medical help. As an alternative, the Ebola virus carriers look for traditional healers and consequently transmit the disease to them. The stigma also affects the family members, like what happened to a woman who was admitted to a hospital in Freetown and been confirmed positive of Ebola virus. The family members tried to use force to remove the woman out of the hospital. The condition got worsen after another frightful situation happened in the Ebola treatment Centre at Kenema, when a group of people staged riot outside the facility which instigated by a woman who broadcasted that Ebola does not exist at all, and the centre is just a front of the medical practitioners to make money by harvesting organs and extracting blood from the patients. Reflecting on the flow of events I surmised that the utmost contributors to the outbreak are the people themselves.”
The Filipino Recoletos missionaries’ dedication to mission is a continuing heroic legacy especially in Sierra Leone, in Africa. During the civil war in the 1990’s, three Missionaries opted to stay with the people; heroically defending women & children at gun point. Fr. Raul Buhay, OAR, Fr. Manny Lipardo, OAR & Fr. Jose Luis Garayoa, OAR together with the people walked across miles and months evading armed rebels & the danger of execution, and being able to survive and being freed.
The mark of the Recoletos mission is: bringing the experience of Christ’s love in the community. In the name of the Recoletos missionaries, Fr. Lapidez said ” I reiterated the stand of the Augustinian Recollects that we are staying and we will continue the mission entrusted to us by the Church. And since we decided to stay with the people whom we are serving, we are then bound to take part in the government effort of informing the people of the reality and the threat of Ebola virus, as well as, how to protect themselves from contracting it.”