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A Mental Health Counselor In The Democratic Republic Of The Congo Creates New Rituals For Grief

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By: Shaina Shealy

COVID-19 stopped people around the world from gathering for over a year. There’s a lot of talk about the toll this has taken on our collective mental health. Especially for people who are grieving and can’t access comforting rituals. Years ago in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 38-year old Noe Kasali helped survivors of the Ebola epidemic grieve THEIR losses. When they weren’t allowed to attend in-person burials, Kasali relied on his faith, innovation and his own experiences to help people heal.

The car Noe Kasali drove was covered in orange dust when he arrived in the small town of Mangina, about an hour’s drive from his home, down a bumpy dirt road. It was a hot day in late summer. Noe wore casual pants, and a long sleeve shirt. “We did not have any PPE with us. We came just wearing simple, simple clothes,” he said.

Noe and two of his colleagues got out of his car, and walked east, toward a brick church with a metal roof. Dozens of people were waiting there, sitting outside. Noe approached them, but didn’t get too close. Public health measures stopped him from hugging and holding hands with others.

Instead of shaking people’s hands, he looked each person in the eye and said, “Poli poli. We are together. And we are sorry for what happened. Poli poli poli poli.. [We are] just so sorry. Sorry. Sorry.”

Noe introduced himself and his colleagues in Swahili as mental health counselors from a nearby town. People raised their hands to speak. Noe called on a short woman, sitting by herself, Katoomba Kenyatole. Within three months Ebola had killed her mother, grandmother, five siblings, four aunts and two cousins. Kenyatole told Noe that her remaining family had cautioned her not to trust him. They said people like Noe were bringing the sickness to them, “and that nobody from our family should attend this kind of gathering.”

Noe recalled Kenyatole saying. “The Ebola people are the ones who are responsible for the death.”

The Ebola people. Doctors. Nurses. Red Cross workers. Burial team volunteers who disposed of infected bodies. And people like Noe, who hoped to heal the spirits of those who survived. This was in August of 2018. The virus had surfaced in the town of Mangina as the 10th and largest Ebola outbreak in the DRC.

Shaina Shealy is a producer with Snap Judgment.

The Sacred Steps series is a collaboration between KALW’sThe Spiritual Edge andUSC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture. Funding comes from theJohn Templeton Foundation and theTempleton Religion Trust.

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Shaina Shealy