FREETOWN (AFP) – Don’t pray too close to each other, observe strict hygiene rules and whatever you do, don’t shake the imam’s hand. For Muslims in Ebola-hit Sierra Leone, this was an Eid festival like no other.
Like fellow worshippers around the world, thousands in Sierra Leone on Saturday flocked to mosques, stadiums and football fields to mark the Eid al-Adha feast of sacrifice. But the ever-present fear of the deadly Ebola virus cast a sombre shadow over the celebrations.
Sermons inevitably touched on the epidemic that has ravaged west Africa, infecting over 7,400 people and killing nearly half of them. Sierra Leone, with over 600 deaths this year, is one of the three hardest hit nations in the region, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
At the national stadium in the capital Freetown, one or sites for this holiday, youth volunteers kept a watchful on arriving worshippers, urging them to wash their hands in buckets of chlorinated water.
Addressing the crowd, Imam Sheikh al-Hassan said he wished for “peace and prosperity for the country during these trying times of Ebola”, and advised the congregation to avoid bodily contact to prevent contagion.
“We must protect ourselves as well as our families and others,” he said through a megaphone.
“If you listen to the advice given by doctors, don’t attend funerals or touch corpses, avoid shaking hands, don’t go to congested places and continue to pray for the country.”
One of the worshippers said those assembled had been warned “not to shake the hand of the officiating imams, as this is one of the means of transmission of the Ebola disease”.
“This is not a sign of disrespect,” Sheikh al-Hassan said in his sermon, “but to protect all of us.”
He added, “We know this is alien to our culture but let us accept it if we must ensure that Ebola is defeated.”
While they may have defied warnings to avoid large gatherings, those who turned up took pains to keep their distance from fellow worshippers during prayers.
They also eschewed the usual handshakes and embraces in greetings.
Celebrations were also subdued in northern and eastern parts of the country, where Ebola quarantines are in place sealing off hundreds of thousands of people from the outside world.
“Unlike past years when the event was observed with festivity and procession, everybody went home quietly to sit down to their meals,” said Alpha Sillah, who lives in the northern town of Makeni.
The Eid festival usually sees people getting together for the slaughtering of a ceremonial sheep, goat or other animal, but a similar downcast atmosphere hung over events in the eastern district of Kailahun, also under lockdown.
“People were in a sombre mood remembering the many who had died from Ebola,” said Foday Sajuma, noting that, here too, most “went silently home” after prayers.
A further damper on the festivities was the decision by Saudi authorities to ban people from Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia – the three nations bearing the brunt of the outbreak – from making the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca.
According to Sierra Leone’s Social Welfare Minister Moijueh Kaikai, around a thousand nationals had planned to join millions of Muslims from around globe in the sacred Saudi Arabian city this year. “It was a sad development but we understand,” he said.