Society for the Anthropology of Religion
Oral Presentation Session
The 20014-15 outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease in the Guinea Coast region of West Africa generated a massive global response from anthropologists, biomedical practitioners, national states, and international agencies. Clashing and competing “epistemic communities” (Martineau, Wilkinson, and Parker 2017) all seeking to understand and mitigate the disease converged in a small geographic region and in the digital space of the internet, often critiquing each other more energetically than ameliorating conditions for those living through the epidemic. Amid the chaos and fear, Liberians and others in the region were exhorted to practice “safe burials” for loved ones that took little notice of their emotional anguish. An emphasis on substituting one set of “safe” practices for another defined as “unsafe” assumed that ritual alone could process intense human feelings of loss and bereavement. I argue that both ritualized and individual outbursts of mourning are interwoven in southeastern Liberian responses to death and that both and either can be mobilized for the purposes of creative political critique. Attempts by Liberian families and communities to conduct “secret burials” during the outbreak were motivated by multiple concerns, both spiritual and political. The inability of most public health messaging from the national government and from international organizations like the United Nations to account for these various forms of communication about death and loss led to popular resistance often defined, by outside actors, as ignorance and superstition.