Jonah Lipton: Intimacy, transformation, and danger in Sierra Leone

During my fieldwork in Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 2013–14, I witnessed the unfolding of the current Ebola crisis that is so heavily affecting the region today. I saw how the regulations put in place to stop the spread of the virus impacted livelihoods, restricting transport and closing businesses, schools, and borders. It is no exaggeration to say that the Ebola outbreak affected every single person I know there. I experienced an unsettling atmosphere of uncertainty: personal plans were put on hold as each day became a struggle to make ends meet. And then there were the fears about Ebola itself, which intensified as the virus spread to the capital. Broadly speaking, people I know became more reliant on those “close” to them in the wake of the Ebola crisis, particularly family members, the providers of financial and practical support and care. However, this approach to support and care runs the risk of transmitting the virus, transforming an intimate relative or friend into an “enemy.” In this piece, I suggest that the Ebola crisis exposes deep-rooted tensions surrounding intimacy in Sierra Leone. Experiences and understandings of the “enemy within,” along with broader notions of transformation, in turn color responses and attitudes toward the crisis itself.

My acquaintances’ current reliance on close family, friends, and neighbors for care and support is by no means an aberration of normal practice in a context lacking both economic stability and a sound health care infrastructure. It is common for sick people to stay with relatives capable of looking after them, even when this involves significant travel from rural areas to cities. Most people I know often depend heavily on family members, friends, and neighbors when they cannot support themselves financially as a result of illness. On a day-to-day level, friends and neighbors often share food, and it is common for those without a permanent base to sleep at different people’s houses in the neighborhood. These practices have intensified during the Ebola crisis, and at the same time more formal channels for tackling illness have become unpopular and less available. Many pharmacies and private clinics that were once sources of treatment for “ordinary” illnesses such as malaria (whose early symptoms are very similar to Ebola’s) have been closed, and hospitals are full and overflowing. Sufferers of malaria and other illnesses fear being misdiagnosed with Ebola. At best this could lead to a twenty-one-day quarantine for one’s house or family compound, stigmatizing co-residents and jeopardizing work, and at worst to catching the Ebola virus while in hospital. Caring for the sick has become more secretive than usual as people try to avoid being reported to the authorities. As a friend in Freetown told me ironically, “Ebola is the only illness in Sierra Leone right now.”

Needless to say, there is a real risk that an illness turns out to be Ebola itself. According to recent reports, there have been 1,428 cases so far in Freetown (Ministry of Health and Sanitation). Many of these can be attributed mainly to migratory care-based practices, as sick people and their family members move from villages to the capital in search of treatment. Once Ebola victims are symptomatic, there is a high risk of an exchange of bodily fluids, which transmits the virus. At greatest risk are those attending to the sick, often family members. This creates a tragic dilemma: do people report their sick relatives to the authorities, jeopardizing their lives if they do not have Ebola and risking quarantine for the entire household? Or do they care for sick relatives themselves, exposing everyone involved to extreme danger?

This dilemma, I suggest, is not new in Sierra Leone. Rather, it is a manifestation of a recurring social tension: the reliance upon and risks of intimacy. In a different arena, this tension is manifested in understandings of witchcraft in Sierra Leone. A core feature of witchcraft there is the notion that witches operate malevolently through those “close” to their targets. As one neighbor told me, “Witches use people who are close to you, who you exchange with, to get you. Like your sister who you share food with, or those who see the clothes you wear or see you sleep.” During my fieldwork, I observed at close proximity witch allegations in the cluster of houses in which I lived. Protracted attempts to locate and disarm witches, which involved calling on an expert “herbalist” (witch doctor) to ritually clear the compound, created unease and distrust among neighbors, as well as a pressure to be secretive to avoid danger. In nightlong sessions the herbalist publically unearthed hidden bundles buried around the compound containing curses, identified problems faced by local onlookers, and came up with solutions. As the sessions went on, the idea was that those embodied by witches would reveal themselves. However, this contentious process was interrupted before its completion when some objecting members of the community informed local authorities that the recently imposed (yet often ignored) restrictions on public gatherings were being breached. Residents were in general agreement that witchcraft might have played a role in a range of recent misfortunes—sicknesses, miscarriages, bereavement, lack and loss of opportunity—although many were unsure. As a close friend told me, “I am in a dilemma. I do not know whether to believe or not to believe.” I think that this dilemma in part reflected scepticism about the operations of witchcraft and the authority of the herbalist, yet at the same time acceptance of the undeniable social tensions that were being played out in the compound between close relatives and neighbors. This is a classic feature of witchcraft: “Very often, insidious harm is encountered in the outworking of anti-social forces among those upon whom we rely most…the malice of family members or neighbors is often the domain of the witch” (van de Grijspaarde et al. 2013).

The witchcraft allegations and ongoing responses in my compound happened to coincide with the early stages of the Ebola outbreak in the country, and it was impossible not to see parallels. Many people have witnessed intimate family members and neighbors turn into victims and “enemies,” and the warnings against physical contact in the wake of Ebola are constant reminders of this risk. Many feel the need to be secretive when they become unwell, and are both suspicious of and reliant upon those close to them. Crucially, the Ebola crisis can be blamed for the types of misfortune that are attributed to witchcraft: lack of work, inability to study or travel, loss of relatives to Ebola and other illnesses. Both witchcraft and Ebola generate a sense that life has been put on hold and progression is impossible.

To be clear, I am not claiming that most Sierra Leoneans see witchcraft as the cause of Ebola, although an explicit link is sometimes made. Ebola survivors have been reported to face witchcraft allegations, and some Ebola victims have consulted traditional healers, alone or alongside medical professionals when they were available. I am suggesting rather that deep-rooted tensions about intimacy, reflecting in part the rewards and risks of depending on significant others, inform how Sierra Leoneans experience and respond to the Ebola crisis.

Another important cultural reference point for understanding perceptions of Ebola in Sierra Leone are cosmological beliefs about and experiences of “transformation.” The concept of shape-shifting is well documented in Sierra Leone. According to folklore and testimony, witches, along with hunters, for example, are believed to be able to turn into wild animals (Jackson 1989; Ferme 2001) or embody other humans. Beliefs in these kinds of transformations are intimately connected to the legacy of the Atlantic slave trade, when people were turned into slaves and trade goods and consumed by predatory elites (Shaw 1997). In recent times, many Sierra Leoneans experienced the transformation of civilians—often family members, friends, and neighbors—into rebel soldiers during civil war (1991–2002), and some saw the process in reverse as soldiers were transformed back into civilians in the following years. Here is another parallel with Ebola. Responding to the recent arrival of British soldiers in Freetown, a sight familiar to many residents from the closing stages of the civil war, a friend there said, “Ebola is a real rebel,” making a comparison between attitudes toward Ebola in the country now and those toward rebels during the war. Uncharacteristically, my acquaintances (who rarely spoke about the war) started recounting war stories and memories of the 1990s. I have the sense that drawing on these experiences is helping Sierra Leoneans to make sense of and get through this parallel crisis, Ebola. The atmosphere of uncertainty and danger is clearly analogous.

Under temporary military rule, the country feels “shut down.” Some have explained the outbreak to me in moral terms—God’s punishment for corruption and inequality in the country—resembling the ideological statements of rebel groups during the war. Many point out that elites who “eat the Ebola money” are the only ones prospering now as they channel aid money at the expense of the ordinary people who are out of work. The continued spread of the virus, like the protracted rebel war, is blamed on the government’s failure to act fast and effectively. The Ebola crisis has generated a kind of internal criticism that borders on collective self-blame. There is a complex notion of the “the enemy within” at play here, reflecting the concept’s multiple uses cross-culturally in folklore, understandings of personhood, and conspiracy theories. One organizing principle theoretically applied to the concept is the “visiblity” of the enemy (Campion-Vincent 2003). In the case of the Ebola crisis, the enemies are selfish elites using illicit means to gain conspicuous wealth, building on established tropes of occult and “invisible” methods of accumulation (Geschiere 1997; Shaw 1997). The enemies are also intimates turning into Ebola victims capable of spreading the virus, as well as the invisible virus becoming visible (symptomatic) and contagious after up to twenty-one days of incubation. And finally, the “enemy within” represents the multiple visible and invisible ways that virus has destabilised the country and people’s lives.

There are, of course, crucial differences between the Ebola crisis and Sierra Leone’s civil war. A friend told me that “the Ebola crisis is worse than the civil war because now we cannot even bury our own family members.” An Ebola victim, actual or suspected, is buried by an official burial team instead of his or her family. It is therefore almost impossible to perform the rites to appropriately put the family member to rest and secure a reunion with already-dead ancestors (Richards et al. 2014). Whereas, in normal circumstances, the potential of relatives and neighbors to harm is in a continual state of flux, exposed at times of insecurity such as the witchcraft allegations I observed in my compound, Ebola has created transformations that are potentially irrevocable as relatives are “lost” in this world and the next.

In this piece I have suggested that the Ebola crisis has presented a set of tragic problems that are all too familiar to many Sierra Leoneans. Their experiences of and responses to Ebola can thus be understood in the wider context of enduring social practices such as witchcraft and historical national crises such as the civil war, in which close family members, friends, and neighbors pose a serious threat as well as being an essential source of support. The very real danger of transformation, particularly of intimates, as manifested in the cosmology of witchcraft and shape-shifting, is a defining feature of the current crises. Those closest become the enemy within, the family and friends who bring Ebola into the heart of the home. On a national level, Ebola elicits suspicion and criticism of the government and conditions of the country. These views similarly build on ideas of threat from within, which are reinforced as the crisis continues.

Jonah Lipton is a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department at the London School of Economics. He conducted fieldwork in Freetown, Sierra Leone, between 2013 and 2014, looking at informal economies, urban livelihoods and family life, commercial transport, and aspirations.

Campion-Vincent, Véronique. 2003. The enemy within: From evil Others to evil elites. Ethnologia Europaea 33(2): 23–31.

Ferme, Mariane. 2001. The underneath of things: Violence, history and the everyday in Sierra Leone. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Geschiere, Peter. 1997. The modernity of witchcraft: Politics and the occult in postcolonial Africa. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press.

Jackson, Michael. 1989. Paths towards a clearing: Radical empiricism and ethnographic inquiry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Ministry of Health and Sanitation, Sierra Leone. 2014. Ebola Virus Disease Situation Report. 9 December.

Richards, Paul, Joseph Amara, Mariane C. Ferme, Prince Kamara, Esther Mokuwa, Amara Idara Sheriff, Roland Suluku, and Maarten Voors. 2014. Social pathways for Ebola virus disease in rural Sierra Leone, and some implications for containment. PLOS Blogs: Speaking of Medicine. 31 October.

Shaw, Rosalind. 1997. The production of witchcraft/Witchcraft as production: Memory, modernity, and the slave trade in Sierra Leone. American Ethnologist 24(4): 856–876.

van de Grijspaarde, Huib, Maarten Voors, Erwin Beulte, and Paul Richards. 2013. Who believes in witches? Institutional flux in Sierra Leone. African Affairs 112(446): 22–47.

Cite as: Lipton, Jonah. 2014. “Intimacy, transformation, and danger in Sierra Leone,” FocaalBlog, December 11,