If you'd like to get an idea of what resilience is all about, take a lesson from Mamuedeh Kanneh.
She lost her husband to Ebola. But she's stayed strong. She's caring for 13 children, her own and orphans whose parents died of the virus.
Kanneh lives in Barkedu, a village of about 6,000 in northern Liberia. Ebola took more than 150 lives. In her neighborhood there were many deaths, so people in other parts of Barkedu are scared of the orphans.
Kanneh has a strategy to help these children — and the village overall — get back to normal life. She sends the youngsters on errands so people can get used to seeing them and get over their fear. And the children can start to feel they're part of the community again.
People like Kanneh have found ways, little by little, to start recovering — not alone but through their relationships with their neighbors. That's one of the themes of the new NPR multimedia project "Life After Death."
To learn what's behind this kind of "community resilience," we spoke to psychologist Jack Saul of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. Saul has worked with people who have endured conflict, torture and political violence, including Liberian refugees in Staten Island who fled from the country's brutal civil war.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Is resilience something that can be encouraged in a community? Can Mamuedeh Kanneh teach others to be resilient like her?
It sounds like she's a pretty ingenuous person herself, to be thinking in these ways. And some people can be extremely resilient, but if they don't have a [community] to support them, that resilience gets diminished quite a bit. I imagine this woman's not totally isolated, there are other women who are giving support.
You can think of resilience as an individual set of traits. Or you can look at it as a process, that has to do with relationships, the bonds between people that form over time.
Barkedu is hungry and traumatized. Some farmers can't feed their families — illness or grief made them miss the growing season. Children haven't been to school in 7 months. How long does it take for a community like this to recover?
This is different in different communities. They've had a devastating loss there. There are a lot of factors that may contribute to recovery: Is there leadership available to reorganize and make changes that they need to meet the new normal? How much trust do community members have in each other and in their leaders?
And there is something about resilience that is culturally defined. We can talk about resilience as Westerners looking at their society, but the community itself will have some idea of what it means to really deal well with this tragedy.
Did you notice anything unique about how Liberians cope with tragedy?
Many of the [Liberians] that I know would define it more spiritually, which is such a powerful framework for Liberians. Here [in Staten Island], more than 80 percent belong to a church or mosque. Their sense of well-being is very much defined by their engagement with the church and the solace that they receive through their involvement with their religion.
I have a student who studied Tibetans in Dharamsala, India, and got a sense of how they defined resilience, which was very different than here [in the U.S.]. They're Buddhists, so they don't dwell on negative emotions. They work on developing compassion toward others. The thing that they'll do that makes them "feel better" is helping other people. They have an altruistic ethic that defines what they see as resilience.
I see elements of these things in some cultures in Liberia, such as some religious practices that promote caring for others and compassion.
Many families in Barkedu weren't able to give their family members a proper Muslim burial because of the danger of infection when washing and dressing the dead. One farmer in "Life After Death," Sekou Sheriff, lost both his mother and his father to Ebola. He says thoughts of his parents plague him. He doesn't know where they are buried. He's paralyzed by grief, unable to return to his fields to work, because he couldn't give them a proper burial. How can he move on?
That's a pretty common in a situation like this, or in a war. People die, and they're either missing, or for some other reason their family wasn't able to deal with it in the way prescribed by the religion. There's a sense that something is unfinished. This becomes a cultural challenge for their community.
[During the war] in Kosovo, when someone went missing, there was no body to bury, so there was no way to have a traditional funeral. That left people in a state of limbo, and they had to find other ways of symbolizing the process of grieving. Clerics helped them, by acting as authorities who could interpret religious law and say, "This is acceptable, this is another way."
I don't know how the local imam will deal with the situation in Barkedu, but he will need to intervene in some way. He could say that the burial method used was acceptable, and that will relieve [Sheriff] of his guilt. Or the imam needs to find some other kind of ritual process to make him feel like he paid respect to his parents.
In terms of resilience, does age make a difference?
A community is more resilient when you have the participation of all ages.
Children bring spirit, hope and aliveness. They bring a sense of the future. And the primary motivation for people to move on and to recover often has to do with the care for children and their future. That becomes the reason for living and moving on.
Elders can contribute to the collective resilience by having survived other types of crises, like the Liberian civil war. They bring that kind of wisdom.
At the collective level, resilience is a function of a diversity of perspectives and skills and different kinds of capacities coming together synergistically. It's not just the sum of individual resilience. There's a synergy.
So the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
And when you look at those children sent out into the village [by Mamuedeh Kanneh, the woman caring for orphans], over time the attitudes might change.
People may feel that it's safe to be around them. People may feel that it's something positive to care for those kids. That may contribute something greater to the community. And that can become part of the community legacy: that the village got through this, and the kids could be honored.
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