Ebola radio brings hope in West Africa

by Jane Labous | @janelabous | Plan International
Friday, 26 September 2014 10:15 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Radio dominates in many parts of West Africa – and the medium has proved invaluable for communicating about Ebola, finds Jane Labous

AT first Mary, 52, didn’t believe that Ebola was real. It was only when she heard a patient talking about the virus on local Radio Kintoma that she realised the rumours going around town might not be true. Ebola was not a plot by the government to frighten the population – and it could kill.

“I now believe Ebola is real and it kills people every day,” says the small-scale farmer from Lofa in the Ebola-afflicted north of Liberia.

“I doubted it, because everything the health people were telling us about not eating bush meat and not touching sick people were things that we are used to doing. But when I heard this woman talking about how she was sick and taken to the hospital for weeks and later discharged, my opinion changed. I now believe this Ebola thing is real.”

The community radio station based in nearby Voinjama has been broadcasting messages since soon after the Ebola outbreak began in May.

Like many community radio stations around the country, Radio Kintoma is providing crucial education and awareness about the prevention of Ebola and how the disease is transmitted from person to another.

The broadcasts have helped to dispel the initially widespread belief that Ebola didn't exist, as well as other myths and paranoia that have in recent months consumed Liberians - such as last week's scare that 'strange men' were poisoning the water sources and a rumour that Ebola was a ruse aimed at taking people for cannibalistic rituals.

“The radio stations tell us about Ebola,” says Armadu, 35. “We should not shake hands with those who have the virus or touch any fluids from them. We are always told not to touch dead people, to wash our hands often and avoid eating bush meat and bat.”

Via radio, people have learnt to stop burying their dead, to wait for health workers to come and tend to sick people, and most of all, to stop shaking hands and other everyday social rituals.

A pop song entitled 'Ebola in Town', with the lyrics, 'Don't touch your friend, no eating something, it's dangerous', has been sweeping the dance floors of Liberia and Guinea this summer.

The hit has played a major part in communicating about Ebola, and revellers have even come up with a dance to match the song which avoids the bodily contact so usual in West African dance moves.

Since the outbreak began, aid organisations such as Plan International have also been producing and supporting broadcasts, songs and dramas to ensure that the health messages get through.

“Liberia is a very sociable country and we all used to shake hands and sympathise in all type of events – whether joyful or not,” explains Plan Liberia’s Country Director Koala Oumarou.

“We have had to communicate to the population that they must stop these social rituals, amongst many other health measures, and radio has played a huge part in this.

“For many people in rural areas, radio is their only connection to the outside world – it reaches places other mediums cannot reach. By producing simple, informative broadcasts, songs and dramas, we have been able to get very important messages quickly into communities.”

Radio dominates in West Africa’s rural, off-grid areas and in Gueckedou, Guinea, local Radio Sandia Pembéîtyo - meaning ‘radio on the hill of Sandia’ in the local Kissi language - has been the single most important medium to communicate messages about Ebola.

Based, as you would expect, high on a hill in Gueckedou’s Sandia district, the station broadcasts until late into the night, keeping isolated communities updated about the latest Ebola news via their small, portable transistor radios.

Gbaka Sandouno, manager of Plan Guinea’s office in Gueckedou, where the virus first started, says Radio Sandia is the locals’ only source of local news and information.

“The national radio and TV does not regularly cover this part of the country,” he explains. “So many people listen to this local station, especially when they discovered that Ebola related messages are been broadcast through it. 

“It’s the only means by which messages can be sent at once and quickly to the population, be that a public announcement, private messages and especially health messages.” 

A group of patients in Gueckedou who have recovered from Ebola has now formed a broadcast team, working at the radio station to explain their experiences and to publicise the country-wide Ebola emergency hotline, 115.

In doing so, says Sandouno, they are dispelling the myths around Ebola, and also the widely held belief that it is impossible to recover from Ebola, bringing much needed hope.

“These recovered patients play such an important role in convincing those who did not believe in the existence of Ebola that it exists. Of course, they also convince the majority who think Ebola has no cure that they can recover from it. They are living proof!

“The group has been doing local radio campaigns telling how they were infected, then how they were taken to the Ebola treatment centre and made a recovery. Because of this, a lot of Ebola patients now declare themselves and are willing to be at the centre, and we are noting considerable number of patients who have recovered.”

Plan Guinea is also providing audio messages for broadcast at the station, and writing text for messages that can be translated into some of Guinea’s 40 local languages.

Across the border in Sierra Leone, where Ebola is also ravaging community life, the radio was the only distraction during the recent three day lockdown, when whole families were shut in together.

“You can’t imagine how difficult it is to sit and lie down in one place without moving from your house, street or community!” said Kamanda, a student from Port Loko.

“My family of 27 sat at home listening to radio programmes, ate food (though there was little), prayed, played cards and sometimes watched movies!”

Augustine Allieu, Plan Sierra Leone country director, adds: “During the lockdown, radio was of prime importance for people wanting information and updates. It continues to be one of the major mediums for communicating about the Ebola virus, and is an extremely important part of our current response.

“I heard on the radio here in Freetown that a recent perception survey about Ebola found that in terms of the most preferred means of getting information about Ebola, people generally felt that the radio was the most effective means and that they prefer health professional to present the discussions.”

Back in Liberia, people in Lofa say it is radio that keeps them going as doubts and fears set in about the virus.

“I always listen to the radio,” says Satta, 39. “If all these messages were not getting out to people through the radio stations, the situation here would have been worse.”

“Everything we hear these days on the radio stations is about Ebola,” says Jomady, 42. “We hear that Ebola is real, it kills, that it has no cure but that it can be prevented. The messages are in all of the local dialects. The most important things about the messages are those that tell us what to do and what not to do to keep safe.”

Viviane, 37, believe the virus will peak and then fall – and that if it is contained, it will in part be due to radio campaigns.

“I think so,” she says, “because the virus is gradually going away and I want to believe that it is the information provided by the radio stations to people which is helping in this direction.”