Ebola Frontline: In Sierra Leone, Villagers Starting to Believe Ebola Is Real

Sierra Leone
Health workers carry the body of an Ebola virus victim in Kenema, Sierra Leone, June 25, 2014. Umaru Fofana/Reuters

There was a critical moment when I realized this current Ebola outbreak, already out of control, was going to get much worse. It was while I was waiting in line to buy minutes for my pre-paid cell phone in Kenema, the third largest city in Sierra Leone.

A 4-wheel-drive ambulance carrying Ebola victims from the countryside screamed by on the way to Kenema Government Hospital and an odd scene unfolded around me: despite the dying victims inside that car, people were giggling. I asked what was so funny.

"There is no Ebola. It's a scam by the government to get more foreign aid money," one man explained. "It's one family that was cursed. A snake bit them all as they slept."

I began arguing loudly. A small crowd gathered, giggling at the scrappy little white man defending what they believed to be a made up disease.

"I won't believe Ebola until I see a victim with my own eyes," another chimed in. I tried to explain that if that happened, it would already be too late for them. In Africa, friendly arguing is an art, so we all left on good terms, but I was shaken by how unperturbed they were.

In the villages in eastern Sierra Leone where we work (an area with a population of about 7,000 people) we estimated that only 20 percent of local people believed that Ebola was real.

The only way to protect yourself from Ebola is to prevent contact with it. But if 80 percent of your neighbors didn't believe Ebola existed, how would you protect yourself? My coworkers and I cooked up a quick plan: we hired town criers to shout daily sensitization messages on megaphones and established an informal information hotline for the villagers to call. Hopefully, this would start to change minds.

A few weeks later, there were confirmed cases in Kenema and panic started to take hold. There were riots at the hospital and infected bodies were dumped on the main street. We left for the capitol, hoping the situation would settle. It never did.

In the villages, though, the thinking on Ebola shifted. For example, when a man recently fell ill with a fever, the patient was isolated. The village called the local clinic and authorities tested him (he tested negative). A month later, these villages remain Ebola-free despite cases within walking distance. The relationships we built made all the difference: the villagers may not have trusted modern science or the government, but they trusted us.

Chad McCordic is a Community Projects Manager with Minneapolis, Minnesota-based non-profit OneVillage Partners.