Cultural filters

Facely Camara, a young radio journalist, was eager to fight Ebola in his native Guinea. In mid-September, Camara joined a convoy of health workers and government officials heading to Womé, a village in Guinea’s densely forested southeast, where he intended to cover an Ebola-centered education and disinfection campaign for Zaly FM, a popular station. Before he left, his friends and relatives applauded him on Facebook: “A super Mr. Journalist,” they called him. “The future of the family.”

By the time the group returned, many of its original participants, including Camara and two other radio reporters, were corpses in the back of a rescue truck. They were killed not by Ebola but by a hostile mob reportedly suspicious of the government’s public-health interventions in Womé, and of its actions in the region generally. All three murdered journalists were trainees at Search for Common Ground, a conflict-resolution nonprofit that has worked in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia for more than fifteen years. Aly Badara, who helps to coördinate S.C.G.’s Guinea efforts from the city of Nzerekore, told me by phone that “when the group arrived and started talking about Ebola, they were hit with sticks and stones.” Several of the victims—there were at least eight—had their throats slit with machetes, and were then stuffed into the village school’s septic tank. As Badara explained, the attacks were borne of distrust rooted in years of conflict and exclusion, both real and perceived: “In that part of Guinea, there is no faith between those people and their government.”

The mass killing in Womé presaged a concern that the Ebola outbreak is evolving from a public-health crisis into “a crisis for international peace and security,” as the World Health Organization’s director general, Margaret Chan, called it last month, from Geneva. This past spring, as Ebola spread across the region, S.C.G., which operates on four continents, began generating its own inventive community-by-community responses to the virus, to better tailor communications to local fears, strengths, and histories. The core of their approach has been to recruit not only standard public-health actors but also small-town preachers and soap-opera stars, taxi-drivers and town criers, local reporters and cameramen. What would it look like, they’ve asked, to fight Ebola with culture makers?

Sarah Stillman reports on efforts in Africa to disseminate critical information about Ebola through cultural, rather than governmental, channels, like embedding such information in popular music lyrics. When people have a historical distrust of government, alternative means of distribution of public health care information are needed.

I was tempted to hold up the U.S. as an example of a place where people are more receptive to logic, but then I thought of the anti-vaxxers and anti-GMO movement and remembered that we're all crazy.