Author: Musa Sangarie, BBC Media Action, September 3 2014 - A couple of weeks ago in the middle of the night, phones started ringing across Sierra Leone. Despite the late hour, people were calling to pass on the latest rumour about Ebola that bathing in salty hot water could protect you. By the next day, the rumour had swept across the whole country.
Such potentially dangerous misinformation is what our team in Freetown is tackling with a new radio programme. Called Kick Ebola Nar Salone (Kick Ebola out of Sierra Leone), the 30-minute show is produced weekly and broadcast three times a week on our 35 partner stations across the country.
As well as updating people with official, fact-checked statistics about the outbreak, we tackle rumours and misinformation head on.
For example, on our second episode, we took another rumour - that the drink “bitter Kola” could cure Ebola - and asked an official from the Ministry of Health, Lansana Conteh, about it.
He responded: "[Even] under normal circumstances, those rums aren’t good for you, let alone drinking it as a prevention or cure. Bitter Kola has nothing to do with Ebola! It can’t cure or prevent it - and people should stop peddling that information to mislead the public!"
So memorable was Lansana’s reply that our presenter, Amara Bangura, was stopped by listeners after the programme who wanted to talk to him and praise him about the exchange.
Stories of hope
The programme also features vox pops and radio packages featuring Sierra Leoneans from across the country.
For example, we broadcast an interview with a nurse called Veronica Tucker, who lives in Kenema, one of the country’s most affected areas.
Veronica told listeners how she began to feel ill and knew that she had to quickly take action. "As soon as I began to experience symptoms, I said to myself. I shouldn't waste time. I got up by myself and willingly went off for the [Ebola] test," she said. "After the test I came back to my house and isolated myself from my children. I was alone in my bedroom. I alone used my drinking cup, my plate and my spoon. When I finished eating, I threw away the leftover [food] and refused to give any to the children. When they asked me what was wrong, I said I am just keeping myself to myself until the day the result comes out. They called for me [to come to the treatment centre] and I was willing to go." (Listen to a clip from her interview on SoundCloud.)
By quarantining herself and going for early treatment, Veronica survived the Ebola virus and kept her family safe.
It was a tremendously moving interview which couldn’t have more vividly refuted the fear and denial that Ebola has provoked in people. We hope her story will inspire others to seek treatment early in order to improve their chance of survival and protect their family when they experience suspected symptoms of Ebola.
In addition to such moving personal stories on Kick Ebola Nar Salone, we have also been working with the BBC World Service to create short updates about Ebola which are broadcast during peak listening times on BBC Africa across West Africa. You can listen to them here.
Holding authorities to account
It’s not just our new programmes that are tackling the outbreak either. Our long-running question and answer show Tok Bot Salone (Talk About Sierra Leone) has given people the chance to question the authorities about their response to the outbreak.
We usually bring people face-to-face with their leaders, recording episodes in town and village halls, schools and market places. The emergency measures brought in to tackle Ebola, however, seek to minimise large gatherings. So we pre-recorded questions from audiences – including people in the quarantined areas of Kailahun and Kenema districts - and played them to the Minister of Health Miatta Kargbo.
Kailahun District Council Chairman Alex Bonapha was particularly concerned about the closure of the only bank in Kailahun and asked the minister when it would reopen.
Kargbo said that she had pleaded with the bank to reopen their operations in Kailahun as her ministry was ready to protect their staff. She reiterated the president’s commitment - made during his last visit to Kailahun - that he would address the issue of the bank.
The minister was also challenged about the steep rise in food prices in each area. She said that in addition to providing food to quarantined homes, the government is looking at allowing commercial wholesalers access to Kenema every week so they could provide essential food items.
Providing accurate, timely and reliable information in such a time of fear and denial is essential. But giving people the chance to get their voices heard is vital too.
Click here to access this BBC Media Action blog and related links on their work in Sierra Leone.
Image credit: BBC Media Action
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