Ivory Coast: Stopping Ebola at the Borders
Ivory Coast: Stopping Ebola at the Borders
Adjoua Martine Konan had heard people in this cocoa-farming region of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) talk about the Ebola outbreak that was ravaging neighboring Liberia and Guinea. But Konan didn’t think the outbreak was real. “I thought it was just a rumor,” she said, “created by Westerners to stop us from eating bush meat.”
Her community, like many here in western Cote d’Ivoire, has long depended on bush meat, including small rodents, as a source of vital protein. So it was hard to accept what health experts were saying: the handling and consumption of Ebola-infected bush meat can spread the disease among humans. But after seeing images of victims in the media, “I realized that Ebola is very real,” said Konan, a slender woman whose shy and retiring smile belies her strength. Since then, Konan has attended Ebola prevention sessions initiated with the help of CARE. And her thinking changed.
More importantly, she started changing how others in her community view the Ebola threat too. The single mother of five boys and one girl serves as vice president of the Community Development Committee in Brokoua, a village of 1 000 people in the central west of Cote d’Ivoire. The committees, part of the Cocoa Life project, engage with all of the community — including women and children, farmers, and village leaders — to take forward development plans designed together to lift them out of poverty. The sessions on Ebola prevention were integrated into regular training events as part of CARE’s support of the government’s Ebola prevention plan. Armed with posters and storyboards designed by the Ministry of Health, the committees spread messages on how to stop Ebola in its tracks. “I now know more about Ebola,” Konan said, “what it is and how to prevent it from entering into my village.”
Konan returned to home and started holding meetings with neighbors. Families are now eating more fish, pork and beef instead of bush meat, she said. Konan also has coached her neighbors in washing their hands regularly and encouraged them to avoid shaking hands and other normal greetings that involve touching. She crosses her arms over her chest to demonstrate. “It is hard for us to change our habits,” she said, “but we know we need to, to stop transmission.”
Celestin Bouazo, another participant in Cocoa Life training session, agrees. An elder and village chief in nearby Bezu, he is spreading Ebola prevention practices among the forested hamlet’s roughly 2,000 residents. The father of nine said that means maintaining the respect of not only locals, referred to as autochtones, but also the immigrant community (Liberian, Malawian, Burkinabe, Guineans), called allogènes.
Knowing that maintaining their trust is more important than ever, Bouazo said he has started sending invitations to meetings in the form of official letters, which convey greater respect. “Before I would just send my messenger to their houses to tell them to come to a meeting,” Bouazo said. “CARE helped me change the way that I communicate with others and now I am more respected by all village groups.”
The training sessions attended by Bouzo, Konan and 30 other community leaders in the region include information on how to identify potentially sick people. They also advise participants on how to report the suspected cases in a way that won’t stigmatize people in an area that is home to multiple allogène groups. A key tool: a new national hotline installed by the Ivorian government to receive reports of suspected new cases.
Sekou Traore, who oversees five local cocoa cooperatives, agrees that communicating across ethnic lines is critical to assuring Cote d’Ivoire doesn’t become the next country in West Africa with a severe Ebola outbreak. Traore, who works regularly with various groups to coordinate the harvest and cocoa sales, said now a key part of his job is preventing Ebola. After participating in one of the training sessions, Traore said he’s going to organize more meetings with village chiefs and community committees in the region so they can grow into Ebola prevention advocates too. “We are acting quickly to spread information about the sickness,” he said with a sense of urgency, “and how to protect our communities against it.”