“Even though NERC and its subsidiary agencies were working incredibly hard, the war of words was a struggle,” Shadi Al-Gerjawi explains. “We brainstormed how we could potentially help public interest announcements cut through. We decided to launch a new, nationwide radio-station effort dedicated specifically to Ebola issues, and to make it available to the government and its partner agencies who were trying to make themselves heard.”
It worked. The national network of community radio stations was mobilized and coordinated, beginning in 2014. Previously, a multitude of local outfits displaying little interest in correcting falsehoods had jousted for the public’s attention. But now, Sierra Leoneans had a single verifiable source broadcasting Ebola news impartially.
The Africell brand lent familiarity. Popular DJs helped messages resonate in plain language. Spit-flecked homilies were replaced by evidence-backed updates. The government and the international agencies all had designated broadcast slots, including the popular “Join Hands to Drive Ebola Out” program with Joe Bangura, an Africell executive. At reliable intervals, listeners could tune in and learn what they needed to about the situation. As the months passed and listener numbers grew, the cacophony elsewhere subsided.
“Of course, it was the doctors and nurses who were in the trenches,” Al-Gerjawi says. “But because of radio broadcasting, people who might previously have ignored government advice started to listen, comforted by the fact it came from a trustworthy source. The radio contributed to a sense of national unity—that we really were all in this together, working toward a common goal.”
By the time it was declared clear in March 2016, the Ebola virus had killed almost 4,000 Sierra Leoneans and infected another 11,000. Those lucky enough to survive had experienced hell. Scarcely any families or communities were unaffected. In addition to Sierra Leone, many lives were lost in neighboring Guinea and Liberia, as well as in Nigeria and Mali. At its peak, the WHO warned of a possible pandemic, enveloping the whole world.
It’s three years on and today, Sierra Leone presents a startlingly different picture. The economy is growing. International investment is brisk. Tourists are arriving daily with surfboards and hiking boots. A new democratic government, elected in 2018, focuses on relatively benign matters such as interest rates and infrastructure. Freetown’s strobe-lit bars and beachfront crab shacks are busy all day and all night.
Shadi Al-Gerjawi dismisses the notion that the Ebola crisis was vanquished by heroes.
“No,” he says. “The notion of heroism in that situation is unhelpful. When people took risks, they caught the virus. And if they did that, they often either died or passed it on. What was needed was discipline. We told colleagues to ‘help yourself before you help others.’ People were deliberately encouraged to not be heroes.
“We just got on with it. We believe our efforts helped the overall response, and that is great. But we haven’t tried to show off. Sierra Leoneans remember the Ebola outbreak, but they don’t like to think about it too much. People are focused on the future. When they judge Africell, they judge what we do for them now, in 2019—not what we might have done in the past.
“More than anything else, people care about cheap rates and fast internet. That suits us just fine.”