Friday, September 19, 2014

Fear, loathing, and murder in Womey, Guinea

Reports of the brutal murder of most of an ebola outreach team by villagers in Womey, Guinea already has spawned reactions on social media referring to "ignorance" and "low education levels." Nothing excuses such killing, but before concluding that the causes are a local population that is simply unenlightened and/or given to violence, more facts should be sought.

What is known of the incident from current reports (see 18 Sept. reports in GuineeNews, ReliefWeb, Washington Post) is that a team consisting mainly of local government officials and local media went to Womey on Tuesday 16 Sept. as part of an ebola education campaign. They were attacked by a mob with stones and clubs, and 8 of them killed as they fled into the bush (9 people were listed as missing in this report, and apparently all but the son of the Sous-préfet of Womey [head of the "sub-prefecture" administrative area] were confirmed dead; the regional governor, Lancèi Condé, and a female journalist also escaped alive).

Womey is in the region where ebola in West Africa first occurred about nine months ago. This virus had never before been seen in the area, and apparently many people suspected it had been brought by outsiders. An incident in N'Zerekore city (not far from Womey) in late August certainly fed the anxiety level when workers were sent into a market to spray disinfectant without prior announcement - some people reportedly feared the spray was intended to spread the virus. Riots ensued.

It is worth recalling that when reading a report that people in Womey feared the ebola campaign team had come to kill them.

It is also worth considering this evaluation from Cheikh Ibrahima Niang, a Senegalese anthropologist who has worked in some ebola-affected areas of the region:
"Quand les populations disent qu’Ebola n’existe pas, elles se rebellent contre quelque chose. Elles sont dans des situations où on ne les a pas consultées et ont l’impression qu’on les traite avec beaucoup de paternalisme." [When people say that ebola doesn't exist, they are rebelling against something. They are in situations where they haven't been consulted and have the impression they are being treated with lots of paternalism.]
So it seems that some of the issues involved in the events in Womey are: fear; anger; sharply different perceptions of authorities on the one hand and local residents on the other; and communication or lack of it.

With my interest in language in development communication - and in public education on ebola - I've also wondered what the linguistic dimensions may have been. The region of Guinea in which this took place is very multilingual (much more than the other three traditional regions of the country, in each of which one African language dominates). In addition to 5 languages (of Guinea's 8 national languages) - Guerzé/Kpelle, Kissi, Toma, Kono, and Lola - there is also the official language of French. And some of the higher level government and health officials come from other regions and not speak any of the local languages. That adds to complexity of communication: Were communications in locally dominant languages lacking in quality or frequency? Did they counter the narrative about ebola being introduced and how? How strong were the local language skills of the outreach team? (On the latter question, the presence of local radio journalists on the team presumably means there were people fluent in the local language(s).)

An article giving Gov. Condé's account of the incident in Womey hints at language as a factor, but in an unexpected way. Apparently the delegation had visited other localities without incident, and the meeting in Womey began in a relaxed atmosphere. The governor's opening talk (presumably in French; there was no mention of that or interpretation) went well. According to the account, however, when another team member stepped up to talk in the local language (which was not specified), people started throwing rocks, and chaos ensued. This could be interpreted in various ways, of course. It would be horrible to think that a misstatement by the second speaker was so off or misinterpreted that it triggered the reaction. On the other hand, it is no more comforting to see this as premeditated. So it will be informative to have any further information as it becomes available.

In any event, one must come back to the nexus of issues around fear, anger, perceptions, and communication. Of these, communication is a key to mitigating other issues, and language (choice of languages, quality of translations, etc.) is inseparable from the communication process.


Neil Carey said...

Very inciteful commentary. Thanks.

Womey seems to be smack dab in the middle of Kpelle (Guerzé) country, with the Toma, Southern Kono, and Mano not far. These are all areas with active Poro.

Poro Zoes in Liberia and Sierra Leone have been reported as denying the existence of Ebola and continuing to practice traditional healing (probably as well as other rituals). Ironically, this behavior impedes containment efforts including education of the community (even in the correct dialect). As was seen in SL, traditional healers can act as vectors for the spread of the virus (365 cases were all traced back to one woman traditional healer in Sokoma, who claimed to have the cure for EVD, attracting patients from across the Guinea border, and facilitating the spread to Kenema).

There have been well-publicized governmental reactions in SL and Liberia, where officials have publicly banned secret society activities by the Zoes. These mandates do not seem to have been very effective.

Clearly, public health measures should have started "at the top" with the education and hopefully the cooperation of the Zoes, and then they could have been more instrumental in infection control efforts.

The Poro Zoes are still the de facto power in Liberia, SL and SE Guinea. One can't help but wonder if the killings in Womley would have occurred if the local Zo, Da Zo, Zóo-ŋa had forbidden such behavior ahead of time.

I'm curious…Is there currently any man who acts as the Dahkpanah (supreme head of all the Zoes) as Charles Taylor and William Tolbert have done in the past?

Don said...

Thanks Neil, I appreciate the additional insights. I haven't been tracking the role of Poro societies (and can't claim to know much about them. It would seem logical to find ways to work with such structures (and via the languages they use) to educate and motivate constructively. Can secret societies be a part of a participatory planning and action effort?

Don said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Charles Chukwuemeka Okolie said...

In the first instance I believe the power and influence of effective communication as neglected in those affected communities in Guinea, Liberia and Seirra leone as compared with Nigeria. Communication in the local language is very necessary because it brings the message home.Nigeria is a multilingual society. Ebola message was given in more than 100 languages including the tiny minority tongue both in the print and electronic media.Prevention measures were adequately communicated and its impact was seen and evidenced by fast containment of the spread of EBOLA.A foreign language is taken same way a foreign disease is taken.

Don said...

Thanks Charles. I'm very interested to learn the extent of ebola messaging in Nigerian languages. Are these the result of a governmental or non-governmental organization initiative, or both? Is there a list of which languages? As Nelson Mandela once said, "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart."

Don said...

Worth noting a recent (9/19/14) Washington Post article "The fear and hopelessness behind the deadly attack on Ebola workers in Guinea," which gives good background on the event and the social situation in the region. Unfortunately there is no exploration of communication (and by extension, language) issues in the ebola efforts there.
(Reposted with corrected outlink.)