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Life after Ebola - stories of love, loss and reconnection in Sierra Leone

In August 2014 the massive spread of Ebola isolated countries like Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia from the outside world. While many media took to report from the epicentre of the unfolding crisis, once the emergency situation was over, so was the media attention. But how does life look after Ebola?

This is the question that our grantees from On Our Radar and New Internationalist set out to explore in their “After Ebola” project. In this interview, Paul Myles from On Our Radar tells us the unique approach they took to reporting life after Ebola through a joint effort with community reporters in Sierra Leone.

Can you tell us briefly about “After Ebola” project and what you aimed to achieve with this project?

On Our Radar has been working and training people in Sierra Leone since 2012. We worked with local communities throughout the entire Ebola crisis both on the ground and remotely. We built an SMS hub that allowed us to get continuous updates from the locals from some of the worst hit areas during the crisis. We found it extremely important to collect information directly from the people affected by Ebola so that they could share their perspectives with an international audience.

After the epidemic was over, community reporters were still sending us stories and anecdotes about the long-term social and economic impacts of the Ebola crisis. They were saying to us: “Look the cameras and news outlets have gone home, but there are still many stories to tell”. At that moment we thought it was important to have a more reflective look back on the crisis and to tell these forgotten stories. We wanted to go beyond the breaking news cycle of the crisis and focus instead on human-centred stories showing how everyday life is in the Ebola aftermath in a country like Sierra Leone.

What was the team like for this project?

The entire team was united by the idea that it was important to revisit Sierra Leone once the crisis was over. We all had a strong belief in the community reporters we’ve worked with during the crisis. These are the “experts”, the people who experienced the crisis first hand. We decided that the project was to be completely led and narrated by this group of community reporters. They could tell us in a raw and authentic way how people in Sierra Leone were experiencing life after Ebola. Eight reporters from different communities all over Sierra Leone became an integral and central part of our team. They identified the main characters for the stories, did the interviews and narrations and it is their dedication to get these stories out that made this project so real and touching.

Hazel Healy from The New Internationalist focussed on the West’s response to Ebola, taking a critical look at what could have been done better. I focused on multimedia production.

Together we agreed that we will tell universal human stories: about love, socialising, football, university, or grieving. It was not about Ebola, but about everyday life during and after Ebola.

Why did you decide to specifically show life in post-Ebola Sierra Leone from an everyday life perspective?

These universal kind of stories can reach a much wider audience unlike storytelling targeted to the international development audience. That is why we wanted to make a project which is not just about Ebola itself. Ebola acted like a backdrop for everything. It was a crazy set of circumstances whereby all public gatherings and all social life are put on hold:no markets, no football matches, no nightclubs, no schools, no universities. There were stories of people who even did not want to touch each other, to shake hands, hug, or even make love.

Ebola provides a dystopian backdrop against which we can learn more about our human experience during and after an Ebola like crisis. It makes us think about the long-term social and economical effects on people’s lives in Sierra Leone. We tried to look beyond the crisis and instead look at how Ebola affected people’s conscience, individual communities or the economy.

How did you ensure that the stories you were receiving from citizen reporters were real and not fake for instance?

Our model, what we call community reporting, is a bit different from citizen journalism. Our platform is not just an open channel where everyone can post on Twitter or Facebook. Our approach is to train networks that have been trusted by local partners on the ground. At the beginning of a new project we start working with groups of reporters who are nominated by their community.

We use this training to address things like: how to report safely and securely, how to verify facts, how to deal with sources, how to find a story, etc. After submitting their story, our job here in London is to make sure that the story is verified and is accurate. We often have several reporters in the same locations. This way, we can always triangulate by speaking to other reporters from the same towns to see if they have similar experiences.

What was the actual workflow between the community reporters and the team back in London?

Our approach is called collaborative storytelling - we use this approach at On Our Radar in most of our work. The aim is always to provide people with technology, confidence and the opportunity to share their stories in their own words and in their own time. We work with them collaboratively to prepare those stories for mainstream media. The main idea is that some of the most unheard or marginalized communities can get the opportunity to share their stories.

For this project, we started to discussed the stories that the community reporters wanted to tell via our SMS hub. When we arrived in each location, we would do a ‘storydive’, deciding which stories would work best and how best to film them. From our side, we were focusing mainly on the production process and mentoring reporters on how best to do the interviews.

We ran through the script and through the video to check if they were happy with the way it was narrated and presented. When the community reporters appeared in the films themselves, they also did the narration and introduction themselves. In the end, we sat down all together and looked at the final content and decided on the best script lines.

Was it hard to work between a team based in London and another in Sierra Leone?

Luckily we managed to keep the balance in place and it all went quite well. Most of the reporters were active and were able to contribute to the production of the stories. All of them had very interesting stories and anecdotes. Unfortunately, we could not show all of them, as we needed to keep the focus as initially agreed. The final stories were filmed in very different locations: an urban slum, university town, a beach, very remote water towns in the East, a polio camp. Our reporters were based in those places, and sometimes would work together as a team.

One of the reporters, Amjata, had initially come across the story for Tripoli boys movie. Another reporter,Mohamed, was actually from the slum, where the story was filmed. He had good access and trust with the gang of Tripoli boys, and so they worked on this film collaboratively to get the best result.

Do you still keep in touch with the community reporters in Sierra Leone?

We are still in touch with them, even at this moment. We are doing together a few other small projects in Sierra Leone. One of them is related to long-term impacts of Ebola. They are doing interviews with people on the free move and business opportunities.

At the same time, we are looking out for the next chance of working with them on new stories. It was a great feeling for all of us when they recently showed their after Ebola stories at a film festival in Freetown. They were very proud to be able to show these films in their country and to their communities and to engage in a Q&A session with the attending audience. I believe it is one of the best outcomes to see that they managed to start conversations back in their homeland. They have been extremely proud of the results and the role they could play in “putting Sierra Leone back on the map”, as many people have already forgotten about Ebola.

What were the “stumbling blocks” or challenges in this project?

We were perhaps a tad overambitious in what we were doing. We did a backend website of the Story Behind the Story, and then we have built our own website for the New Internationalist. We pitched the stories, added several ideas and presented them for other media outlets. They were interested in what we had done, but each wanted things packaged up in a different way.

This was a complicated and time-consuming process. We had to translate and subtitle videos into 4 different languages : Spanish for El Pais, Dutch for De Correspondent, Italian for Internazionale, and French for Le Parisien. Additionally, all media outlets had their own standards, visions and requirements for the packages. For De Correspondent we did a couple of articles with the videos embedded. In Internazionale, videos were presented as separate online pieces, as weekly series. For Le Parisien the videos were designed into a web documentary. We also did a couple of TV broadcasts for Channel 4News in the UK, which also meant re-editing the story in a more TV style. For Channel 4 news we also did a couple of videos for their Facebook page. These have been viewed 1.5 million times and there were numerous comments and shares which helped to raise discussions about life post-Ebola. In the end, our stories were in print, on television as well as online, which was all complicated, but rewarding. The reaction has been amazing. We’ve been invited to screen the project in universities and in different places around London. The web documentary has been nominated for 3 awards so far and ‘highly commended’ by the Association for International Broadcasters. It means we chose the right stories to tell: personal, intimate, and universal, making it easy for a global reader to connect with the realities of life after the crisis.

We also had interactive features on our website, which allowed people to respond directly to community reporters, and ask questions. That has been a very interesting response, as we received many messages from the public. People were asking us to pass on messages to the citizen reporters about how they relate on a personal level to their stories. Everybody seems to empathise with a different story, because it reminds them of something from their own life. So, that has been really successful.

What advice would you give future grantees?

Decide clearly on a publication strategy and publication format before embarking on a project and on the trip. Leave enough time for the publication process, as it always takes longer. Ideally if you can do just one package, and get that translated into different languages for different outlets that makes your life a lot easier. Negotiate timely with commissioning editors and translators, prepare subtitles, supply media outlets with all photographs, extra bits of videos they need. Allocate time for that. It’s a lesson we’ve learnt.

At the end I would like to say that the grant programme offered us a wonderful opportunity to get such a project published across many media and countries. It is satisfying and exciting to think that from one reporting trip we have managed to go out in so many mainstream outlets and in totally different countries.

Should media use community reporting more often when telling the realities of developing countries?

These types of after Ebola stories are best told directly by the locals. When you cut out the middleman the stories gain more authenticity and elicit more empathy from the audience. There is no need in a guy like me standing in front of the camera, explaining what has just happened. It is best to hear directly from the community and in their own words.

It is not only a matter of leaving reporting skills behind in the country you are working in. This is also a way to ensure you get access to a much richer range of stories.

The fact that we were able to follow Mariama in her search of her father’s grave is because we have been working with her for several years. We reported with her on the day her father died. Because one of our reporters had grown up in the same neighbourhood he knew people there and it helped us to bring this story to life.

Looking at the way our model works, it is easier today to do reporting through modern technologies. Involving the community directly is a great way to let people take the lead in telling their own stories. It allows media to get a long term stream of stories beyond their stay in that country. Many reporters parachute in and leave again after they finish reporting on a story. At the end, their relationship with the community is finished and that is a shame. In my opinion, there is no better time than now to start listening to people from those communities.

What are your future plans? Are you planning to use the same approach again?

We find this methodology essential for our work. We recently used it to make a film called Dementia Diaries with the Guardian, where we gave people with dementia special 3D printed reporting phones so that they could share their own stories in their own words. We also have a citizen-led investigation on the health impacts of gas flaring in the Niger Delta and we received another EJC grant to do a story in Bangladesh from the perspective of women garment workers there and we will use the same approach in this project as well.

When we begin working with a community, we always start with very open questions: what should we report on? What is the narrative you’d like to shape? What are the important issues for your community? Rather than having decided already what you are going to report on, whom you are going to film, you can take a more open approach and listen more carefully. You’ll get more and better stories now and in the future.


An interview by Aleksandra Rudyak, an intern at EJC. Aleksandra graduated from Uzbekistan State University of World Languages (USUWL). She currently does her MSc program in Environmental Policy and Governance (ENP) at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

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