"Wise people" help to fight Ebola in remote villages of Guinea

May 2014

“We are your brothers and sisters, we could never lie to you” says 60-year-old Marianne, as she walks from her motorbike towards a group of angry people in village Katkama. She opens her hand and offers a cola nut and a little money. It is a sign of peace and respect – and, in this case, the gesture works – the villagers begin to listen.

Raising Ebola awareness in remote areas

Marianne Bayo holding a cola nut which is a symbol of peace and respect in Guinea
WHO/C. Salvi

Marianne Bayo Icamano is working on conflict management in the prefecture of Guèkuèdou, a town in Guinea’s forest region. As a former president of the women’s network for peace in the area, Marianne is well known. She was recently identified by the local health authority as someone who could help to raise awareness in the community about Ebola virus disease during the outbreak in Guinea.

Most of the more than 150 people in the country who died from Ebola lived in the remote forest regions near the Liberia and Sierra Leone borders. Marianne’s job is to help make sure that the disease that killed them does not spread.

Marianne is one among of twelve wise people who ‘open the road’ to the teams, who follow up on contacts of patients, bring sick people to the hospital, disinfect houses and make sure that nobody gets infected during funerals. These teams have not been welcomed. In many villages people had been throwing stones and blocking the roads with tree trunks to stop them.

Winning trust

“We have been winning the villagers’ trust though, which means the teams have been able to trace family members and persons who may have had contact with Ebola patients, to catch any further infection early on”, says Marianne. “We have also been raising the community’s awareness about the risks of the disease and the protective measures they can take”.

Marianne and the other wise people approach the villagers in the traditional manner, speaking of peace and brotherhood, apologizing for the intrusion, offering their condolences and handing out cola nuts. Soon they are surrounded by dozens of women and men, young and old, whose anger subsides as they finally begin to open their hearts: they have lost friends and family – the majority of the more than 100 people who have become ill with Ebola in Guékédou, have died. Marianne listens to the people and then tells the villagers how they can protect themselves from the disease. The process is lengthy and can take up to three hours. Marianne has visited 7 villages in two weeks.

Marianne on her motorbike that she uses to reach people in Guinea’s forest region
WHO/C. Salvi

“They tell us why they were angry and reticent. They thought they were being lied to and that patients in the treatment centres were not being fed or looked after. They thought that once a patient died he would be deprived of his organs and of his blood. But now they understand and accept the foreign health workers. That’s when the teams come in and do their job.”

Accurate information vital

The outbreak is not over yet as there are still Ebola patients being treated in the isolation ward in Guékédou. Outreach activities continue, with influential individuals like Marianne but also other actors including mining companies, banks, schools and local non-governmental organisations. They all play a part in calming fears, dispelling rumours and giving advice about infection prevention. Every piece of accurate information is vital and could save another life.

When Marianne relays her reports from the field, they are received enthusiastically. Her colleagues are all too aware that without her and the other “wise people” it would be even more difficult to win the fight against Ebola.