A theatre group in Sierra Leone uses comedy to share the message that Ebola may be almost gone, but awareness is still a matter of life and death.
PORT LOKO DISTRICT, Sierra Leone – Pa Jonsin is having a crisis. His son Junior has come home shaking with fever, and when the boy vomits, panic ensues.
Fortunately this is not real life, but a theatrical drama unfolding in front of an audience in Kaffu Bullom Chiefdom.
More than a hundred villagers, including many children, have gathered to watch the antics of the Pan Family Theatre Group as they perform an Ebola-themed play in the village centre. At times the audience looks concerned, and at other times they burst into laughter and applause.
“Mr. Jonsin’s son came home with the Ebola virus,” says Fatmata Mansery, spokesperson for the Pan Family Theatre Group, who also plays a member of the Ebola response team. “So as soon as he sees the signs and symptoms of Ebola, he decides to call the 117 hotline. We come and rescue his son – that’s the purpose of 117. If you feel sick, if you have dead bodies, you must call 117 – don’t touch the person. Call 117 and they will come and pick the person or the dead body and bury him.”
As of late October, Sierra Leone had not reported any new cases for five weeks, but vigilance remains critical. Sierra Leone had previously gone almost three weeks with zero new cases until one was reported in August, and several others after that.
At the height of the Ebola epidemic, large public gatherings were banned, as a measure to protect public health. Now that the ban has been lifted, the Government of Sierra Leone, in partnership with NGOs, the World Health Organization and UNICEF, has stepped up social mobilization efforts to ensure that people don’t let their guard down, which has made theatre interventions like this one possible.
“Through these drama groups, we are reviving a long tradition of using comedy to address social issues in Sierra Leone,” says Fredrick James, the UNICEF Communication for Development Officer responsible for the initiative. “Comedians helped bring peace and reconciliation following the civil war. Now we are using them to fight Ebola.”
In the play, Pa Jonsin does the right thing when his son comes home sick. He calls 117, and the ambulance team arrives promptly and takes charge of the situation.
“We have this creative way of making the messages, because people were tired of us telling them the same messages [over and over] again,” says Joy Caminade, of UNICEF Sierra Leone. “This is a way for them to enjoy the messaging, to be more attentive to the messengers, and be able to take home the messages to their families, to their communities, to their friends and to their classmates.”
“This play is very good for us,” says 12-year-old Zeinab Khoury. “It is a reminder to all of us children to wash our hands before we enter the classroom.”
As of 21 October, have been 8,704 confirmed cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone, with 3,589 confirmed deaths from the virus.
UNICEF works in partnership with WHO, the UK Department for International Development, the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, Government of Japan, Irish AID, and National Committees for UNICEF in response to the Ebola outbreak, including through the recovery phase. UNICEF’s US$160 million appeal for the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone remains underfunded, with approximately $126 million received as of 1 September, leaving a funding gap of $34 million.
By Indrias G. Kassaye