This article gave an incorrect last name for the founder of Africa Yes!, a relief group helping people in a Sierra Leone village. He is Steve Cameron, not Steve Carpenter. The article also misspelled the name of Africa Yes! member Fodei Mansaray and the name of the village, The village is Gbeworbu, not Gbeworbum.
DURHAM - At least three small Triangle nonprofit groups with West African ties are channeling money there to help fight the raging Ebola epidemic that has killed more than 5,000 people.
But they and individual immigrants who live here also have been sending something even more valuable: facts from people they trust on how to avoid and treat infections of the deadly virus.
“Information, with this disease, can be a life-saving tool,” said Juliet Jensen of the Durham-based relief group Africa Yes!
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“When it’s your friend or neighbor, someone who looks like you and dresses like you, and who has helped you before, it’s going to be a lot more well received than if it’s a foreigner in a strange suit.”
Groups like Africa Yes! represent semi-formal information pipelines from the Triangle, and there also are hundreds of informal ones.
Leone International Foods, a small store in a Durham strip mall, is a social hub for homesick West Africans. It offers African DVDs and staples such as plantains, gnarled cassava roots and the Ghanaian fermented cornmeal dumplings called Ga kenkey. Often there are enough customers from the same country that a visit is a chance to swap news about home. Too often lately that news is about Ebola.
The owner of the store, Darlington Hebron, said that it’s typical for those from the three affected countries – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – to not only check up with relatives back home regularly by cellphone, but to update them on the most recent information about the disease.
“You might just be telling them something simple, like stay away from places where someone is sick, or you might say more,” he said.
McSwain Forkoh runs the Liberian Community Organization nonprofit in the Triangle. He had been raising money for medical supplies and to distribute fliers in Liberia with informally worded public health messages about Ebola.
It’s crucial, Forkoh said, that they’re in the local vernacular, something that international relief organizations might not always do well.
Groups like his and Africa Yes! are direct conduits to West Africa for information sourced from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
But those facts also travel a different, longer public health chain. It starts with the ongoing series of frequent Ebola update emails and conference calls between CDC and state health officials, and then between them and local health departments.
Then, at the urging of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, local health officials have been reaching out to local immigrant populations.
It’s not known how many immigrants from the three countries caught up in the epidemic live in North Carolina. But the CDC estimates that there are 12,000 to 15,000 from 18 West African countries.
They are mostly located in the state’s most populous counties, with larger groups in Mecklenburg, Wake, Durham, Guilford and Forsyth. There are probably 500 to 1,000 in Durham County, said Eric Nickens, a spokesman for the county Department of Public Health.
State Division of Public Health officials have generally encouraged all counties with West African populations to reach out to them. Officials have also directly contacted some counties they knew had populations from the affected countries.
The aim is mainly to make sure the immigrants know what to do if a traveler among them begins showing symptoms. A by-product, though, is that in routine calls to relatives and friends in Africa, those immigrants spread the information.
“They’re really grateful for the information we’re able to provide,” Nickens said. “There is a lot of misinformation in West Africa, and they are able to share this information with friends and family back home to dispel that.”
Sometimes the source of the facts is the crucial thing, said Jerome Diggs, a Liberian immigrant who lives in Raleigh, and whose small nonprofit foundation, TEAM, helped organize an outreach event with the Durham health department earlier this month.
Calling home weekly
He runs the family farm in Liberia – lately without visiting it because of the outbreak – and in his weekly calls to his farm manager conveys the latest information and has him spread it to the farm workers. Diggs also gives family members there the same updates.
Often, he said, he’s telling them something they already know, but it’s still important to reinforce the truth.
“They’re more likely to accept it when we’re telling them, or at least to listen to us instead of some government official,” he said. “The people from the government actually aren’t saying much differently than we are, but it’s a matter of trust, and it comes down to who the messenger is.”
Africa Yes! works in remote southeastern Sierra Leone. Normally it focuses on housing and micro-lending in a group of small villages. But since July it has shifted mainly to battling Ebola.
Its two project managers, who are locals, have been traveling to the villages distributing supplies such as waterproof clothing, rubber gloves and rehydration mix and explaining to village leaders how Ebola works, how to avoid it and how to treat it to ensure the best chance of survival.
The pipeline of information from North Carolina may have had tangible results.
In August, Steve Cameron, who founded Africa Yes! to help people in and around the village where he served in the Peace Corps, Gbeworbu, collected the Ebola guidelines from WHO and the CDC. He then emailed that information to one of the project managers, Fodei Mansaray, who hitched a ride on one of the small motorbikes that serve as the local taxi service, jouncing along the heavily rutted dirt roads three hours to an Internet cafe at the nearest large town, Kenema.
Cameron updates the two project managers weekly by cellphone on changes in the guidelines, Jensen said.
A local government official met Mansaray while he was working on the Ebola campaign and asked him if the group could travel to more villages. It has now done outreach work in 28 of them, getting to them weeks ahead of any international relief group, Jensen said.
So far, Ebola hasn’t emerged in the area, she said, and it’s possible that the information campaign helped with that.
Fueling the epidemic has been a lack of understanding about how the virus is spread, and once the locals knew that they could only get it by direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone who was infected and showing symptoms, they knew it was wise to limit their travel and to limit contact with travelers, she said.
If anyone does develop a fever, one symptom of Ebola, the plan is to put them in a raincoat and pants and drive them several hours to the nearest clinic on the back of a motorbike driven by someone also dressed in rain gear.
With luck – and maybe because of the information pipeline from North Carolina – that won’t happen.