A simple search on Google with the phrase ‘Ebola songs’ showed above sixteen million results. Clearly they are not all songs and yet the number does indicate the magnitude of musical activity surrounding the Ebola epidemic in Africa in recent months. Many of these songs, aimed at raising awareness of the disease, were circulated with the help of international organizations, NGOs and health ministries of West African governments. Local musicians showed equal initiative, with radio stations playing the tunes all over the region. The tunes of course carry distinct sounding words that need to stand out among the instrumental flourishes. The main problem with tackling and treating Ebola was that it was not a widely known disease and its early symptoms could be mistaken for other ailments that Africans are a lot more familiar with.
No wonder, the first task of the medical agencies was to convince the populace that Ebola is real. It's no surprise that one of the greatest Ebola hits is titled precisely that ‘Ebola is real’. Of course, many of these songs had to be recorded in several languages and dialects, at times using an opportune mix of diverse tongues such as English, French, Yoruba and Fulani. Acknowledging the presence of the Ebola virus was only the beginning and the songs often have to go into the prosaic but vital details of its common symptoms and the dos and don’ts. This was very important, since in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Guinea the citizens were not willing to trust the state agencies, often seeing them as hostile intruders in the intimate and often sacred realm of the body. The Ebola messages were tough to convey even for a trusted agency. Imagine trying to convince a young mother that she should not touch or nurse her toddler child, a man shouldn’t bury his dead brother, that a father should not bathe a dead child’s body before burial and strictly follow the rules of quarantine. So the Hipco rap goes as follows in a language of prudent selfishness, unknown in traditional societies:
"It's real / It's time to protect yourself / Ebola is here"…"The only way you can get Ebola is to get in direct contact with the blood, saliva, urine, stool, sweat, semen of an infected person or infected animal". Why the West Africans behaved incredulously in the face of a killer disease will seem easier to understand if we look closer at our own rural society. ‘22nd June’, a Marathi film made in 1979, recounts the tale of the plague epidemic in Pune in 1897, when the British soldiers broke into homes of patients and removed them forcibly. The Indians reacted to this breach of honour through fatal assaults on British officials Ayerst and Rand. Similarly, a few months ago, village women in a remote district in Bihar, India thrashed a survey team of women sent by the government. With too many probing questions about their children, the villagers mistook them for child lifters, not uncommon in those parts.
Clearly, a military approach to Ebola or any other crisis cannot ensure compliance. Thankfully for Africa, good old orality could be commissioned to perform a harsh task in the sweetest possible manner.