Lifting Voices in Rural Liberia

Liberian journalists keep in touch with their local communities and their needs around health information.

“Having the opportunity to tell stories from these rural communities is like telling our own stories. We are inspired by the relationship with people we know.” — Alpha Senkpeni, LACSA Radio, Grand Bassa in Liberia.

Ebola is over, but the stories that linger in Liberia will be local journalists’ task to tell for a long time to come, says Alpha Senkpeni. Spending a day with Alpha and other Liberian journalists is a refreshing reminder of how community radio works: by listening and then relaying and listening again. And the questions he asks his audience all the time are: What do you want? What bothers you? What do you feel? What makes you laugh?

Henry Gboluma of Kpo Radio in Gbarpolu, Alpha Senkpeni of LACSA Radio in Grand Bassa and Eric Opa Doue of ECHO Radio in River Cess County represent just three of the Local Voices network of community journalists working in Liberia’s fifteen counties. The group was formed in 2015 by rural journalists who participated in Internews’ Information Saves Lives Ebola training and mentoring program. During the training, participants realized that they were in the unique position to tell stories about issues in rural Liberia to local as well as national and international audiences. Post Ebola, they have continued to be ears and eyes for people in all corners of the country.

Alpha Senkpeni, Henry Gboluma and Eric Opa Doue, Local Voices

They’ve come to Monrovia for the day, but their phones ring non-stop with complaints and bites of information from home, where the stories are. Henry gets a tip-off about problems with immunization and makes a mental note to run a talk show about it. Eric hears about how health workers have to stand in water to treat patients — the roof leaks everywhere. Local Voices journalists were all enrolled in the second Information Saves Lives program Internews offered, which worked with journalists from community and national media to report on the long-term impact of Ebola and on the fact that many other pathogens presented a low-grade but lingering health emergency. Health indicators in Liberia show unacceptable rates of deaths from treatable and preventable diseases, a high maternal mortality rate and seriously under-resourced public sector services. This second Internews program has ended, but the Local Voices group has taken the baton and continue to lift the voices from rural Liberia.

Local Voices is a prime example of the desired outcome of development aid: that locally-grown organizations should emerge and thrive. The journalists are from different media houses but united in their vision that the people of Liberia (not just the powerful people) should be heard about what matters most to them. Ahead of the Liberian elections, Local Voices received a grant from the Internews Liberian Media Development Project for issues-based coverage of the election.

“We keep getting stronger,” says Alpha. “As individuals, our stories are getting better, and as a group, we are a network of reporters who have strong emotional attachment to rural Liberia.”

Alpha, for example is on a year-long study and media attachment tour in China. Emmanuel Degleh, whose article on a collapsed road showed that people could not get to medical care, got the attention of the public and government officials and that got the road fixed. He has also won a fellowship with Thomson Reuters Foundation as a result of his health reporting.

Systems, organizations, individuals

At a critical time of the Ebola crisis in Liberia, there was panic and fear, rumor and distortion as people were trying to make sense of disease. The way to make impact was to identify information platforms that could swiftly allay fears and provide accurate information about Ebola. Information Saves Lives, supported by USAID’s Health Community Capacity Collaborative (HC3), started with building the skills of individual journalists to understand the science of Ebola and correct rumors on the airwaves. In time, radio stations would become an integral part of the health communications response system: health providers, community mobilizers and journalists informing Liberians about Ebola developments and engaging them to collect and correct rumors.

When Ebola ended, health emergency respondents at all levels did stocktaking. In his book Ebola, Paul Richards writes of his observations in Sierra Leone: “The international community’s alarmed response failed to take account of local expertise and common sense,” which Richards calls “people science.” Reflecting on how the humanitarian community would do it better next time, Parker Williams, who was with the Ebola Response Team of the International Committee of the Red Cross has stated that COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT has to be written in capital letters.

The Information Saves Lives project had recognized how community engagement and “people science” happens on community radio.

During a visit to Echo Radio in River Cess County, Eric Opa Doue explains why it works to talk to communities via journalists and talk show hosts on trusted radio stations — whatever the issue is that needs to be urgently talked about.

When Eric’s show is on, he is all arms and hands and ears, as he fields calls and reads texts from listeners to experts and lets the experts speak back to his community. He treats callers as trusted experts on their own needs, wants, and concerns. This community relationship did not start nor end with Ebola.

Eric explains that his station is a bridge of information in and out of the community on all topics. “Because the journalist can serve as police, can serve as doctor, as the immigration official … they can serve as just anything you think of.” When the health crisis was the topic, community members knew he did not have an agenda, other than to serve them with information and a way to talk to one another.

Eric Opa Doue of Echo Radio relays texts back to the audience

Parker Williams reminds us that in 1948 when the World Health Organization’s constitution was written, it was clearly stated that the participation of an informed public is essential to its public health. “Seventy years later, we are still struggling to see how that could be done.”

Health for the long haul

Health is a complex science. Attitudes about health, particularly when something is new and frightening, are even more complex. Months after Liberia reached the end of active virus transmission, news came of the death of Salome Karwah, a woman who survived Ebola and was named a TIME Person of the Year for her dedication to fighting the disease. She died of childbirth complications after she was refused help from hospital staff, who feared she had not survived Ebola after all.

Henry Gboluma of Kpo Radio told me that Ebola-related stigma was something to which he and his colleagues across the country would have to keep going back. Ebola is dead, but stigma is not, he said. Internews’ training included guidance on how the language journalists use and the way they educate and engage the public can play a significant role in reducing stigma and shaping social norms.

Many of our members either grew up or worked in these communities for years. They know the challenges in these communities,” Alpha tells me. “Our group is cognizant that the media can play a vital role in solving these challenges — be it health and stigma, education or infrastructure.”

Ida Jooste is Global Health Advisor for Internews.

Information saves Lives I and II were projects run in partnership with The Health Communication Capacity Collaborative (HC3), funded by USAID. HC3’s aim has been to strengthen capacity in developing countries to implement state-of-the-art social and behavior change communication (SBCC) programs — which are ideally networked in a social and behavior change ecosystem. To make the social and behavior change ecosystem better, HC3 designs capacity strengthening of individuals, organizations and systems.

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