By Corinne Ambler, IFRC

By the side of a dusty highway in Tanéné, in southwestern Guinea, two young Red Cross workers crouch in the back of a four-wheel-drive among wires, headphones, microphones and a box that looks like a mini studio control panel.

In between blasts of catchy music to pull in listeners, the deejay, who is actually an experienced Red Cross beneficiary communications officer, takes calls from people wanting to find out about Ebola.

“They want to know how you get Ebola, what are the symptoms, and is it real,” says Alpha Camara, a 28-year-old Red Cross Society of Guinea technician, who will be operating the `radio in a box’ in this town for a month.

“It really is working and having a very positive effect. People now understand more about the Ebola virus, for example that they shouldn’t touch people who have Ebola or have the symptoms,” he says.

The coordinator of beneficiary communications for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in Guinea, Yvonne Kabagire, says Santéya Radio (or Health Radio in the local language Susu) has been set up in partnership with the Red Cross Society of Guinea to educate, inform and engage communities.

“This community had no access to communications channels like radio or TV so it had no good information on the Ebola virus disease and several rumours and false information were circulating. As a consequence, there was fear and a lack of trust in humanitarian workers and their work, creating a climate where the virus could rapidly spread,” she says.

“Santéya Radio has opened a door for dialogue with communities that had long remained unknowledgeable and defensive to preventive measures against Ebola. At first they were shy but now there’s been a total opening up. It has enabled us to convey good messages on all aspects of the response and regain the communities’ trust.”

Radios help break down barriers

Until recently, Red Cross staff and volunteers were scared to do Ebola education work in the town of Tanéné because of community resistance and violence towards humanitarian organizations. But today, as the team heads to Dembayah village to distribute portable radios, there are only smiles and waves for the Red Cross convoy.

In the village centre, women queue impatiently for the solar-powered radio their family will receive from the Red Cross, while those who have already received their’s, fiddle excitedly with the knobs, antenna and wind-up handle. People show their friends and children reach for the new gadgets.

Village elder Salifou Sylla is relaxing under a shady tree near his house with his wife and five children. As he tries to find 98.0, the Red Cross frequency, on his little green radio, he talks about how beneficial it has been to receive information about Ebola and says he and his neighbours have learned some very important messages.

“The radio allows me to believe Ebola exists and all the community now believes in Ebola,” he says. “People know that everything the Red Cross says about Ebola is real. They know what the symptoms are and now, when people feel sick, they immediately go and see a doctor. I know now that the Red Cross exists all over the world and helps people and saves lives.”

IFRC has purchased three of the mobile `radio in a box’ units – one for each of the three countries affected by Ebola. It is hoped the programme can soon be rolled out in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The radios come with an antenna which is set up on the back of a flatbed truck, enabling the broadcast to be heard hundreds of kilometres away. IFRC has also purchased portable solar radios, 5,000 of which are being handed out to people in Guinea who live in isolated communities without access to radio programming. The solar radios are popular because they do not need batteries and also contain a torch. With recovery funding, IFRC hopes to purchase 10,000 more radios to distribute throughout the country.

Back at base, Alpha Camara is taking a well-earned break from the headphones while a piece of music plays. He says he enjoys the work. “I like to help my community. Guinea has a problem and I am Guinean, so I have to help, I enjoy helping my people.” And with a smile, he hops back into the car and puts his headphones back on for the next round of talkback on the radio station that could save lives.