By Jean-Matthew Tamba, IFRC
When the Ebola virus disease erupted in Guinea in December 2013 and quickly spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone, Gambians considered the outbreak as a distant cry until six months later when it struck neighbouring Senegal and Mali.
As the second smallest country in West Africa, Gambians feared that if Ebola ever struck their soil, it would have devastating consequences on the small population of 1.8 million people.
To help allay that fear, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), in support of The Gambia Red Cross Society, and with funding from the European Union, launched a beneficiary communication and social mobilization project in ten countries in sub-Saharan Africa, including The Gambia. The project aims to build awareness, preparedness and prevention for the Ebola virus disease and other prevalent epidemic threats and disasters through community radio and social mobilization.
The Gambia Red Cross Society staff, supervisors, focal points and 173 volunteers were trained in beneficiary communications techniques. Volunteers then hit the streets, visiting popular gathering spots and communities where they talked with people and encouraged them to prevent the spread of disease through simple actions like washing their hands. They corrected misperceptions and rumours, and attempted to persuade people to at least temporarily abandon their strong hand-shaking tradition in order to minimize the man-to-man mode of transmission of the Ebola virus.
It was a formidable challenge, but the volunteers persevered, reaching 1.1 million people, more than half the population. “The Ebola outbreak is over, but we need to continue sensitization efforts,” says Modou Turay, the focal point of The Gambia Red Cross Society’s beneficiary communications team. “Since we started the project in September 2015, we have conducted at least 40 activities including coordination meetings, focus group discussions, house-to-house visits, and broadcast 266 interactive radio programmes in several languages in the seven targeted regions of the country.”
During the radio broadcasts, Red Cross staff and volunteers received 1,307 telephone calls from people requesting clarifications, making a contribution, or showing their support for the initiative.
“As a result of your radio broadcasts and the house-to-house visits, we have decided to place a big bucket at the entrance of our compound so that visitors can wash their hands before entering and greeting any family member,” says the head of one family in Foni Jifanga town.
And as volunteers continued their community engagement activities, there was a noticeable drop in hand-shaking along the border with Senegal. “This is how we managed to maintain a zero Ebola infection and significantly reduced the transmission of other prevalent diseases in our country,” says Turay.
“Even if the project ends now, we will only need minimum assistance from our communities for us to be able to provide support to them in the event of a disaster.”