By Mirabelle Enaka Kima, IFRC

Democratic Republic of the Congo’s traditional leaders, the main influencers and keepers of ancestral customs, are the key to community safety and surveillance against the ongoing outbreak of Ebola.

In this context, heightened surveillance is undeniably the ultimate step leading to the adoption of safe practices and considerations. In most affected areas, engaging community leaders as key decision-makers has been essential to ensuring openness of communities and effective behaviour change.

Jean-Baptiste Youka Ibongo is a traditional chief and main leader of a large territory of Bikoro, covering 275 villages. Through his exemplary commitment to the fight against the current Ebola epidemic, he has become an important focal point for his community and today he acts as one of the main links in the chain of community-based surveillance.

“During the early stages of the outbreak, we did not know what Ebola was all about. We could not protect ourselves and our families against its devastating effects,” he said.

“Our ignorance about the disease gave space to rumours and misinformation. People were even asking whether Ebola is real, or some would remain confined in their homes to avoid being contaminated. We were all complacent with safety measures provided by aid agencies.”

Understanding the epidemic, its symptoms and especially how to avoid being contaminated, became imperative for Jean-Baptiste, in order to play the role of an agent of change in his territory.

“Receiving key knowledge about Ebola gave me adequate arguments and tools to speak to my community and progressively help them understand the dangers and risk involved,” he explained.

The commitment of traditional leaders like Jean-Baptiste has been a great asset to the community engagement efforts of the Red Cross. Partnering with traditional leaders instils trust and feeling of ownership towards the relief activities and the actions undertaken to promote safe practices.

One of the main targets of the Red Cross intervention has been adopting ways and mechanisms that allow teams to safely enter communities and to interact with them. Improving the work of community volunteers has consisted of building their capacities to be able to support families to adopt safe prevention attitudes and to monitor and report community events.

More than 270 volunteers were trained to conduct awareness-raising sensitization in the three most affected heath zones of Wangata, Bikoro and Iboko. The traditional leaders, knowing the people and being custodians of the cultural heritage, help the communities apply culturally compatible approaches. This builds stronger trust for community-led solutions and reduces fear and misinformation.

In Bikoro, more than 150 community awareness agents, led by community animation focal points, are working under the leadership and supervision of Jean-Baptiste. On a daily basis, these community agents visit households with messages for safe practices.

“I believe it has been a good thing for us to be supported by aid organizations in acquiring essential knowledge about Ebola and the communication skills to ease the work we are doing,” Jean-Baptiste said.

In order to preserve knowledge acquired from the Ebola operation, and to support ongoing efforts in reaching remote villages with sensitization messages, traditional leaders consult each other as often as possible.

Jean-Baptiste said: “It is an approach that allows us to strengthen the solidarity of the group, and also to continue sensitizing the communities. However, because of limited financial means, these capacity building initiatives do not take place frequently.”

The current outbreak started in Bikoro and Ikoko-Impenge areas in Equateur, where five suspected cases were found in May, of which two tested positive for Ebola. So far, Bikoro has recorded the highest number of Ebola cases.

Thomas Bokundu Itofe, the DRC Red Cross president for Equateur province, said: “Building trust between the communities and the Red Cross is key to ensuring that the teams enjoy safe access to the villages.

“We guarantee that the people are duly informed and engaged in taking the necessary steps to protect themselves and their families, while respecting the local values.”