Preventing Ebola in Liberia’s Secret Bush Schools
By Alice Urban, Global Communities
Voinjama, Liberia – As Liberia continues to make gains in the fight against Ebola, Global Communities is partnering with traditional leaders to hunt down remaining infection threats in one of the most secretive institutions in the country.
“Bush schools” teach behaviors and rituals that prepare youth for adulthood within traditional Liberian society. On Jan. 19, Global Communities launched a national Special Traditional and Cultural Engagement initiative to encourage traditional leaders at bush schools to engage in Ebola prevention.
“The goal is to stop traditional practices at these schools for now, because some practices support Ebola transmission,” said Global Communities Country Director Pieter deVries.
Reuters reports that each year, thousands of youth leave home to attend bush schools – forest camps run by zoes (spiritual leaders) where they are initiated into secret societies called poros for boys and sandes for girls.
Health messaging has permeated much of the country, but WHO officials remain concerned that the last cases of Ebola infection and transmission will be the most difficult to reach. Practices in bush schools are not often discussed, but are said to include male and female circumcision as a means of initiation and other activities that could promote Ebola transmission. Potential Ebola cases would likely remain unknown to health officials due to the secretive nature of the rituals. To reach bush schools, it is necessary to engage traditional leadership.
The Special Traditional and Cultural Engagement initiative, a component of Global Communities’ ongoing USAID-funded Assisting Liberians with Education to Reduce Transmission (ALERT) program, will help chiefs travel to and meet with bush school leaders to encourage them to halt practices while Ebola remains a threat.
Since the beginning of the outbreak, Global Communities has worked closely with traditional leaders to spread preventative health messaging. “These leaders play a leading role in community meetings and dialogue sessions, particularly in remote communities and those with high levels of Ebola denial,” said Global Communities Environmental Health Advisor George Woryonwon.
In the case of bush schools, Liberia’s traditional authority, the National Council of Chiefs and Elders, is the only entity with the ability to monitor their activity, and traditional leaders are the only individuals to gain access. “There is ongoing secrecy there. Non-members cannot go,” said Woryonwon.
To ensure that Ebola messaging reaches the schools, Global Communities will work directly with the Council by providing logistical and coordination support. Traditional leaders will take the lead with direct engagement with the schools.
“We are in partnership with Global Communities to spread awareness,” said Setta Fofana Saah, National Coordinator for the Council of Chiefs and Elders. “Traditional people are very innocent to Ebola. It is important to come together to teach them and solve this problem.”
The initiative kicked off at Lofa County’s Voijama city hall with a celebration attended by some 150 community members, government officials, NGO representatives and 18 chiefs representing all of Liberia’s 15 counties. The event included song and dance, a traditional welcoming and launch ceremony and speeches by Global Communities leadership, representatives of various government agencies and Chief Zanzan Karwa, chairman of the National Council of Chiefs and Elders and the highest chief in Liberia.
“All the zoes, listen to me,” said Zanzan Karwa. “We can teach you about Ebola. Let Ebola leave this country.” Chief Zanzan Karwa formally launched the program, calling all zoes to suspend activities until Liberia is declared Ebola-free.
Following the launch, chiefs broke into six teams, which also included Global Communities and Ministry of Health representatives, and deployed across the country. They will spend the next month traveling to remote communities – often by foot – to meet with zoes and work to put an end to one of Liberia’s remaining Ebola transmission threats.