In Liberia, the West African Ebola Outbreak claimed an estimated 4,810 lives between April 2014 and December 2016. Most of these cases happened in the early stages of the crisis when information about the virus was harder to access and accept, and many of these cases traced back to previous funerals and religious gatherings. Health workers and aid organizations worked to find effective ways to spread information quickly and convincingly in order to slow the spread of a highly fatal and contagious virus. One of the key groups of informants was faith-leaders. Liberia has an extremely high rate of religious participation: 86.2% of the population identify as Christian, and another 11.7% identify as Muslim. Since imams, pastors, and other faith leaders already had the attention and trust of their communities, their actions and statements about Ebola had the power to effectively educate followers about public health measures and counter disinformation. However, this same influence could be used to exacerbate sentiments of fear and denial and put lives at risk.
This project surveys the stories of six Liberian individuals who lived through the pandemic: an aid worker, an imam, a Christian youth minister, a transgender rights activist, and two Ebola survivors. Each guest has a personal understanding of how religious leadership affected their lives and the country during the outbreak. Adolphus Scott outlines the measures that he and his team at UNICEF took in order to disseminate information about the virus and partner with local faith leaders. Imam Harouna Kabbah, as a member of the Interfaith Council of Liberia, delivered sermons that aligned the Ebola prevention measures with the teachings of the Koran. He helped ensure congregants that it was acceptable to postpone some traditions, like ceremonial burials, until after the crisis was over.
James Davis and his team reprioritized their ministry work through Young Life Liberia to deliver relief supplies to families and counter the stigma around survivors like Josephine and Massah. After enduring the trauma of their illness and the loss of many of their family members, they found reentry to society to be difficult in unexpected ways. Since many people did not know how to interact with Ebola survivors, Josephine and Massah found themselves rejected from their communities and their churches. They found a new community of faith through a special camp program that James Davis and his team organized specifically to care for Ebola survivors.
Not all efforts by faith-leaders were positive. In August 2015, a group of over one hundred church ministers endorsed a statement saying that “God was angry with Liberia” and that the Ebola outbreak was a punishment for the country’s leniency on behaviors like “homosexualism.” Being gay is illegal in Liberia, and already dangerous in many social contexts. This sentiment exacerbated the risk to Liberia’s LGBTQIA+ community. Karishma, the founder of the Transgender Network of Liberia, explains how some groups blamed LGBTQIA+ individuals as either carriers of the virus or the reason for divine wrath. Karishma recounts how some people were wrongly taken to Ebola treatment centers as patients strictly because of their orientation.
Before the Ebola crisis, Liberia faced the two consecutive civil wars that claimed over 250,000 lives. A lot of the population was already familiar with living in a state of emergency, uncertainty, and trauma. In the wake of these traumas, the guests of this project expressed belief in the resilience of their country and hope for the roles the faith can play in helping and healing Liberia.
 Pew Research Center. “Religions in Liberia.” Pew-Templeton Global Religious Futures Project. Accessed October 29, 2020. http://www.globalreligiousfutures.org/countries/liberia#/?affiliations_religion_id=0&affiliations_year=2020®ion_name=All%20Countries&restrictions_year=2016
“Keeping the Faith: The Role of Faith Leaders in the Ebola Response.” Catholic Agency For Overseas Development, ChristianAid, TearFund, Islamic Relief. July 30, 2015. https://www.christianaid.org.uk/sites/default/files/2016-03/keeping-the-faith-research-report-jul-2015.pdf
Blevins, John B. Mohamed F. Jalloh, David A. Robinson. “Faith and Global Health Practice in Ebola and HIV Emergencies.” American Journal of Public Health. February 06, 2019. https://ajph.aphapublications.org/doi/abs/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304870
“Human Rights Violations Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LBGT) People in Liberia.” Stop AIDS in Liberia, Transgender Network of Liberia, Lesbian and Gay Association of Liberia, Liberian Initiative for the Promotion of Rights, Identity, Diversity, and Equality, Association of Liberian People Living with HIV and AIDS, ActionAid Liberia, The Initiative for Equal Rights, Center for International Human Rights, Norteastern Pritzker School of Law, Synergía-Initiatives for Human Rights. February 2018. https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CCPR/Shared%20Documents/LBR/INT_CCPR_CSS_LBR_30237_E.pdf
Saul, Heather. “Ebola Virus: Liberia church leaders claim deadly outbreak is ‘plague’ sent by God for ‘homosexualism’ and ‘immoral acts.’” The Independent. August 7, 2014. Accessed October 28, 2020. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/ebola-virus-liberia-church-leaders-claim-deadly-outbreak-plague-sent-god-homosexualism-and-immoral-acts-9654191.html
Ziv, Carolyn. “Honoring Liberia’s Freedom Fighters: How A Group of Imams Saved Their Community.” American Jewish World Service. April 7, 2016. https://ajws.org/blog/honoring-liberias-ebola-fighters-how-a-group-of-imams-helped-save-their-community/
“Giving Hope To Ebola Survivors: The Young Life Way.” 18 Feb 2015. Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism for Liberia. February 18, 2015. http://www.micat.gov.lr/index.php/blog/item/913-giving-hope-to-ebola-survivors-the-young-life-way.html
This project shares the personal experiences of Adolphus Scott, Josephine Kawa, Imam Harouna Kabbah, James Davis, and Massah and Karishma, who only show their first names.
This project features the song “Haute Plateau” by Los Mirnuls, which can be found at FreeMusicArchive.org. It is available under Creative Commons “Attribution noncommercial license.” https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.5/legalcode
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