Sierra Leone: Red Cross Ebola soap opera educates and engages communities

Lisa Pattison / IFRC
A new Sierra Leone Red Cross tv soap opera aims to educate people about Ebola. Local celebrities donate their time to take part.
Image: Lisa Pattison / IFRC

A man painstakingly lectures his family on the importance of hand washing while the house next door is under quarantine. What could seemingly be a scene of an Ebola affected community is in fact the set of the Sierra Leone Red Cross’ new soap opera, Advice.

A year of fighting Ebola through aid work:
  • The Finnish Red Cross has sent material aid, such as tents for the Kenema clinic and clothes and kitchen supplies.
  • The Finnish Red Cross aid workers have been helping in the Ebola areas 39 times in total, on assignments of varying lengths.
  • Information on Ebola has reached 4.6 million people.
  • The Red Cross has helped over 52,000 people by looking for the infected and by monitoring the health of those who have been exposed to the virus.
  • Workers and volunteers have given psychosocial support to over 205,000 people.
  • The Red Cross Ebola treatment centres, the founding of which was supported by the Finnish Red Cross, are located in Kenema and Kono in Sierra Leone. In addition, the French Red Cross has a centre in Guinea.
  • The Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland granted 280,000 euros of humanitarian aid funding for the Ebola operations through the Finnish Red Cross. In September, the Ministry decided to grant additional funding worth 920,000 euros. The Ministry also granted additional funding worth a million euros on 26 January 2015. The total sum of funding from the Ministry is now 2.2 million euros

On closer inspection, the man lecturing his family about hand sanitation is a popular face for many Sierra Leoneons who will recognize him as the comedian, Ernest ‘Vamboi’ Brewah. The woman directing the actors at the quarantined house is Albertina Momoh, a well-known film producer in the country. National celebrities have been lending their support to the new soap opera which is aired on the weekly Saturday night Red Cross television show. Brewah explains, “We use our fame and make characters so that people will watch and can connect to us. All this helps to stop Ebola.”

By creating interesting characters and using locations and popular figures that everyday people can relate to, soap operas are one of the key tools for raising awareness about Ebola. “Drama is a fun way to engage, inform and entertain the public about different issues. We use it to educate people  about human rights, gender and health,” says Patrick Massaquoi, communications coordinator at the Sierra Leone Red Cross Society.

With the ongoing Ebola epidemic, continued innovative and new public awareness raising tactics are needed to convey and reinforce life-saving information. “Soaps represent an escape from reality, but at the same time allow people to connect with like-minded people. This way people can relate the scenes being played out in front of them to their present situation and they pay attention,” explains Massaquoi.

Massaquoi wrote the script for the soap opera to be able to provide accurate information and dispel any misconceptions about Ebola. One such episode is the household under quarantine during which the actors explain what the quarantine entails, why it happens and the importance of adhering to it. “Quarantine is very unpopular and it causes a lot of concern for people. With this scene we hope to inform them about the help they can receive from the authorities and Red Cross contact tracers,” adds Massaquoi.

Prior to the Ebola outbreak, the Red Cross frequently used community drama to convey key messages. However since the prohibition of public gatherings , drama has been played out on television and radio. The Red Cross soap opera is broadcast mainly in Freetown, but the script is also adapted for use on the radio by using extra sound effects. Radio remains one of the most popular channels of communication and is a trusted source of information for many Sierra Leoneons.

Both the radio and television dramas are performed by 30 volunteer actors who form the Red Cross drama society. Emmanuel A. Mondeh, one of the volunteer actors playing the part of a police officer outside the quarantined household, explains, “drama is part of life. With drama you can communicate with and include all people. If you are illiterate, you can still understand drama and learn.”

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