Tell Me the One About Ebola: How Jokes Spread Awareness

As the Ebola death toll rises, humor and music are helping people in West Africa deal with the horrors of the disease and its encroachment into daily life.

“Joking can be a coping strategy, and it can be a narrative device -- a way for people to reclaim their humanity in the context of anger, degradation and poverty,” said Ebenezer Obadare, a Nigeria native and associate professor of sociology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “And some jokes also serve to disseminate knowledge.”

When Liberia imposed a curfew last week, the jokes quickly erupted on Facebook. Wives welcomed it, one said, because husbands can no longer stay out late drinking and watching soccer. The way to jump the queue at the bank, another joke goes, is to announce you’ve just been to an affected area.

They can also serve as social criticism, Obadare said. One joke tells of police at checkpoints waving through travelers from Ebola-hit regions, skipping the usual shakedown for bribes.

Music is also playing a role in raising awareness of the disease, said Abdoul M’Baye, who helped produce a song recorded by more than 20 rappers and traditional musicians in Guinea. Popular public figures and artists are seeking to overcome obstacles to containing the outbreak that include misinformation, stigma and fear.

The song, called “Un Geste Pour la Vie Contre Ebola” -- “A Gesture for Life Against Ebola” -- is sung in local languages and in French.

‘On the Radio’

“We needed to give out a message because the disease was killing a lot of people,” M’Baye said by telephone. “You hear it on the radio all the time. Children sing along to it wherever you go because it’s a song from their music idols.”

Liberian pop stars have also penned songs for the radio to help spread the word that “Ebola is real” and “denial can kill plenty of people.”

The radio jingles in Liberia, the hardest-hit country with more than 1,000 cases, were supported by the health ministry with funding from Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund. The songs can deliver important public-health messages much more effectively than pamphlets, said Sheldon Yett, Unicef’s Liberia representative, in a telephone interview.

“Go to the health facility any time you have headache, fever, pain, diarrhea, rash, red eyes, and vomiting,” sings Julie Endee, Liberia’s cultural ambassador, in one jingle. “Don’t play with monkey and baboon. And don’t eat bushmeat.”

Ebola jumps to humans through contact with blood and other secretions from animals such as chimps, gorillas and bats. Humans transmit it to each other in the same way.

Ebola Handshake

Pleas to avoid skin-to-skin contact have spawned the so-called Ebola handshake, which ranges from Nigerian First Lady Patience Jonathan clasping her own hands instead of shaking hands with others, to the humorous psyche-out shown in YouTube videos, in which two people approach each other, only to back off at the last moment.

The jokes and music complement more straight-laced public health campaigns.

In Freetown, Sierra Leone, a banner alongside a street urges citizens to seek medical assistance sooner rather than later once symptoms appear. It’s a message aid groups such as Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders have been stressing, saying that getting treatment as soon as symptoms appear may be helping Ebola patients survive.

Past Ebola outbreaks have had fatality rates as high as 90 percent. This time, with more patients getting earlier treatment, it’s about 55 percent.

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