Around December of 2013, the Ebola virus disease quietly began to spread in the southernmost part of Guinea. Arguably, it was not until the virus reached not only Guinea’s neighboring countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia, but also reached all three capital cities that major Western media outlets became more vocal about the magnitude of the outbreak. However, the accounts stories by Western journalists seemed to play into sensationalization, for ratings or otherwise, of the notion that the outbreak could spread to the West and its citizens. In the process, they reiterated many misguided stereotypes of the continent that we would have loved to believe were long buried.
It should be remembered that the Ebola outbreak had already impacted to the West long before attention was paid to Eric Duncan, who was the first victim in the United States during the 2013 outbreak. Numerous people with either dual citizenship or residency in the United States, but living and working in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, had already been infected. Additionally, people with strong familial ties in either countries but living in the diaspora were impacted emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and economically. However, as history has taught us, it was the lives and experiences of certain kinds of Americans that was important to journalists.
Interestingly enough, the Ebola virus was present in the United States (1989, 1990, and 1996) long before the earliest suspected cases in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone (2013). Once again, no one talked about this. Instead, the public received stories, which largely minimized the complexities of the spread of the virus and normalized the notion of Ebola being present in the three countries.
This rhetoric was uncomfortably familiar. If we think back to the mid-1980s through the 1990s, we can see similarities between the language surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Southern and East Africa and the language used in regards to the Ebola virus in West Africa. In both instances, the African continent was stereotyped as a monolithic entity filled with people who have unusual practices, such as eating “bushmeat,” which leads to the spread of diseases.
In reality, Ebola is largely transmitted person to person, between a caretaker and an infected person. Nonetheless, journalists remained invested in the more sensational bushmeat-eating narrative. Bushmeat is a general term for any non-domesticated animals used for consumption. However, in the United States, it is rare to hear of wild rabbit, deer, geese, or duck referred to as bushmeat.
“Bush” is colloquially another term for “wild,” but seems to carry an entirely different connotation in the context of Ebola. Here, bushmeat is often positioned next to photographs of roasted bats with value-laden language. Truthfully, I wonder whether many of these photographs were even taken in Guinea, Sierra Leone, or Liberia, since dietary habits for many people in Guinea and Sierra Leone are influenced by Islam, the dominant religion. Islam has very explicit guidelines about what is and is not permissible to eat and from my own personal experience, I have never seen a market with roasted bats in Sierra Leone.
The tendency for journalists to portray Africa as a “dark continent” with “unusual practices” is not new. Apart from progressive news sources and conversations within Guinean, Liberian, and Sierra Leonean circles, the real factors that contributed to the spread of the virus, and how these factors differed between affected countries, were not discussed in detail. These factors included how heads of state initially responded to the outbreak in their countries, how economic and political structures influenced domestic interventions, and how religious and social climates impacted the response of citizens to the outbreak.
We did not even hear but a few utterances regarding how the World Health Organization (WHO) did not declare the outbreak as a global emergency until August 2014. This announcement came almost a year after the index case in Guinea.
When journalists did dig deeper—for example, when they discovered how some communities in Sierra Leone were angry with international aid organizations—it was largely simplified. We read about the importance of addressing “Africans” with “sensitivity” in order to impart the importance of humanitarian assistance work.
What was not discussed was the tense political climate and pre-existing political partisanship in Sierra Leone. At the time, there were strong sentiments that there was a degree of intentional negligence by the government in assisting in outbreak control in communities that supported the opposing political party. This would have been a great opportunity for news reports to contextualize how, in Sierra Leone, there has been a history of disregarding problems that take place outside of the capital city of Freetown. Instead the responses by some communities in Sierra Leone were painted as irrational and meritless.
The writing about Africa has historically been fragmented and oversimplified. A large part of this culture has to do with the propensity toward crisis-driven news coverage by writers who have little contextual background on the areas about which they are writing. However, it is still troubling that so many colonial stereotypes still permeate in contemporary journalism. It is important that we confront such stereotypes, misrepresentations, and misleading constructs of our countries in Africa. If we do not, they will continue to persist and will be of disservice in dealing with the real problems at hand.
Aminata is a teacher, education consultant and freelance writer who specializes in supporting international development organizations and schools to improve early grade reading outcomes in low- and middle-income countries. She earned her Master’s degree in Educational Planning, Economics and International Development from the University of London, Institute of Education. Her professional experience spans the following geographic regions: Ghana, India, Brazil, Sierra Leone, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom and the United States. Catch her on twitter @AminaJalloh