Lansana Mansaray lives to tell stories. When doing so, his smile grows so large it nearly takes over his face. Dark-brown eyes squinted, cheekbones raised, huge dimples visible, the young Sierra Leone filmmaker and rapper known as “Barmmy Boy” seems to possess an unparalleled capacity to exhibit joy.
But when the story—this one about the first song he ever wrote—is over, the smile fades from his face. Reality sinks in. What was meant as a quick trip to the U.K. has now, thanks to a lack of airlines willing to fly into Sierra Leone, been extended indefinitely. Barmmy, 26, is half a world away from the Ebola-stricken country he calls home. Huddled in front of a computer in a white hoodie and flat-brimmed black hat while we talk on Skype, his smiles become fleeting with the introduction of Ebola into the conversation. He’s worried. He needs his home—and it needs him.
As millions scramble to escape the three West African countries where Ebola is raging, Barmmy would give anything to go back. Educated both through regular school and film school, and celebrated by the young and old in Freetown alike, he is uniquely positioned to turn the tide of mistrust that is fueling the Ebola epidemic in his country. His parents, neither of whom can read or write, have relied on Barmmy to teach them about Ebola. “They are not educated—most times I need to explain things for them to understand,” he says. The problem is, there are millions more like his parents without their own Barmmy to explain.
So with his colleagues back home at WeOwnTV—a media training center launched by an American documentary filmmaker—he and others with similar training in Sierra Leone are turning skills they used for fun into vehicles for change. The simple public service announcements, displayed on TVs, and—if they raise enough money—soon to be sent out in DVDS, capture a message too many West Africans haven’t received: Ebola is real.
With a void in education fueling the cycle of mistrust against medical officials that feeds an epidemic, the work of Barmmy and WeOwnTV could mean life or death.
In an early 2009 video of Barmmy on WeOwnTV, one introducing him as a part of the WeOwnTV team, more than a dozen kids surround him on all sides, laughing and smiling. A beaming Barmmy in a light-blue T-shirt and jeans weaves through rows of multicolored mud huts with rusty tin roofs, one of which he calls home. “Everyone knows me,” he says with pride. “This is my neighborhood.” Born one of 11 children to parents who couldn’t afford him, he left home at age 11 to find a better life. After pulling himself out of poverty, he’s now paying for his six sisters to attend school.
It’s this, the indefatigable spirit of Barmmy, that propelled Banker White, the San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker who founded WeOwnTV, to invite him to the team in the first place. Initially begun as a stand-alone, month-long education program, White’s efforts were so well received that a year later he’d created an entire education-driven American nonprofit media center in Freetown, called WeOwnTV (which translates to “our own TV” in Creole).
But what was once a virtual playground for creative Sierra Leoneans to create everything from dramas to music videos has become ground zero in the fight to stop Ebola. “This is all we have talked about for the last couple months,” said Banker White, in an interview with Creative Capital. “The WeOwnTV team feels very much that we as filmmakers, storytellers, and media professionals have an important role to play.”
It’s a project that WeOwnTV has been dedicated to since June—long before the epidemic gained the international attention it warranted even then. It was then that Arthur Pratt, another key player at WeOwnTV and a close friend of Barmmy’s, starred in a PSA that was just released this week. In the video, Pratt plays a young father named Hussan, who contracts Ebola after his fictional mother returns from a funeral with the infection.
Shaking with fever, his wife pleads with him to go to the hospital. “Government is not stupid to ask people to go the hospital,” says his fictional wife. “If you go to the hospital earlier, you will be given treatment that will help you get well.” Later she explains why typical forms of greeting in Sierra Leone, such as shaking hands and hugging, are no longer acceptable.
“Telling people what to do and what not to do, visually, goes a long way in helping people create awareness about this dreadful disease, which is like another civil war,” says Barmmy.
The plot of the film Pratt stars in, for those living in an Ebola country, is all too real. One of Pratt’s own friends, also a young father, contracted Ebola and survived. Pratt himself is the father to a 3-year-old daughter, and soon to be adding one more to his family. But while he continues filming PSAs, he will miss the birth of his second child. Hospitals, overrun with Ebola patients and low on supplies, are not available for his 8-month pregnant wife. Her mother and sister, a town away, will now have to deliver the baby. Pratt can’t be sure when his baby and wife will return home.
On the campaign page for WeOwnTV’s fight against Ebola, the videos are discussed in more depth. Already in two languages, they are soon to be translated into 10 more.
The help cannot come soon enough.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since May 2014, the deadly virus has ripped through eight of Sierra Leone’s 12 districts, including the capital of Freetown, where the population is over 2 million. In an interview with CNN on August 6, a Doctors Without Borders worker stationed in Sierra Leone said the country was completely “overwhelmed.” “Still we have unsafe burials…still we have patients who are hiding themselves; still we have patients or contacts of patients who are running away because they are afraid,” says Dr. Anja Wolz.
Many different organizations, including the Red Cross and the World Health Organization, have tried courageously to educate West Africans who still believe Ebola is a hoax. Some of their efforts have made an impact—but not enough. By Tuesday, the World Health Organization reported over 1,200 deaths in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone—a number that some have suggested could represent only 25 to 50 percent of the actual devastation.
In the eyes of Barmmy, distrust of the medical world runs deeper than misinformation alone. “People are just trying to push away from reality,” he says. “It’s always been a problem in the country. It was like that even with HIV and AIDS too. People say, ‘Oh, it’s not real’—even when it is in front of them! They’ll say this is a white people thing or they’ve come to infect us.”
It’s for this reason that Barmmy, and his team, believe they have the power to make real change. “When it is being put into short films, people will definitely believe because it is not coming from a big politician, or an expert, or a doctor. It’s coming from the locals themselves who are living in these communities,” says Barmmy. “We always say in Sierra Leone: Seeing is believing.” The campaign, according to Pratt, already seems to be working. “Attitudes are changing—people are not denying anymore. Actions are changing towards the issues,” he says, describing how most communities are requiring anyone entering their house to first wash their hands, and don’t touch.
Most of all Pratt, like Barmmy Boy and millions of others in West Africa, wants to begin the healing process. He’s worried about Barmmy being in Europe too long—which he says neither of the two is built to withstand. Two things stand out in Sierra Leone for him: the friendship and the beauty. “I love Africa, I come from Africa. My first time coming to Europe, it was nice, but within one week I wanted to come home,” he says. “There are a couple things about Sierra Leone you won't see anywhere else in the world. It’s a very, very special place.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Banker White is based in the UK.