Yeniva Sisay-Sogbeh: ‘According to Some Media Coverage, We Were All Dying in The Streets’

Yeniva Sisay-Sogbeh is the president of Power Women 232 – a network of young Sierra Leonean women. She recently produced a video about the impact of Ebola on daily life in Sierra Leone, showing how she and other women have contributed to the response effort. Cinnatus Dumbuya caught up with her in Freetown.


Ebola Deeply: Yeniva, tell me about the video and why you decided to produce it.

Sisay-Sogbeh: The video is actually produced by a man named Paul Samuels for a campaign called Think Africa and Thank Africa. It is an opportunity to really turn around the media view of Africa, to show a more varied view of who we are as a people. I think it is a call for us to retell our own stories. It was inspired by the media frenzy that was going on around Ebola. I wanted to counter it with a video produced by someone who actually lives here.

Ebola Deeply: How did you get involved in the fight against Ebola?

Sisay-Sogbeh: Well, from the beginning of the response effort, I worked with the 117 Ebola emergency hotline operators as a trainer and a developer. That role transitioned into becoming a psychosocial facilitator for the last six months, meeting with the 117 operators every week to help them relieve their stress and to teach them about self-care. They are right on the front line, fielding information even before doctors. So in order to make sure that they are able to process the trauma, I work with them. I work with them to prepare them mentally in order to carry out their jobs.

In addition to that I am the founder and president of Power Women 232, which is a social network for young Sierra Leonean women. Right before Ebola hit, our aim was to come together as young women and change the narrative that was written for and about us. But then Ebola hit, and we were all just thinking about what to do. So we thought about the concept of “all hands on deck”; whatever we were going to be able to do to contribute, is what we wanted to do.

We put together care packages for health workers in order to tell them thank you. Our healthcare workers put their lives on the line for this country. And we wanted to let them know that they are not alone; we love, support and honor them, so we went across the country giving out care packages to health workers. As we did that, people loved the idea, and supported us to continue. Sierra Leoneans and other people from all over the world spread their love into that campaign.

Ebola Deeply: How did the health workers react when they received the care packages?

Sisay-Sogbeh: Oh my gosh! When we got to the treatment units, we met the most heartwarming, touching scenes I have ever experienced in my life.

The health workers thought the gifts were for the patients, but when we said it was for them, these looks of surprise came across their faces. I mean, they also faced stigma and discrimination. Some of them were castigated by even their families. They were going through a lot and not everyone seemed to appreciate what they were doing, so just to be able to say thank you to them was very heartwarming.

Ebola Deeply: The video opens with footage of CNN’s Isha Sesay, who is also one of the founders of Ebola Deeply. Why did you choose to include that?

Sisay-Sogbeh: Paul, the director of the video, actually spoke about this. Isha Sesay, who is from Sierra Leone, is without doubt very important to us; we are so proud of her. She said in the clip we feature that Ebola is not just a disease for her, but that it is real; her mother, brother, grandmother and other family members are all in Sierra Leone.

Her words were a call for the media to cover Ebola responsibly. We also have that responsibility as Sierra Leoneans, to tell the story from our perspective. Ebola is real to us, it’s not just some story that you see on TV.

Ebola Deeply: What did you make of the initial media coverage around Ebola, especially in the international arena?

Sisay-Sogbeh: Well, I’m a Sierra Leonean-American, and my mother, my sister, everybody I love, my family, is overseas in the U.S., so their perspective has been interesting. Watching Sierra Leone on TV, it was as if some media outlets were talking about some other foreign land.

Of course the media covered the despair and the hurt and the scariness of Ebola, but the reality is that people were still living their lives. Life was still going on. That’s what I think was lacking in the coverage of Ebola, that ordinary picture: The horror and trauma was being shown, but it’s important to show the full story.

Ebola Deeply: Do you think that the international media coverage fueled a stronger response from the international community in Sierra Leone?

Sisay-Sogbeh: Well, I think there needs to be a balance between drawing attention to a crisis and painting varied views of the story you tell. And that is why we created the documentary. According to some media coverage, we were all dying in the streets. That just wasn’t what was happening. If only one person were just to take a look at that view and buy into that perspective, it would be a hindrance.

Ebola Deeply: Sierra Leone was on the road to becoming Ebola-free recently, with eight days of zero cases, and now there has been a setback with new chains of transmission. How do you feel about this?

Sisay-Sogbeh: It makes me feel really sad, my brother. I think we all want to maintain optimism and hope, but we have to pull up our boot straps as a country and as a people. We need to want it more than anything else. We need to live it, breathe it, drink it and sleep it.

And I think that now we have kind of become accustomed to Ebola. We need to pick up our courage, be strong and stringent and take Ebola more seriously than ever.

Ebola Deeply: Sierra Leone has tried many ways of stamping out Ebola, but it’s still here. Where do you think the problem lies?

Sisay-Sogbeh: I think the problem is now that people have really begun to get fatigued. And this is not a time to get tired. With fatigue comes mistakes. I think this is not the time to get tired as the numbers are going down; it’s the time to get more vigilant. I think the messages need to come out all over again. We are a people of habit; we need to hear it over and over again.

I’m worried that we are not facing the reality that Ebola may be with us in Sierra Leone for a long time. Look at previous outbreaks in Uganda and D.R. Congo; it happened more than once there. We need to be prepared for that here. We will always have to be taking preventative measures. I think Ebola has taught us as a nation how to be more cautious; when this outbreak is over, we have to integrate those best practices into our culture.

Ebola Deeply: In your video, you emphasize the importance of reintegrating Ebola survivors back into their communities. Why did you tackle this topic?

Sisay-Sogbeh: I am very passionate about the reintegration of survivors and other people that have been affected by Ebola – orphans, widows or people who were quarantined. They also need help. And if we don’t take this seriously then we will have another challenge on our hands. We really need the narrative to go beyond, “my name is so-and-so, and I survived Ebola.” That’s great, but what happens to their lives beyond that? How are we, as Sierra Leoneans, taking responsibility for what happens beyond that?


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