Central African Republic

A Low-Tech Tool To Fight Rebels Is Drafted Into Ebola Battle

Remote villages in Central African Republic are using FM radios for protection from rebels and Ebola

Central African Republic
Geraldi Eli hosts a news show at Radio Ndeke Luka in Bangui, C.A.R.
Jun 03, 2017 at 10:01 AM ET

For villagers deep in the jungles of the Central African Republic the digital revolution is a world away and unreliable. Instead, to alert each other on movements of militant groups like the Lord’s Resistance Army they’ve depended on the ultimate low-tech solution: FM radios. And now, that same system is helping this network of a thousand remote communities share information and aid on the newest threat: Ebola.

An Ebola outbreak just over the border in Congo — some 160 miles from the Central Africa city of Bangassou — has farmers, families, and their neighbors on alert. The radio system is solar-powered and funded in large part by USAID and implemented by Catholic Relief Services.

“We’re in an environment where the state is not able to care for people,” said Driss Moumane, director of the program for CRS. “Communities are isolated from each other. Now we are providing information to people in real time.”

The network — deployed initially in C.A.R. and Congo to counter the LRA threat — is stunning in its simplicity. Some 4,000 FM radio receivers have been distributed among people in those communities. Over 100 high-frequency community radios have been installed and connected to the network, and they share information daily with the help of at least 250 high-frequency radio operators who’ve been trained for the job. In addition, there are 12 FM radios — four built from scratch and eight pre-existing ones that had their capacity expanded under the project.

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The $20 million project launched four years ago and now reaches an estimated 3.5 million people in CAR and DRC, CRS says.

It has taken on greater urgency given the withdrawal of U.S. Special Forces and Ugandan troops, who were deployed to the area in search of LRA leader Joseph Kony, leaving the communities without any real security presence.

Both foreign forces announced they were pulling out earlier this year. The U.S. said it was because Kony’s LRA was significantly weakened and now numbered less than 100 rebels, but that is little consolation to the communities still at risk.

“Fifty LRA combatants can do as much harm as 500,” Moumane said. “When they attack a village, they kill, they rape, they burn.

Fears of an LRA resurgence have mounted, along with concerns that CAR’s other armed groups will try to seize territory there once foreign forces are no longer around to act as a deterrent.

“The situation in the interior of the country is getting worse by the day,” Moumane added.

That’s why the addition of another dangerous element to the mix is the last thing locals need.

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An outbreak of Ebola was reported earlier this month in Congo, in which four people have died. There are currently another 19 cases, two of which were confirmed to be Ebola, according to the World Health Organization.

The remote location of the outbreak helps mitigate the risk of a spread into C.A.R. Still, cross-border movement in the area is common for herders as well as rebel fighters. A recent spasm of violence sent thousands of Central African refugees fleeing across the border into D.R.C., and worryingly close to the epicenter of the outbreak.

That’s why the WHO is concerned about the risk of Ebola making its way into C.A.R., the health agency’s country representative told Vocativ.

“We have a displacement related to the ongoing crisis … That’s why we should worry,” Dr. Michel Yao said. “People that are going back and forth can carry the disease.”

The lack of security has also prevented agencies from deploying proper border surveillance to screen for potential cases, he said.

“Right now we cannot move freely because of clashes going on,” Yao explained.

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An Ebola outbreak in C.A.R. would be disastrous given the lack of state authority, weak health services, infrastructure and broader insecurity. Which is what led to the idea of using the pre-existing radio network to share information about the threat.

Communities around towns like Obo and Zemio were already transmitting messages about Ebola on their own once the outbreak started. That prompted UNICEF to approach CRS about a partnership, to transmit messages about how to react to a potential Ebola outbreak, and what locals could do to prevent infection.

“We are definitely hoping that it’s not coming to this side of the border but we also feel that it’s very important to be prepared… Better safe than sorry,” Donaig Le Du, UNICEF’s chief of communications in CAR, explained.

Turning to the radio as a resource, she said, was a no-brainer.

“We’re talking about places where there’s no electricity, no TV, there’s no internet,” Le Du added. “Radio is the quickest and fastest and simplest way of getting communities together and spreading a message in a very remote area.”

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The communications infrastructure and the community protection committees are already in place to take on the Ebola programming. All that needs adapting is the messaging.

“It’s quite easy to transition,” CRS’ Moumane told Vocativ. “It’s seamless in so many ways.”

The radio operators and community-protection committees were previously trained on surveillance and risk mapping around the LRA threat. Now they’ll add Ebola as another risk factor to their portfolio.

“We are putting knowledge in the hands of the communities and empowering them to tackle this threat,” Moumane said. “These are the communities at the highest risk for the transmission of the Ebola virus but they are inaccessible to the humanitarian community and state institutions. If this did not exist the communities at risk would die and nobody would even know about it.”

“We’ve been working on this sytem for four years now and this is one of those moments where you think whatever money you spent on this system is worth it. There are so many thousands of people at risk and without this system nobody would be able to reach them,” he added.

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There’ll be a variety of programming — spots, sketches, roundtable discussions — in both Sango and Zende. The spots will run about a minute long and communicate a key point, i.e. symptoms of Ebola or what to do about a potential case.

Hundreds of miles away in the capital of Bangui, producers at Radio Ndeke Luka were hard at work interviewing Zende speakers. The station “didn’t hesitate” to get involved when asked to help with the campaign, said producer Cyrus Zemangui-Kette.

“We need to get involved to save the health of the population,” he told Vocativ as music played from a studio next to his office. “It can save people. We are here for the people we work for the people. We couldn’t say no.”