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How Sierra Leone's Most Famous Journalist Helped NPR Get The Ebola Story

Umaru Fofana Ben de la Cruz/NPR hide caption

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Ben de la Cruz/NPR

Umaru Fofana

Ben de la Cruz/NPR

It's an open secret among journalists: When reporting a major news story in an unfamiliar country, it's great to have a "fixer."

That's the catch-all term we use for our local guides to language and logistics — the people who can translate documents, interpret during interviews and generally help you figure out the most efficient and the safest way to get from one location to the next.

But if you're particularly lucky you'll find a top notch fellow journalist from the country to work with. That's what happened when I was reporting on Ebola in Sierra Leone. My fixer was Umaru Fofana, who assisted other members of NPR's team covering the Ebola outbreak as well.

Fofana runs a small but lively newspaper, called Politico, that publishes twice a week. He files regular radio, television, and wire reports to the BBC World Service and Reuters. And his radio reports and social media presence in Sierra Leone have made him something of a national celebrity. Traveling through the countryside with him sometimes verged on the surreal, like having George Clooney as your tour guide. At roadside checkpoints, the ladies tasked with taking our temperature would giggle and blush at the sight of Fofana. At a police station, burly officers crowded around excitedly, grinning like fan boys as they jockeyed to shake his hand.

But the most noticeable thing about Fofana was his passion for justice. Even smaller wrongs — a waitress at our hotel who had been made to work long hours without a break, for instance — would get him fired up. So when the Ebola virus began its deadly march through the country, Fofana was consumed with what he describes as an inexpressible anguish — and a compulsion to kick his journalism into overdrive.

We had a chance to reflect on that time during a visit Fofana made to NPR's headquarters this summer. Here's a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and space.

One luxury that I had as a foreign journalist was that I only had to worry about the safety of our NPR team. You were covering Ebola each day, then coming home to your wife and children.

That was probably the most difficult aspect of it all. I would go to the Ebola treatment centers and I would come back home, and my wife and children would want to hug me. And I couldn't not hug them. But then I also worried that I could have exposed myself to some danger.

The foreign journalists also had the luxury of probably being flown abroad if they got infected. And I knew that if I were to get sick I would have to be admitted to one of those centers in Sierra Leone that were not the best. And I didn't just have to worry about Ebola. The entire health system in the country had completely collapsed. There was no hospital that would admit me even if it was for a non-Ebola illness. It was really tough knowing that this would happen if I or my kids got sick.

Did you have any close calls?

At one point my daughter, who is two years old, ran a very high temperature — about 100.4 degrees fahrenheit. We got really scared. We called the pediatrician, and the pediatrician said, "Okay, observe her for a few hours and let me know what happens." And so we had to put on surgical gloves and we kept checking her temperature. We had one of those hand-held gun thermometers. So we kept shooting her with it, so to speak, every five minutes, every ten minutes, just hoping her temperature would go down, but also preparing for the worst, for about two hours. It was the longest two hours of my life. Then finally her temperature normalized. It turned out she had malaria.

And that was just one of many scares we had. Another one was, I tend to have ulcers, and at one point I got this serious abdominal pain, and that's one of the symptoms for Ebola. So that was a very long night as well — a very, very long night. I almost called the ambulance. And my wife said, "No, Let's see what happens until day breaks." We kept hoping against hope that this was not Ebola. Then at four o'clock in the morning, it got so intense that I sent a text message to a doctor friend, who said, "Let me see you in the morning." So very early, my wife drove me out to him. And he, with his face mask on and all that, observed me and he realized that no, it can't be Ebola. But he himself had been concerned because he had been hearing me reporting on the radio about the outbreak and seeing my articles. So, you know, everybody was suspicious.

You were zealous about taking the proper precautions –- wearing rubber boots, not touching any people or any surfaces, spraying hands and boots with chlorine solution before entering the car. What precautions did you instruct your family to take? And were you stricter than your friends and neighbors because you were seeing firsthand the horrific consequences of Ebola?

Absolutely. I knew both how difficult it was to get infected, but also how easy it was if you didn't take the precautions. I had two boys, a 19-year-old and an 8-year old in the house, and my two-year-old daughter. And I wasn't sure my kids would be as strict with the protocols as I or my wife would be. So I kept them inside this gated area. My kids were like in prison. For a while we hired a part-time teacher to come and teach them because school was closed [due to the outbreak]. But after a time we had to stop that, because we weren't sure how many other contacts the teacher was having.

We also sent our maid away with pay. I and my wife — who is an administrator with the country's anti-corruption commission — had to juggle doing what our maid was doing. We also had to make our maid understand that, we are doing this in your interest as much as in ours. Because if I get infected working out in the field and I infect my children, you will get infected, and you'll infect your children as well. So let's just stay apart. It was a very terrible time.

I remember being out on the road with you one day when you got a phone call alerting you that your mother had traveled to your house for a visit. You were not happy.

When I insisted on sending the maid away, my wife and I were having some misunderstandings about how to look after our daughter. And this reached the ears of my Mum, who lived in the North of the county, a district called Makeni. And so she traveled to my house to help out. I didn't know she was coming. I was only called when she arrived at my home. And I said, "Mum, you have to go right back to Makeni!" The entire district was under quarantine and blockaded. But she was able to get through the blockade. She said people were just moving in and out — which tells you a lot about how the quarantine wasn't effective even at the height of the outbreak. And so I had to send her back. I refused to see her or have any word with her if she didn't go right back.

Why?

Well, for one, by law she was not supposed to have left the north of the country. And a lot of people look up to me in Sierra Leone, and I didn't want to condone the idea of my Mum breaking the law.

Secondly, she had come in from an area that was contending with a lot of Ebola cases. She could have been infected. So her staying longer with us would have meant possibly spreading the virus to my children and myself. So I said she had to go back. And I arranged for a vehicle to take her straight back.

Was it hard to take that line with your own mother?

It was very, very hard for me. But I needed to do it. For my safety, and the safety of my kids, and the safety of Sierra Leone.

Another difference between covering Ebola as a foreign journalist as opposed to a local one was that I and my colleagues could take breaks –- go home, spend time in our own countries, then return to West Africa. You were reporting on this continuously, basically every single day, for how long?

For almost a whole year, non-stop.

Were there any days when you found it hard to get up in the morning and keep going?

Yeah. It was very hectic. And I would feel tired. But I would also feel this compulsion to get up and do the work. Because I felt that I needed to tell the story — initially to grab the world's attention to come to help. And then, even when they were coming, I felt they weren't coming fast enough. I thought that the more the world appreciated the extent of the outbreak the quicker they would intervene. That was my adrenaline to keep me going.

I also felt like I could multiply the public's voice. People would call me late hours into the night. They would call to complain about the fact that they had been calling ambulance services for hours on end, days on end, with no help. Or health workers would call me to say, Mr. Umaru, we have gone for weeks without our hazard pay. These guys were sacrificing their lives, burying Ebola corpses, or treating patients and not getting their weekly allowances for months. And by coincidence or not, whenever I championed their cause they got paid. So still others would call, complaining, and I would keep reporting on it. And I kind of felt like I was carrying part of the nation's weight at that time.

In fact, I have memories of you in this mode. We were driving back into Freetown from some outlying area, and someone called to let you know that an ambulance had dumped a pregnant woman by the side of the road the day before. We drove to the neighborhood and found this woman sitting in a grassy area. It had been raining heavily, and people in the community had tossed her an umbrella and a sandwich. But they were afraid to approach her. She showed us a certificate indicating that she had been tested for Ebola and found not to have the disease. So the hospital had discharged her, and instead of taking her home, the ambulance driver had pushed her out on this unfamiliar street, miles from where she lived. She looked really sick and was too incoherent to give us a phone number or address of any relatives. But she did manage to tell us the name of her neighborhood. And you turned into a one-man solution system: Within ten minutes you had figured out who her relatives were and had gotten in touch with them.

I had lived in that neighborhood before, so I called my former landlord. She said, "No I don't know if his lady lives around here, but I will find out." And she gave me somebody else's number. And with that I was able to track down the house.

You also then got the head of the hospital on the phone and convinced him to send an ambulance to take her back into care within the hour. I remember him also promising to find and fire the ambulance driver who had done this.

Yes (laughing). It's a very small country, Sierra Leone. And I said to the head of the hospital, "You are surely going to be able to identify the ambulance driver if you wish to, and you have to." And then the doctor, who sounded really very much remorseful about what happened, was able to spot the ambulance driver very easily. I also tweeted about it and also posted it on Facebook and it became a big story. People contributed money for me to take to her. But the tragic thing is that she was eventually discharged again without my knowing about it some weeks later. And I went to see her and give her the money, but she had died on the eve of my coming to her house.

I'm so sad to hear that. Do you know what she died of?

It's unclear. She had a chronic condition that the hospital wouldn't reveal for privacy reasons.

People are still getting infected with Ebola each week. But the case numbers have dwindled. How is life in Sierra Leone today? Is your family back to normal? Are you back to normal?

We are largely back to normal. School has re-opened, the kids are going to school again, though we keep re-stocking their bags with hand sanitizers. My 19-year-old son is looking forward to going to university, and my wife and my youngest daughter are on their way to London and I hope to meet up with them there, for a badly needed rest.

Once you return to Sierra Leone, will you pick up with your previous routine running the newspaper and contributing to radio and television?

The editor I hired [to help with the workload during the outbreak] is staying on because I've been asked to do a book about the Ebola outbreak, which is going to take a lot of my time researching and putting together.

Well, that's a book I'm going to want to read.