Ebola and the Magpie

Wales, United Kingdom
May 28, 2017

By Rupert Allan


[Editor’s note: Here Rupert Allan describes his experience on an earlier trip to Sierra Leone in 2015, where he led a two week intensive training for Field Team Leaders, and managed an earlier surveying project.]


During the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, there was general panic. Our mapping project was born, but so too were many other systems. One such was the Magpie App, another lo-tech-meets-new-tech solution, this one for recording burials. Here is an impression of how I first came to hear of it:

It’s lunch time, and we are about to go out from our teaching classroom into the corridor to eat what gets brought in by the catering lady. Jollof Rice and Chicken. But then somebody mentions the Magpie.

It is a warm but cloudy day in the capital. We have been training for two days on the Data collection App Open Data Kit (ODK). Sierra Leone was mapped by motorbike using this downloadable software during the Ebola outbreak, in a (successful) contribution to getting a handle on stopping the disease. Already I have guarded myself against shaking too many hands or having other tactile contact with the people here – those magical comradery handshakes so memorable from the West Africa of years ago that I remember when, in 1989, I was building a school in the Liberian bush.

Field Team Leader Victor on the Guinea border-crossing issues.
“Cross Border and Kiosks” [Red Cross Video]

I have already heard from Victor of the way in which people would avoid the ‘Safe and Dignified Burial’ technique desperately encouraged by disaster relief organizations. Distraught and grieving people just wanted to be left alone to tend to the traditional intimate washing of bodies by all the family, but it is this very intimacy which had to be prevented by desperate humanitarian actors. Tales of how families would use their back door to take a body for burial over the porous borderline and into the neighbouring unregulated country are fascinating and initially amusing.

Somebody describes to me the Magpie app., the only way, but a depersonalized way – to keep abreast of the unfolding disaster at the time. Some of the details of what the ‘Enumerator’ was asked to log – safe geo-tagging, photographic data, all flies in the face of talks of ancient intimacy, reducing this kind of anonymous horrific evidence to a DATA BASE entry. It has been so very impersonal, but so critical for the survival of these ravaged but peace-loving communities, and it puts a lump firmly in my throat even now as I try to relate it.

But when you bear in mind that drivers in the capital, as my driver points out, don’t know how to react to the new traffic lights because more than two generations of drivers have passed since the last traffic lights were vandalized in the civil war, (another terror which was only just abating properly when Ebola struck) it makes you wonder what West Africa has done to deserve not only these natural disasters, but these assaults on their national identity. Sierra Leone has seen brothers slaughter brothers, and one cannot even console oneself with family social traditions of peace and intimacy, honoured since before the time of borders, white men, and territory. But one thing remains, and of course will always remain, which is that people are loving, human, and dignified, throughout, and regardless of, what has been heaped upon them.