Spreading Ideas, Not Disease
Local videographers head to heart of Ebola outbreak to help health education effort.
Ebola. What’s your reaction to that word? Do you shudder a bit? Recoil in fear? Envision the epidemic in West Africa? Think about the Americans who’ve been infected, including the two who died? Worry about it spreading to the North State?
For Matt York, Ebola is a call to action. The longtime Chicoan and editor of Videomaker magazine is executive director of a nonprofit organization called One Mobile Projector per Trainer, or OMPT, which helps teach relief workers in developing countries how to make, distribute and present informational videos.
Early next month, York will travel to the heart of the Ebola outbreak—the African nation of Guinea—for an OMPT project mounted by the U.S. State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There, in the city of Conakry, he and documentary filmmaker Gerard Ungerman will team up with local videographers to train roughly 40 members of nongovernmental agencies in the art and technique of creating informational videos. (Ungerman, a fellow Chicoan, speaks French, as do many people in Guinea.)
OMPT isn’t taking the trip lightly. Even though York expects to be out of the reach of the disease, headquartered at the U.S. embassy and a hotel, there’s a chance he may need to go out into the field to assist with videography, or may come in contact with a patient or infected individual over the course of traveling.
He considers the risk serious enough to keep an OMPT staff member who frequently goes overseas, Program Coordinator Claire Pelley, back in Chico. His family reacted with a measure of unease. In the end, though, the need he saw outweighed misgivings about the E-word.
“You’d be silly not to be concerned or not experience fear,” he said in a phone interview. “But if no one had the courage to go, then it would cascade across Africa, maybe make its way to the Middle East … [and] get here eventually.
“I feel called to the work. I feel this is what I was made to do. If I can stem the tide of the spread of this virus through using video technology, that’s exactly what I’ve been intending to do for the last seven years. So you muster up the courage to proceed.”
OMPT came together in January 2008, after York took trips to Guatemala and South Sudan. York and his associates provide local aid workers with the equipment and expertise needed to make video presentations that educate the public on whatever subject an aid organization wants to convey.
Video footage gets shot on cell phones or cameras, then edited on laptop computers. The final product goes onto SD cards that aid workers transport by foot or cycle—York calls this “the sneakernet”—and place into mobile projectors that display a picture large enough to be seen clearly by up to 50 people. OMPT’s projectors do not require electricity; they charge off compact solar units or vehicle batteries.
York and Ungerman depart for West Africa on Jan. 10. The Guinea trip itinerary calls for a four-day training session, but they could be asked to stay longer. They’ll bring 100 projectors, 100 chargers and 20 cameras.
“I’ll bring more luggage than I’ve brought anywhere in my life,” York said with a chuckle.
Pelley, recently returned from a trip to Ethiopia, is working on the logistical details. She says the Guinea project is “in line” with others OMPT has undertaken, “just a different subject matter.” But, in a way, that’s the point of going—to reach people with specific, locally relevant material.
“We’re never the content experts,” Pelley explained. “We always expect that our partners have the information that they want to disseminate. We just help them improve that dissemination methodology and translate that into video.”
Even though OMPT won’t generate the Ebola-prevention content, York has a firm understanding of what the CDC, State Department and aid organizations want to accomplish. The goal is to inform residents of Guinea about how the disease spreads.
“There’s a series of really key behaviors that need to be changed,” York explained, noting that some of the practices recommended by health officials “run counter to the cultural norms there.”
For instance, when a person dies, family members not only handle the remains, they hold a ceremony in which everyone shares a beverage that they first touch to the lips of their late loved one.
“So, their normal practice of mourning and caring for the deceased spreads Ebola,” York continued, “spreads any viruses that might be on the lips of the deceased person.
“Also, like we do, they care for sick infants who have bodily fluids on them because they have diarrhea or are vomiting, and care for elders who are sick. That has to be done in an incredibly fastidious manner.”
York, too, will approach the trip fastidiously. He’s been briefed by the CDC on Ebola protocols and already informed Enloe Medical Center about his upcoming trip, on the off chance he’ll need treatment after he returns.
“If I find myself the victim of fate,” York said, “I may be exposed to Ebola and may need to be quarantined in Conakry or the Paris airport or the Newark airport or the San Francisco airport—or the quarantine may not work.
“This is certainly the most hazardous assignment we’ve ever done…. You couldn’t get a better organization to be connected with [in the CDC], so I feel like I’ll be as safe as one can be, but there’s a level of risk.”