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#HumansofDukeSanford: Mathama and Amina Bility

September 30, 2016

This is the first #HumansofDukeSanford story of the semester. One story will be published weekly this fall.

Two sisters, smiling

Sisters Mathama (left) + Amina Bility

Amina: Our dad is Liberian. When the whole Ebola epidemic started, we were just watching from the states. After the epidemic died down a bit, we had the idea to go there and see what the epidemic was about through the perspective of people who actually went through it.

Mathama: We took a documentary film summer camp in middle school – it was very serendipitous. Since then, we’ve just had a passion for filmmaking and documentary film.

Liberia is a small place. Once we connected with Ambassador Julie Endi (she’s the executive director of the nonprofit, “Liberia Crusaders for Peace”), she connected us with different Ebola survivors. [Many survivors] were at a point in their grief where they had cried as much as they could. I was just surprised by how they all still had a sense of humor and life in them – a lot of times when you see portrayals of Ebola survivors, it’s just very overwhelmingly sad. I was surprised by how they were still very alive and moving forward and thinking about their families and the next step in their lives.

Amina: A lot of survivors are facing stigmatization and they are still facing a lot of health problems that are probably related to having Ebola. There’s a lot of work that they’re still doing in getting resources to treat the illnesses they have now and rebuild their communities – if they got sick, it’s likely that they had family members that got sick or passed away.

Mathama: Our film is going to be screened at the American Public Health Association Conference in Denver. [Oct. 29-Nov. 2] The central argument of the film is that to effectively respond to an epidemic or health crisis, you have to understand cultural context. There were a lot of mistakes that were initially made in engaging with the community because people weren’t thinking of how others would respond culturally.

Having Ebola goes against our natural instincts because if someone is sick, our natural instinct is to care for them. If someone says “don’t touch your sick daughter or husband,” you’re not going to listen to them. Especially in African culture, where community solidarity is so important.

In some ways, because of that, people really banded together to stop Ebola; they created their own quarantine systems to make sure people weren’t coming in and out of the community and spreading Ebola. By the same token, because there’s so much fear associated with Ebola, there’s a lot of communal trauma as well. For example, when you want to give someone a glass of water but you can’t because you’re afraid you might get sick. Because Liberian culture is inherently so big on support and community, it will be ultimately easy to reverse the stigmatization.

Mathama Bility PPS ‘18 is a Public Policy major with a minor in Global Health. She is also pursuing a certificate in Documentary Studies.

Amina Bility PPS ‘17 is a Public Policy major with a minor in Global Health.

Photography/Interview: Katherine M. Zhou / Edited by Carol Jackson