Like many this past week, our attention has been fixated on the media coverage of the Ebola outbreak: images of experts showing off the proper way to put on and take off protective gloves to avoid exposure to the virus; political pundits quarrelling over the appropriateness of travel restrictions; reassuring press conferences by the director of the Centers for Disease Control. It is an event that has received immediate and intense attention and generated compelling journalism, for sure, but does it really give us an emotional understanding of the impact of the event?
What is it like for a mother or a father to watch their child die and not to be able to touch them? What happens within a community that has experienced a major outbreak? Are people brought closer through a shared suffering or are the bonds that held the community together forever broken? There are infinite questions that we could ask of the human heart in the midst or the aftermath of such an event. Oral history with its emphasis on empathy is an effective method of asking these questions.
Hopefully the epidemic will be contained, but by the time it is, it is likely that the public’s appetite for more analysis on the outbreak will have been satiated. Journalists will be compelled to move onto the new topic of the day. Oral historians, however, can — and should — linger on this event.
For oral historians, who have increasingly worked in the aftermath of crisis over the past decade, the motivation to document is fueled by both a humanitarian impulse to respond to crisis and a scholar’s desire to inquire and understand. Times of widespread crisis have an elusive complexity which defies any attempt at meta-narrative. Aspiring to get at a comprehensive picture and the countless ways in which the epidemic is impacting so many seems unfeasible. For many researchers, the most profound way to begin is to try to appreciate how this crisis manifests itself for an individual, for a family, or for a community is oral history.
Doing oral history in West Africa in the aftermath of the epidemic will present unique challenges for interviewers. Navigating the emotional and political resonance of the Ebola outbreak will require caution, compassion, and courage, as well as flexibility in the application of oral history best practices. The outcome of this work, however, can offer insight into how the individual human heart and mind respond to the terror of an epidemic, and how an individual’s responses to fear and grief impact their communities.
The personal perspective oral history provides has so often been left out of our analysis of crisis. We are left with dry academic reports often composed by responding agencies trained to exclude emotion from their analysis. But without this emotion, without this individual perspective, we don’t understand crisis and the impact it has on those who are left to pick up the pieces of shattered lives and communities. Oral history provides a means for the people most affected by crisis or disaster to be recorded, archived, and shared, to put them, not the devastation, at the center of the story. It is an effort that often runs counter to our collective response to emergency and, for that reason alone, it offers meaningful and enduring outcomes.
Featured image: Hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, where the Ebola virus samples are tested. June 2014. By Leasmhar. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.