This week the small West African nation of Guinea will not be celebrating its 56th year of independence on 9 October, because of ebola. Large public gatherings are not a great idea right now, and then there’s the cost, at a time when Guinea’s economy is taking a massive blow from the disruption caused by the disease. Tourism, mining and infrastructure construction have all ‘ground to a halt’, and President Alpha Condé says the country will need considerable financial support to make it through the next few months.
Here’s some Guinean music from happier times: Mory Kanté with the supremely danceable Yeke Yeke.
Guinea is said to have the rate of ebola infections more or less stabilised, so if they’re struggling economically, you can imagine the devastating economic impact of ebola on neighbouring Sierra Leone and Liberia, both only recently getting back on their feet after civil war, and with potentially catastrophic infection rates.
Many people in countries like Australia get worried about ebola because it’s like a horror movie come true. It’s contagious, ‘exotic’, there’s no cure, and it brings an ugly, painful death to a large percentage of those infected. It’s interesting to notice how mainstream media, the past few days, has shifted focus away from West Africa to the ‘Dallas patient’ and the people he may have infected in the US. People are scared that ebola will sweep through the US, even though in developed countries, it’s much easier to contain and control, so that’s an extremely unlikely scenario.
I’m scared too, but for different reasons. I’m worried about the setbacks to these countries’ economies, development, and political stability, I fear that Africans will be stigmatised if ebola spreads significantly beyond Africa, and I feel sick with terror when I contemplate the possibility that ebola might move further across the continent and affect my relatives and friends in Ghana.
I’m heartbroken that it’s already affecting the friends, families and communities of people I know in Australia, who have personal links to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. People like Amadou Kalissa and Aliou Sylla, Guinean-Australian musicians I met when they performed at the African Diaspora Networking Zone at the AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne, or Sibo Bangoura, who heads up Sydney band Keyim Ba.
I don’t know if any of these musicians are personally affected, but they could be, and anyway … I know how I’d be feeling if my country was under attack from a rapacious disease like ebola. I’m sharing their music because I want to remind you that hidden behind the ‘poor, basket case, darkest Africa’ stereotypes that the ebola epidemic unfortunately plays into, there are real people. People with hopes and fears, with dreams, passions, talents and skills. Parents, children, teachers, students, health workers, market sellers, farmers, bank tellers, faith leaders, musicians.
Without a doubt, one of the costs of ebola, if the current outbreak decimates communities at the exponential rates predicted, will be the erosion of some of the musical and cultural traditions of the region. Is it trivial to talk about the loss of music? Not at all. Music and dance are hugely significant in African cultures, and more broadly, for all of us, they are crucial expressions of being human. The loss of music and dance diminishes us all. That’s why I’m sharing these clips. The wonderful, diverse music of Guinea symbolises what ebola costs not just West Africa, but the world. Precious humans, and their cultures.
So I’ll end here, with Bembeya Jazz National’s tribute to the Guinean army, back in the day when (at least according to one of the comments below the video) it fought off the Portuguese. I’m not one for military metaphors really, but I hope West Africa has the same success in fighting off ebola. And I am more than hoping, I’m lobbying the Australian government to stop dragging the chain on this and send our own army to give them a hand (please sign).