In Sierra Leone, the dark comedy of Ebola carries a health message

Ibrahim Kamara is one of Sierra Leone's top movie stars, and the country's 'Ebola comedian' – a role he took on when the epidemic was at its peak and laughs were at their lowest.

Ryan Lenora Brown
Mahmaud Botnah Conteh (l.) and Ibrahim Kamara shoots a scene in their latest film, 'Ebola Gboss Gboss 2,' a dark comedy set in Sierra Leone at the tail end of the country's Ebola outbreak.

In a courtyard just off bustling Kissy Street, the spine of Freetown’s commercial district, Zainab Bangura’s shouts echo between the concrete houses, above the din of car horns and shrieking schoolchildren.

“I don’t want you to work for an Ebola burial team,” she shouts at her son, her voice wobbling with worry. “It’s too dangerous.”

“I don’t care,” he snaps back. “It’s the best paying job I can get. I’m taking it.”

Just then, another man steps towards the pair, waving his arms. Cut!” he yells, and the spell is broken. Ibrahim Kamara, the son, breaks into a smile. Ms. Bangura reaches for her cell phone and walks off to make a call.

Welcome to the set of “Ebola Gboss Gboss 2” (Ebola Confusion 2), a dark comedy by one of Sierra Leone’s top entertainers, Kamara, who is better known here by his stage name: “Sara de Great.” 

In many ways, Sierra Leone has little to laugh about. Its green hills are still dotted with charred, bullet-ridden buildings abandoned in the decade-long civil war that ended in 2002, having killed 50,000 people and displaced a million more. And over the last year and a half, the country has fought another desperate war against the deadly Ebola virus. Since March 2014, more than 13,000 people have been infected and nearly 4,000 have died.

But between the lines of that narrative is another story of the lives Sierra Leoneans have forged in the virus’ margins, irreverent and seemingly impervious to its capricious ways. In Kailahun, the rural eastern district where Ebola first appeared, women's cooperatives have begun rolling out taffy-like pieces of handmade soap to sell to the newly hygiene-conscious. At Ebola checkpoints on major roads, hawkers rush to greet drivers with their offerings of plantain chips, boiled eggs and homemade donuts. 

It is this Sierra Leone, one that keeps trudging along despite the setbacks, that Sara the Great tries to capture in the comedy of his movies.  

His films about Ebola are intended to do more than amuse. Stitched into the plots of the seven comedies he has produced since the epidemic began are social commentary and practical advice on disease prevention, from avoiding physical contact with the sick to calling for an Ebola burial team when someone has died.

“Our country is a stressful country. Not even our daily bread is guaranteed,” he says. “People always need something to make them laugh and I have that medicine. I’m the stress doctor.”

The King of Sollywood

Today, Ebola has all but disappeared here. There have been just seven new cases reported in Sierra Leone in the past three weeks, according to the World Health Organization, down from more than 100 per day at the height of the outbreak last year. Across the region, many attribute the decline in great measure to vastly increased understanding of how to avoid transmission, bolstered by public health campaigns, and occasionally, comedy films.

In a country where only 35 percent of adults are literate, films carry an outsized power, says Gibrilla Turay, president of the Compact Disk Sellers Association of Sierra Leone. And in the world of “Sollywood” — as Sierra Leone’s low-budget film industry is known — Sara de Great is king. Mr. Turay estimates his salespeople sell between 30,000 and 40,000 DVDs of every Sara movie, with many more copies likely pirated in a country with virtually no cinemas. 

“Even in many of the remotest villages, people were watching these movies,” he says. “It eases the stresses of life to watch comedies, but also, when this disease came we needed movies that would educate, and that’s what he did.”

Sara got his start as a comedian during the civil war when he headlined a popular sketch comedy show — “Wanpot,” or “One Pot”— on what was then Sierra Leone’s only TV channel. About five years ago, he says, he made the transition to feature films, and is now among the country’s most popular movie stars.

His face grins back from tattered movie posters plastered on walls and buildings across Freetown that advertise previous films like “Ebola Don’t Come” and “Ebola Money.” Walking along a downtown street on a recent afternoon, he is tailed by car honks and giggling children. A man leans out of a taxi, yelling, “we love you, Sara!” No release date has been set for “Ebola Gboss Gboss 2."  

Sales are up

Sara’s is a stout, full-body style of comedy. He flings himself into scenes in a blur of flailing arms and exaggerated facial expressions. But he is the first to admit that as Ebola crept across the country, even he found it difficult to keep up the humor.

“Artists suffered a lot in this epidemic,” he says. “We make our living by gathering people together and we couldn’t do that.”

Ugo Umara, a Nigerian immigrant who runs a stall selling DVDs here, says that at the outbreak’s height, the streets here were ghostly amid curfews, movement restrictions, and paranoia. Even sales of movies by Sara de Great slowed to a trickle. Today he's doing a brisk trade, selling about 100 copies a day of Sara’s most recent movie, “Traffic Police.” 

“Ebola spoiled a lot for us. People weren’t living fine,” he says. “But now, small, small, we are coming back to normal.”

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