Via NPR's Goats and Soda blog: How Sierra Leone's Most Famous Journalist Helped NPR Get The Ebola Story. Excerpt:
It's an open secret among journalists: When reporting a major news story in an unfamiliar country, it's great to have a "fixer."
That's the catch-all term we use for our local guides to language and logistics — the people who can translate documents, interpret during interviews and generally help you figure out the most efficient and the safest way to get from one location to the next.
But if you're particularly lucky you'll find a top notch fellow journalist from the country to work with. That's what happened when I was reporting on Ebola in Sierra Leone. My fixer was Umaru Fofana, who assisted other members of NPR's team covering the Ebola outbreak as well.
Traveling through the countryside with him sometimes verged on the surreal, like having George Clooney as your tour guide. Fofana runs a small but lively newspaper, called Politico, that publishes twice a week. He files regular radio, television, and wire reports to the BBC World Service and Reuters. And his radio reports and social media presence in Sierra Leone have made him something of a national celebrity.
At roadside checkpoints, the ladies tasked with taking our temperature would giggle and blush at the sight of Fofana. At a police station, burly officers crowded around excitedly, grinning like fan boys as they jockeyed to shake his hand.
But the most noticeable thing about Fofana was his passion for justice. Even smaller wrongs — a waitress at our hotel who had been made to work long hours without a break, for instance — would get him fired up.
So when the Ebola virus began its deadly march through the country, Fofana was consumed with what he describes as an inexpressible anguish — and a compulsion to kick his journalism into overdrive.
We had a chance to reflect on that time during a visit Fofana made to NPR's headquarters this summer. Here's a transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and space.
One luxury that I had as a foreign journalist was that I only had to worry about the safety of our NPR team. You were covering Ebola each day, then coming home to your wife and children.
That was probably the most difficult aspect of it all. I would go to the Ebola treatment centers and I would come back home, and my wife and children would want to hug me. And I couldn't not hug them. But then I also worried that I could have exposed myself to some danger.
The foreign journalists also had the luxury of probably being flown abroad if they got infected. And I knew that if I were to get sick I would have to be admitted to one of those centers in Sierra Leone that were not the best. And I didn't just have to worry about Ebola. The entire health system in the country had completely collapsed. There was no hospital that would admit me even if it was for a non-Ebola illness. It was really tough knowing that this would happen if I or my kids got sick.
Did you have any close calls?
At one point my daughter, who is two years old, ran a very high temperature — about 100.4 degrees fahrenheit. We got really scared. We called the pediatrician, and the pediatrician said, "Okay, observe her for a few hours and let me know what happens."
And so we had to put on surgical gloves and we kept checking her temperature. We had one of those hand-held gun thermometers. So we kept shooting her with it, so to speak, every five minutes, every ten minutes, just hoping her temperature would go down, but also preparing for the worst, for about two hours. It was the longest two hours of my life. Then finally her temperature normalized. It turned out she had malaria.