Tuesday, June 09, 2015



Something so drastic as ebola takes a while to get used to.  Not only does it look ghastly, but almost equally scary are the protocols for treatment and prevention that must be sustained even though they are risky and unfamiliar.  It requires protective gear that makes helpers look like alien spacemen.  And then afterwards the loss has been so traumatic that there is a strong temptation to just repress the whole thing.

Raw information is not all that’s needed.  In a situation where deaths are a continuous process with life and grieving often has meant much reassuring contact with relatives and friends, now many will run away long distances via unpredictable routes, which is exactly the kind of behavior that will spread an epidemic into a pandemic.  

It’s not just a matter of knowing what not to do or even experiencing the drastic -- almost demonic seeming -- measures taken by public health workers.  Epidemic ebola is so intense and so unprecedented in the lives of the people, that only ritual ceremonies can make them graspable until the new ways have become familiar.  It’s necessary to make a new emotional space in the lives of the people, a conversion on the scale of accepting a new religion.

Here’s my attempt at designing a ceremonial ritual, accompanied by drums and whatever else is wanted.  One could use aesthetic principles to elaborate on this little scenario, but it would be wiser to let the people themselves add their ideas, since they will anyway, and because they have been doing this since the earliest human experience.  This is just a simple sequence derived from media coverage.



A group, maybe the whole village, is assigned to be the people before the disease:  dancing onto the space, singing.  Possibly miming daily things like washing clothes or hoeing.

Enter a group of children who have bat puppets on long sticks so they can make them “fly”  around over peoples’ heads like real bats.  The children run through the crowd making squealing bat noises.

One person breaks out, dances and mimes illness and death, and falls.  The village wails.  Anyone who goes to the fallen one also falls over, now sick themselves.

Suddenly three or four medical people in full protective gear arrive, armed with "fever guns" that can read body temperatures without touching.  They seize individuals out of the “village” and pull them over to the side,  unroll an orange plastic fence around them.  Another worker carries a bucket and ladle around, splashing the area and the legs of the “villagers,” who stop what they’re doing and clump up.

They begin an approach/avoidance dance, chanting:

“We must wash our loved one.  We want to put our hands on those we love.  We yearn to kiss their dear faces one more time.”  

They come closer but more workers splash the area and the legs of the “villagers” to warn them.

“You must let them go.  You must love them without touching.  Ebola prevents you.  Ebola makes a fence.  Ebola is not like the past.  You must not touch Ebola.

Others in the group who are pulled aside by the people in goggles and suits fall down, big black garbage bags are put over their heads to suggest body bags and they are ushered off by the workers. 

The few left in the separated group do not fall down -- only stagger and then regain their balance.  They begin to dance, very slowly, at first in place and then making slightly bigger circles until they tentatively rejoin the main “village”.  Then there is a survivors’ dance.  Singing.   Maybe horns are blown in triumph.  

But then the children with bat puppets on the tops of sticks run through one more time.


I’ll append some ideas about how to make bat puppets at the end of this post, but I suspect that the people who are right there where the ebola-carrying bats live will make much better ones.  (It's not PROVEN that bats are the vectors, but it seems likely.)

American kids are taught that there is one way to do things, the teacher’s way.  Conformity is what counts.  In fourth grade we made hand puppets from papier maché.  I was trying to make Snow White, using the Disney figures as models.  I was giving her a nice big flour-pasty mono-bosom when the teacher looked and gave a little scream.  Quickly she tore off the offending bulge of torn-newspaper-and-flour-paste.  I understood that I’d been offensive and converted my heroine into a cat.  Of course, if it had been an accurate cat it would have had breasts in a double row down its front.

What do we do about African kids whose version of bush meat is bats on sticks?  Country kids love to bake things or roast them over little fires.  In the US we mostly stick to burying potatoes in a hole under the fire or putting marshmallows on our sticks.  Are we going to produce commodity marshmallows for poverty-stricken African pre-schoolers so they won't eat bats?  (I wouldn’t be surprised, since marshmallows are mostly irresistible sugar and we always have a lot of extra sugar.)  But even chimps teach their babies not to eat certain things.

Most of what I’m saying here is “engineering,” that is, sticking pretty close to the facts without invoking any gods or punishments or morality -- just primary emotion.  This is not about information, but about feelings, and bringing the sensory information, symptoms and statistics, to the autonomic and emotional reactions, so they will lend power to each other and become memorable, part of the lives.  The people themselves would have to bring the big shadowy concepts that will rear up behind them as visions and associations of terror and death, loss of parents.  Maybe it takes a witch-doctor.

It’s not a matter of a bat symbolizing this and bleach water meaning that.  It’s the structure of the culture that tells them whether to run into the jungle for safety or to run away from the jungle as a threat.  Whether to embrace a dying loved one or stand back to watch terrifying people bag them and carry them off.   What does human vulnerability mean to any of us?  What makes us think anyone is safe anywhere at all?

In some ways ebola is a merciful virus because it is so violently vivid, so contagious, such a thorough killer -- quite unlike HIV which can simmer quietly in the blood for years before it finally goes into a strip tease of symptoms, not stopping at flesh but eating to the bone.

An excellent discussion of this issue.

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