The idea came to TMS Ruge one evening in September while at home in New York, skimming Twitter for stories on Ebola. A native of Uganda who grew up in East Africa and the U.S., Ruge was struck that much of the coverage depicted Africans only as victims. Little mention was made of their potential role in wiping out the deadly epidemic.
As an entrepreneur and communications consultant, Ruge, 38, understands the power of ideas and information. He figured Americans needed to be made more aware that Africans were providing most of the frontline care. He was also determined to do something about it.
He approached his friend Solome Lemma, an immigrant from Ethiopia who is executive director of Africans in the Diaspora, an organization based in New York that works to connect Africans living in the U.S. to development projects back home.
Together they launched Africa Responds, an online fundraising initiative that partners with four African-led organizations working in Liberia. In less than two months, their campaign raised nearly $20,000 and significantly raised the profile through social media of African efforts against Ebola.
Ruge and Lemma are among a new generation of the U.S. African diaspora determined to contribute to the development of their home continent, including the fight against Ebola.
“We want to insert ourselves into the conversation because the Africans on the ground are the ones really doing the work, but it is the international organizations getting the credit,” said Ruge. “If people are too busy trying to stay alive, they don’t really have the ability to tell their stories. But if we are here to share those stories, it helps in the fight.”
The U.S Census Bureau estimates that 1.5 million people born in Africa now live in the United States. Another 2 million self-identify with the diaspora because they have dual citizenship or grew up in Africa. Almost half of the diaspora has arrived since 2000, with Liberia and Sierra Leone — two of the countries at the epicenter of the Ebola crisis — making up 20 percent of these recent arrivals.
Africa Responds and its partners have an advantage in fighting Ebola that most international aid agencies lack: Knowledge of local languages and culture goes a long way in educating people about the disease and convincing them to change daily habits.
Above all, these groups enjoy Africans’ trust, gained through years of living and working in local communities, many of which are suspicious of outsiders and therefore often bypassed in international aid efforts.
Finding ways to help
Saran Kaba Jones also knows what it is like to leave Africa, while still wanting to give back. Jones, now 32 and living in Boston, fled Liberia at the age of 8 in 1989 to escape the country’s first civil war. Ten years later, she arrived in the U.S. to study at Harvard. She pursued a career in finance but felt the pull of home. With peace restored, she returned to Liberia in 2008 to see what she could do to contribute to reconstruction.
Jones originally wanted to help educate Liberian children, many of them left traumatized and impoverished by nearly two decades of strife. But after 20 years abroad, she was surprised at the daunting challenges she faced. She soon discovered that the most basic essentials of life were an even more pressing need than education.
So Jones decided to put her energy into providing safe water and better sanitation for remote communities. She believes that her ability to adapt to conditions on the ground has helped her charity, FACE Africa, respond to the Ebola outbreak. Its hygiene program has now shifted to providing hand-washing stations, bleach and disinfectant to communities, marking a departure from FACE Africa’s previous operations but still within the scope of its focus.
“For us it hasn’t been that much of a challenge or a shift to respond to Ebola, because what we are doing is using our extensive local knowledge and deep-rooted community trust to build on the structures already in place,” Jones said by phone from Monrovia. “That’s the difference between organizations like ours and international NGOs that are being parachuted in to work on Ebola response.”
Since May, Jones has shuttled between Liberia and FACE Africa’s offices in Boston. But other Africans living in the U.S. are finding ways to help without making the trek to West Africa. In July, several Liberians in the U.S. founded the Diaspora Liberia Emergency Response Task Force. The group brings together organizations within the African diaspora to coordinate public health worker recruitment and medical supplies needed in Liberia.
The task force arranged an airlift in August of 4,000 pounds of supplies. Using its knowledge of the country and local contacts, it set up a distribution network for food and medical supplies that reached several communities under lockdown. Working with local health officials, it also produced several radio programs to educate inhabitants of remote villages on how to prevent Ebola transmission.
By uniting under a single umbrella, the task force hopes to mobilize the diaspora and exert a stronger influence on Western efforts to combat Ebola. Other plans include a recruitment drive this month in Minneapolis for healthcare workers to treat patients in West Africa. The task force hopes to hold similar recruitment drives in other cities with large diaspora populations such as New York, Philadelphia and Houston.
Creating valuable partnerships
The task force’s director, Dr. Dougbeh Chris Nyan, testified to the House Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health in September about the work the group is doing and what more is needed, explaining that diaspora groups and the knowledge they bring can be valuable partners for governments and international donors.
Some U.S. nonprofits have already tapped into that expertise. American and African activists joined forces as long ago as 1970 to support a community-based response to a devastating drought in the Sahel that crippled West Africa.
The organization they set up, Africare, expanded to Liberia during the civil war and continues to work with local communities as they rebuild from the conflict. Now, 22 years later, this community-based approach is what made them an ideal partner for Ruge and Lemma’s Africa Responds initiative, even though Africare is based out of Washington, D.C.
“We have been in and among the communities, we’ve worked with community health advisors for decades,” noted Kendra Davenport, Africare’s chief of staff. “It makes a massive impact on the ground because we are trusted and the people on the ground are Liberian. It’s Liberian to Liberian, peer to peer.”
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By employing only African field staff and working with diaspora efforts such as Africa Responds, organizations like Africare bring a local legitimacy that international agencies struggle to achieve. Much like FACE Africa and the Diaspora Task Force, working with Africans also puts Africare in a position to fill gaps in response efforts, such as training 350 community health workers in Ebola protocols and erecting temporary maternity clinics.
“You will never get the diaspora to work under one platform,” Ruge says. However, he adds, “we don’t have to do the same things, we just have to unify collectively under the guise of giving back to our communities. One positive side-effect of this tragedy is it shows that the diaspora can get together and achieve something important.”
Kim Curtis is a freelance writer based in Washington D.C. You can follow her on Twitter: @curtiskj