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  • Producing Ebola:Creating Knowledge In and About an Epidemic
  • Catherine Bolten and Susan Shepler

Try to remember what it was like during the fall of 2014. Ebola was always in the news, the virus was spreading and people were dying at an increasing rate in West Africa. Although there should have been ways to stop it, more and more people were falling ill. In the United States, there was near panic about the possibility of it coming here. In September 2014, the Centers for Disease Control released a model that estimated that, in the worst-case scenario, the number of Ebola deaths in West Africa could reach 1.4 million. There were more cases than there were beds, and the ill were collapsing outside of Ebola Treatment Centers.

Anthropologists who had worked in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia—the three countries most affected by the Ebola outbreak of 2013–2015—felt sadness, fear, anger. We felt sadness at the losses our friends were suffering and at the risks they were taking. We feared that the illness would spread, and that we were helpless against it. Despite a scholarly predisposition for observation and remove, many of us wanted to help, to do something. When it became clear that elements of the response were at best culturally insensitive and at worst wrong-headedly biomedical or even militaristic, we felt angry that the response was not making better use of the knowledge we had labored to create over the years, angry that we were [End Page 349] not being consulted. We also felt confused. What was the appropriate use of our expertise? What, really, could we or should we do?

Fragmentation and Disorientation

We convened at George Washington University hurriedly, anthropologists who worked in West Africa and dropped everything to answer a call from the American Anthropological Association to gather in November 2014, out of a need to do something, anything, to address the unfolding Ebola crisis. This was uncharted territory, for the AAA had never before convened a group specifically to address a humanitarian crisis. Most of us were not sure what this "doing" comprised, as we were remote from a situation that was changing rapidly, our understandings of the social worlds of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia molded over years of slow, careful work of "being there." Tensions also existed in the fact that we were researchers—usually shy to translate or promote our work as "doing"—suddenly thrusting ourselves into that role. We did so from a place of intellectual engagement, but also from an emotional drive to not be passive observers to a crisis that threatened the lives of so many of our friends and colleagues, and yet had thus far left us without ways to act in our professional capacities.

Catherine Bolten had learned of the deaths of two friends by the time she made the journey to this meeting. She remembers sitting at the massive conference table on the first day, furtively checking her phone to see if a truckload of rice she had sent to central Sierra Leone to relieve the food crisis brought on by the epidemic had arrived at its destination. It was difficult to focus on the collective brainstorming of culturally sensitive recommendations to make to NGOs, when emotions had already moved her to mount her own personal humanitarian response. And yet, even as so many of us leapt into action ourselves, we critiqued the international response, and strove to find ways to insert ourselves into the larger conversation. The room was choked by a stifling schizophrenia that never cleared, and most of us left the meetings wondering what we had accomplished, and what, really, was the role of anthropology in addressing and abating a profound, and profoundly complex, human crisis. After all, the rice did reach its destination. When Bolten was first able to visit that community again in 2016, many people mentioned it as the only relief they received, and that it served as confirmation that the larger ethnoprimatology project of which she was a part "would bring good things." These were [End Page 350] not intellectual things that anthropology brought, but the material gifts of a frightened, grieving anthropologist.



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pp. 349-368
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