How a People's Science Helped End an Epidemic

Paul Richards


An eye-opening account of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the crucial role of local communities in containing the spread of the disease.

Shortlisted for the Fage and Oliver Prize 2018

From December 2013, the largest Ebola outbreak in history swept across West Africa, claiming thousands of lives in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. By the middle of 2014, the international community was gripped by hysteria. Experts grimly predicted that millions would be infected within months, and a huge international control effort was mounted to contain the virus. Yet paradoxically, by this point the disease was already going into decline in Africa itself. So why did outside observers get it so wrong?

Paul Richards draws on his extensive first-hand experience in Sierra Leone to argue that the international community’s panicky response failed to take account of local expertise and common sense. Crucially, Richards shows that the humanitarian response to the disease was most effective in those areas where it supported these initiatives and that it hampered recovery when it ignored or disregarded local knowledge.

Author Bio

Paul Richards is an anthropologist with over forty-five years’ experience of living and working in West Africa. He is emeritus professor of technology and agrarian development at Wageningen University in the Netherlandsand and adjunct professor at Njala University in central Sierra Leone. His previous books include No Peace, No War: An Anthropology of Contemporary Armed Conflicts (2005).

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • 1. The World’s First Ebola Epidemic
  • 2. The Epidemic’s Rise and Decline
  • 3. Washing the Dead: Does Culture Spread Ebola?
  • 4. Ebola in Rural Sierra Leone: A Technography
  • 5. Burial Technique
  • 6. Community Responses to Ebola
  • Conclusion: Strengthening an African People’s Science
  • Postscript
  • Appendices


'Represents the first serious attempt to grapple with some of the practical as well as epistemological questions posed by the local response to the outbreak.'
The Economist

'A must-read for all involved in epidemics, epidemiology and public health.'

'[A] first-hand analysis of the complicated situation that arose from the outbreak, a fascinating story of the success and failures of experts, volunteers and village people ... eye-opening reading'.
Medicine, Conflict and Survival

'In this provocative book, Richards argues that the international response may actually have extended the epidemic’s duration.'
Foreign Affairs

'The importance of this work for fighting future epidemics cannot be overstated.'
African Affairs

'A book rich in practical examples from extensive knowledge of the region, with theory to underpin observation...fascinating.'
Oxfam 'From Poverty to Power' blog

'Policymakers involved in responding to global pandemics [should] read this book and to think more seriously about how to develop approaches that really listen to affected communities.'
Africa at LSE

'A scholarly exercise that will appeal to medical and health policy academics...convincingly argues the broader lesson for containing future epidemics.'
Publishers Weekly

‘With his decades of experience in rural Sierra Leone, Richards is almost uniquely placed to write this book, which highlights the strong potential at community level for learning about and acting against a deadly disease.’
Sinead Walsh, Irish ambassador to Sierra Leone and Liberia

‘This book is a must for all disease control professionals in Africa and beyond. The book is also exceptionally well written and easily accessible to interested novices.’
Ger J. Steenbergen, first secretary of health, Netherlands Embassy in Ghana

'With some 40 years’ experience living, working and writing about the Mano River Region, Paul Richards’ manuscript provides a succinct, erudite and important contribution to this debate.'
Journal of Modern African Studies


Publication Date: 15 September 2016
192 pages

Product ISBNs: Paperback: 9781783608584
Hardback: 9781783608591
eBook ePub: 9781783608614
eBook PDF: 9781783608607
eBook Kindle: 9781783608621

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