The Ebola epidemic unfolded in radically divergent manners in two neighboring villages in Sierra Leone, with one recording 40 cases and 20 deaths and the other recording zero cases, though they are located only 100 meters apart. Presented with identical information about Ebola’s cause and modes of transmission, one chief reacted by attempting to shield his village from outside knowledge and influence, encouraging his people to continue their normal practices of care and communion, and the other by instituting self-isolation, rapidly enforcing Ebola-specific practices among his residents.
This study argues that these opposing courses of action were the result of the chiefs interpreting health communications with respect to their social, historical, and political relationships with each other and with the state, and not as a result of one embracing medical knowledge and the other rejecting it. To analyze a situation “through a glass, darkly,” means that information is never imagined to be neutral. Rather, knowledge is always implicated in relationships of power, rendering its political implications more important than the information conveyed. The authors distinguish between orthodoxy and orthopraxy-right belief versus right practice-to argue that the epidemic ended locally not through the circulation of knowledge, but through the circulation of Ebola-specific practice. The study cautions against treating knowledge only in terms of its production, circulation, and consumption, and urge a new focus on knowledge non-production, obfuscation, and rejection.