A new exhibition focused on West Africa highlights the impact of Covid on our sense of community, two years into the pandemic.
The exhibition showcases the work that the Cardiff-based international development charity United Purpose, has carried out with COVID-19 affected communities in West Africa, with the support of Welsh Government funding. Through stories, images and videos captured by local, West African artists, ‘Community – from Wales to West Africa’ explores how the pandemic has both brought communities together and forced them apart, in lockdowns, over the past two years.
In West Africa, people have faced huge challenges as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In Nigeria, Guinea, Senegal and The Gambia, these include weak healthcare systems, poor hygiene and sanitation facilities, densely populated communities, and an absence of welfare support systems.
The pandemic is far from over in these countries – partly due to a lack of vaccines but also through population scepticism. The informal economy and small businesses have also been badly hit, severely damaging the livelihoods and food security of many people.
United Purpose’s Welsh Government-funded project carried out a rapid emergency response to COVID-19 in Nigeria, Guinea, Senegal and The Gambia, through 2021 and into 2022. The three main areas of activity included improving healthcare and COVID prevention, hygiene information and overcoming vaccine scepticism, and rebuilding the economic resilience of the informal sector.
Healthcare and COVID prevention
Moussa Mara, aged 27, is one of the 80 health workers in Guinea that United Purpose trained to respond to COVID-19. At the start of the pandemic, the health centre where he worked closed because people were afraid of catching COVID-19. It was a similar story in many other health centres across the country.
In response, United Purpose health agents delivered information sessions about COVID prevention in communities surrounding 28 health centres, serving a total combined population of 137,500. As a result, fears were dispelled and health centres reopened their doors to patients.
Nigeria is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, so reaching people in a language they can understand has been key.
Mara says: “Before UP’s arrival, I had heard about the COVID disease on the radio, but I did not have all the essential information on how to avoid the disease. During educational talks, I learned how to avoid COVID and prevent disease, through physical distancing, hand washing, wearing a mask, etc.”
Hygiene information and overcoming vaccine scepticism
Providing accurate information about COVID-19, and discrediting the many myths circulating about the virus and the vaccine, has been a key focus of the project. Robert Kanung, a resident in a small community in Nigeria’s Cross River State, explains: “No one took it [coronavirus] seriously because you heard one thing in the morning and another thing in the evening. Fear was everywhere because of the misinformation.”
Nigeria is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world, so reaching people in a language they can understand has been key. United Purpose worked with local leaders, community activists and musicians to spread vital information to the masses. Through songs, jingles and skit acting at mobile street pop-ups, over 1.5 million people in 95 population centres were reached. A door-to-door COVID awareness campaign reached 143,657 households in remote locations – in languages that people could understand.
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For Robert Kanung, attending a United Purpose-led training session in his village was a pivotal moment. Presented with reliable information, Kanung was inspired to get the message out in his community – he began to run his own COVID training sessions in the local language. He even became one of the first members of his community to get the vaccine in order to encourage others to do the same.
In The Gambia and Senegal, United Purpose’s project has focused on rebuilding livelihoods that have been hit by the pandemic, with an emphasis on women. Aissatou Cisse, a market vendor and mother of two in Dakar, Senegal, explains: “The COVID crisis greatly impacted my activities. Street businesses caused gathering, which was forbidden … Sales dropped considerably.”
Cisse found support at her local women’s collective
Cisse found support at her local women’s collective – one of 400 women’s groups with 12,000 members that United Purpose supported in Senegal to improve and upscale their businesses. The savings she invested in the group have been redistributed to her, making it possible to restart her business: “We have overcome the crisis thanks to the collective,” Cisse says.
Across the border in The Gambia, United Purpose has supported 31,500 women farmers to rebuild their businesses and move beyond subsistence farming. In Kassange community, United Purpose trained women vegetable producers to work together to change their harvesting habits, increase their yields and share information about best practices.
“Before the project we knew very little about healthy cooking,” says Sally Jarjou, one of the farmers. “Now we know how to cook without losing the nutrients stored in the food, and everyone is becoming stronger.”
So far, the project has exceeded its target reach of 4.4 million people (reached through a combination of mass media awareness campaigns and focused training sessions).
Exhibition in Cardiff
The multimedia exhibition has been designed by Watch Africa Cymru, the arts agency that runs the annual Wales African Film Festival, in collaboration with United Purpose. Attendees will be invited to walk through different stations in the exhibition, to showcase and illustrate four key pillars of community: Eat, Learn, Work and Lead. At each of these pillars, they will be exposed to personal stories from West Africa and also asked to reflect on what this means to them in their own lives.
‘Community – from Wales to West Africa’ will take place at The Temple of Peace in Cardiff from 8 to 11 March. A smaller-scale version will also be on display at the Senedd in Cardiff Bay from 28 to 31 March. Visit www.united-purpose.org/exhibition to find out more.
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