Crosscurrents of Contagion: Snakes, Rumours, Rivers, and Ebola in Sierra Leone's Borderlands

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When the Ebola virus crossed undetected into Sierra Leone and exacerbated the 2014–15 crisis, the World Health Organization blamed the breach on a traditional healer treating patients from Guinea. Meanwhile, local residents initially maintained that her death was not Ebola-related but a serpent's curse, an assumption grounded in lived experience of snake charmer spectacles. Both narratives drowned out evidence that the virus spread not via the healer's covert herbalism, but via her professional connections at the local government clinic and, more broadly, an overtaxed and undertrained public health system. This article takes local rumours around Ebola as vernacular epidemiologies that resonated with sensory experience. They show that both community and humanitarian actors had information; complications arose from the diverse experiences and expectations that shaped responses to that information. Such expectations emerge from the borderland geography, where colonial infrastructures continue to channel perception according to “upriver”, “downriver”, and “crossriver” phenomenologies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)847-871
Number of pages25
Issue number3
StateAccepted/In press - 2023


  • epidemiology
  • misinformation
  • more-than-human
  • phenomenology
  • rivers
  • rumours

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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