Youth in Mali Against Ebola

Introducing U-report and how it can help engage young people as leaders in the fight against Ebola

Vincent Turmine
Konimba Keita sits at home with her 3-year-old daughter Bintou, in the village of Karangana, in the southern Sikasso Region.
10 March 2015

Read this article in French


Kayes, Mali | It is Tuesday 4 November, just 13 days after two-year-old Fanta Koné died of Ebola. My colleague Shannon Strother and I have just arrived in Kayes to meet with Daberé Dembélé (Chief of the UNICEF Zonal Office in Kayes) and his team, and are eager to understand the situation on the ground.

Koné was the first confirmed case of Ebola in Mali, and authorities seem gravely concerned that the disease could spread rapidly if swift action is not taken. A foreboding lack of confidence pervades our discussions–a sense that Mali is not ready to handle this epidemic should more cases arise.

Driving through Kayes toward the Fousseyni Daou Hospital, we notice that onlookers seem concerned rather than reassured by our presence. The tension is palpable and uncertainty runs high–for us and the community alike.

One of our goals on this mission is to support communication and ‘sensitization’ efforts, in an effort to share accurate, actionable information and debunk the rumours that have already spread across town. Lucky for us, we have just the right tool for the job.

“U-report, it’s simple!”

At 4pm, we gather with Youssouph Marega et Kadiatou Marie Angèle Daou of the Children’s Parliament at the Regional Directorate of Child Protection and Family Affairs to discuss a major component of the proposed EVD response: launching the first sub-national club of U-reporters in Mali.

As we introduce the concept of U-report and begin discussing how it can help engage young people as leaders in the fight against Ebola, the young parliamentarians grow simultaneously excited and, well, a bit confused. Seeing this, Kadiatou takes the floor and explains U-report in terms she hopes everyone can understand: “It’s really simple. You register, then you answer a few simple questions about your age, whether you’re a boy or girl, where you live, what you do as a young person in Mali. And the best part: it is completely FREE! After you register, you’ll be able to answer questions about our problems as youth, give your opinion and let everyone know what challenges you are facing!”

Kadiatou’s peers seem even more intrigued, but still a bit uncertain about what exactly U-report is. U-report is cool, but it isn’t exactly easy to understand.

Marega, the Vice President of the regional Children’s Parliament, tries another angle: “With U-report, we will get to know what everyone thinks and we can share this loud and clear! The best thing would be for us to present U-report at school tomorrow!”

3pm, Tuesday, November 5 | Dougoukolo Konaré High School

When we arrive at Dougoukolo Konaré, the largest high school in Kayes, I’m worried that the atmosphere may not be suitable for our mission. U-report is about young people getting excited about a platform and a collective voice that is theirs–and the atmosphere here feels like it will do nothing but stifle such a voice.

Nevertheless, we follow with Marega–himself determined to shake things up–into the year 10 classroom.

Silence. Protocol observed. This may not be easy.

Hamchatou Dicko, 9, responds to a question from her teacher, at a primary school in Gao, capital of the north-eastern Gao Region.
Hamchatou Dicko, 9, responds to a question from her teacher, at a primary school in Gao, capital of the north-eastern Gao Region.

“ From a flurry of questions…”

With teachers and other adults present, the students don’t dare say a word. Marega realizes he’ll have to work the room to get people excited. Gesticulating with energy, he dives in: “We have come to introduce you to U-report, an SMS application that allows you–the youth–to exchange amongst yourselves. Vince is here to explain how it works.” Seeing that the students are still quite timid, Kadiatou steps in and asks: “Are we together — did you understand?”. Nobody replies…

Marega continues: “You send M-A-L-I to 36019 and automatically, you receive a question. You have to respond. When you do, you’ll receive another question–and you have to respond again. You do this five times…” — as Marega completes his explanation, and as the adults begin to leave the classroom to go about their business, the students begin timidly raising their hands.

Questions abound:

  • “Can we send free SMS to our friends?” asks one interested student.

Kadiatou takes the question in stride: “Nooo, U-report will allow you to answer questions sent to you on your phone. When you respond, you get to share your opinion and together with your friends say something about challenges you face here in Mali”.

Another student raises her hand, then another…

  • “How does it work?”
  • “I don’t have my own phone. How can I join?”
  • “Do we need internet access to participate?”

A deluge of questions, full of excitement. Kadiatou, now even more energized, tries to restore a bit of order to the room” “Hey hey hey, not everyone at the same time! The easiest thing to do is to send the word MALI to the number 36019. Let’s go!”

As the students each take out their phones and type these four critical letters into an SMS, a moment of silence ensues. But this is short-lived.

  • Mr. Vincent, I received it!
  • Does it use my credit?
  • Can anybody join? Even my brother?”
  • “I sent the message but it still isn’t working!”

Between each registration message, anticipation mounts and students grow impatient. Seeing this, Marega gets everyone on their feet and starts a small song & dance to keep everyone occupied. “Everybody up,” Marega exclaims, clapping his hands. “Tama! Tama! Tamarico!” As the others join in, the room fills briefly with a youthful song. And then, a more exciting song breaks through the noise…

Children at Babale Santana school, Mali
Children at Babale Santana school, Mali

… to a concert of ring tones »

After much anticipation, the SMS begin arriving. Smiles spread across the faces of each student as they receive their U-report messages. Diami, Rokiatou, and Aichata exchange their phones. “How did you respond to this question?” Djibril Kanouté looks over Rokiatou’s shoulder, eager to see what happens as Maïmouna sends her third SMS. “Congratulations, you are officially registered as a U-reporter!” exclaims Mariama, reading from her phone screen.

Speaking over the din of excitement in the room, Marega tries to bring everyone back together. “Please, please!” Marega shouts, eager to make sure that everyone has understood how U-report will work in Mali as a platform by and for youth. “We are now going to have a small quiz. Those who respond correctly will receive a U-report t-shirt! What are you going to use U-report with?”

A room full of hands, flailing around in search of a new t-shirt and, more important, recognition as the first branded U-reporter. “U-report works with all phones–no matter what type!” yells Harouna, reaching out his hand to catch the new t-shirt.

“What is the number of U-report?” Kadiatou asks.

“Me! Me!” shout the girls in unison. Fatoumata, thrilled to be picked, shouts the answer loud and clear while jumping with joy to receive her t-shirt: “3-6-0-1-9!”

In just ten minutes, Marega is short on t-shirts and questions but full of energy and excitement. The first team of U-report champions in Mali has been formed. Wearing his own U-report t-shirt proudly, Marega looks to the future and sets a challenge for his peers; “We are going to recruit the 3,000 youth from this school and go to Kayes N’Di to speak to those who are no longer in school!”

It is 5:30 PM. U-report Mali is officially launched in Kayes, an old city with a cadre of energetic youth armed with brand new tool for the fight against Ebola.


Translated from French by Stuart Campo