TIME Africa

Africa Fashion Week Showcases the Continent’s Best Talent

The growing trend of Fashion Weeks across the African continent challenges the notion that global fashion starts in the northern hemisphere

The lights dim on the catwalk as a capacity crowd quiets in anticipation. A pounding drum rhythm builds suspense as, backstage, stylists swarm the waiting models, applying last-minute dabs of foundation, glittering lip-gloss and bursts of hair spray. Next to the catwalk, professional photographers jostle for space with fashion bloggers preparing to snap candids with raised iPhones.

The scene could come from any of Europe or America’s frenzied fashion shows, but for two key differences: the models are mostly black and the designers all African. Welcome to Fashion Week Africa in Johannesburg, an annual event that offers a sharp rebuttal to the idea that international fashion begins and ends in the northern hemisphere. “When it comes to fashion design, Africa is the next frontier,” says Precious Moloi-Motsepe, a women’s health doctor and wife of South African billionaire Patrice Motsepe who founded African Fashion International, which organizes the event, in 2007.

Now in its sixth year, Fashion Week Africa—which recently picked up Mercedes Benz’s sponsorship in a sign of its growing prominence (the company also sponsors fashion weeks in Australia, Russia and Mexico)—is a showcase for Africa’s top designers. Headlining designer David Tlale of South Africa makes regular appearances at New York’s fashion week, while Mozambican Taibo Bacar and South African Hendrik Vermeulen wowed audiences in Milan and Rome earlier this year.

The message from Johannesburg is clear: Africa is no longer just a source for ethnic inspiration and fashion shoots, but a fount of original talent that may just give the established global brands a fresh dose of creativity, Tlale tells TIME. “The industry needs fresh blood. Armani is tired. Galliano is trying to resuscitate himself. McQueen is gone. Gucci is failing to reinvigorate and Prada needs a new creative team. It’s time for the big fashion investors to start looking to Africa. Not appropriating our themes, but taking on our design talent.”

The first obstacle may be overcoming expectations. When Tlale, arguably Africa’s best-known designer, first showed in Paris in 2007, reviewers needled him about his line’s lack of leopard print. It still happens today. “There is so much more happening in Africa than animal prints,” he groans. “The time for showcasing the big five is over.” He is talking about the big five safari animals, but he could just as easily be referencing Africa’s big five fashion clichés: Mandela shirts, animal skins, vibrant Ghanaian fabrics, Ndebele beadwork and the red plaid and beaded collars of the Maasai.

Take the clothes on the catwalk in Johannesburg on Oct. 29 to Nov. 2: from diaphanous trench coats to daring hotpants, they have nary a whiff of the African stereotype. Tribal motifs made an appearance, but they were translated into muted knitwear that could almost pass as Nordic.

As much as international fashion design could use a jolt of African creativity, Africa, which has become dependent on imported fashion, needs the economic stimulus of domestic production. In South Africa, the clothing manufacturing sector used to be the country’s biggest employer, even more than mining, according to Anita Stanbury, of the South African Fashion Council. But in the early 2000s changes in the law allowed Chinese imports to take over, and the industry all but collapsed. South Africa’s fashion weeks, of which there are six year round, are one way to encourage interest, and investment, in local production. South African fashion retailers only buy 25% of their product locally, says Stanbury. If they bought 40%, the number of clothing manufacturing jobs in South Africa would nearly double, from 80,000 to 150,000. “That is a huge reason why we should support the domestic fashion scene,” says Stanbury. “It gives us the opportunity to pull people out of poverty, and make them consumers in the market.”

The domestic economic benefit is one of the main reasons Moloi-Motsepe started with fashion, but pride plays a part as well. She believes it’s time for African fashion to take its place in the spotlight. “We see ourselves as global fashion players,” says Moloi-Motsepe. Just as she pairs Prada with creations by local designers, she is waiting for the day she spots a Londoner mixing Stella McCartney with Tlale. Global fashion, she says, would be better for the cross-pollination.

TIME Kenya

Kenya Says It Has Killed Around 100 al-Shabaab Fighters

Extremists hit in retaliation for the slaying of 28 travelers on Saturday

Kenya says it has killed around 100 al-Shabaab militants after pursuing them into Somalian territory.

The deaths are in reprisal for the slaying of 28 people on Saturday, when the extremist group stopped a bus in Kenya’s north and reportedly separated Muslims from non-Muslims before killing the latter.

“Two successful operations were carried out against the perpetrators of these murderous executions across the border,” Kenya’s Vice President William Ruto said on Sunday, according to Reuters.

The attacks, which have yet to be independently confirmed, reportedly destroyed one of al-Shabaab’s camps in Somalia, as well as four truckloads of weapons, the Guardian says.

Kenya has been the victim of several al-Shabaab attacks since Nairobi started battling the Somalia-based outfit in 2011. In September 2013, 67 people were killed in Nairobi after a group of militants seized the Westgate mall.

TIME health

New Global Study Calls Violence Against Women ‘Epidemic’

A Pokot woman holds a razor blade after performing a circumcision on four girls in a village about 80 kilometres from the town of Marigat in Baringo County, Kenya, Oct. 16, 2014.
A Pokot woman holds a razor blade after performing a circumcision on four girls in a village about 80 kilometres from the town of Marigat in Baringo County, Kenya, Oct. 16, 2014. Siegfried Modola—Reuters

Governments need to step up their game to protect women, says extensive new research

When it comes to stopping violence against women, actions speak louder than words. So even though there’s increased worldwide awareness about violence against women, the problem won’t be solved unless countries make significant policy and financial changes to support victims, according to a five-part series of studies in The Lancet, one of the world’s premier medical journals.

The series, entitled “Violence Against Women and Girls,” calls the violence a “global public health and clinical problem of epidemic proportions,” and the statistics are bleak. 100-140 million women have undergone female genital mutilation worldwide, and 3 million African girls per year are at risk. 7% of women will be sexually assaulted by someone besides their partner in their lifetimes. Almost 70 million girls worldwide have been married before they turned 18. According to WHO estimates, 30% of women worldwide have experienced partner violence. The researchers said that these problems could only be solved with political action and increased funding, since the violence has continued “despite increased global attention,” implying awareness is not enough.

“No magic wand will eliminate violence against women and girls,” series co-lead Charlotte Watts, founding Director of the Gender Violence and Health Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said in a statement. “But evidence tells us that changes in attitudes and behavior are possible, and can be achieved within less than a generation.”

One of the major problems highlighted in the Lancet series is that much of the current research on violence against women has been conducted in high-income countries, and it’s mostly been focused on response instead of prevention. The study found that the key driver of violence in most middle-and-low income countries is gender inequality, and that it would be near impossible to prevent abuse without addressing the underlying political, economic, and educational marginalization of women.

The study also found that health workers are often uniquely positioned to help victims, since they’re often the first to know about the abuse.

“Health-care providers are often the first point of contact for women and girls experiencing violence,” says another series co-lead, Dr. Claudia Garcia-Moreno, a physician at the WHO, in a statement. “The health community is missing important opportunities to integrate violence programming meaningfully into public health initiatives on HIV/AIDS, adolescent health, maternal health, and mental health.”

The series makes five concrete recommendations to curb the violence against women. The authors urge nations to allocate resources to prioritize protecting victims, change structures and policies that discriminate against women, promote support for survivors, strengthen health and education sectors to prevent and respond to violence, and invest in more research into ways to address the problem. In other words: money, education, and political action are key to protecting the world’s most vulnerable women. Hashtag activism, celebrity songs, and stern PSAs are helpful, but this problem is too complicated to be solved by awareness alone.

“We now have some promising findings to show what works to prevent violence,” said Dr. Cathy Zimmerman from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “We urgently need to turn this evidence into genuine action so that women and girls can live violence-free lives.”

The study comes just in time for the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, on Nov. 25.

TIME portfolio

Go Behind the Scenes of Africa’s Fashion Shows

During his 25-year-long career, Swedish photographer Per-Anders Pettersson has covered a wide range of international news events: hunger in Ethiopia, civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Botswana and South Africa. His pictures won praise and awards. But it wasn’t until he embarked on photographing fashion shows in Africa that he found his beat.

In the last four years, Pettersson has photographed close to 30 shows in Africa, gaining full-access usually by virtue of becoming a familiar face.

“Partly [why] I jumped into this was because I’ve done so many of the normal African stories for so many years,” Pettersson tells TIME, referring to his previous work on the continent. “The feel-good African story fascinates me.”

Pettersson’s images are not only set to challenge stereotypes in African fashion, which include animal prints and ethnic designs, but are also meant to confront the “Western gaze,” a media misperception in which Africa is but a war-torn continent rampant with poverty, diseases and ethnic conflicts.

Back in 2009, Pettersson had originally set out to photograph Africa’s new middle and upper class, a fast-growing population in recent years that had attracted little media attention. He received an assignment to photograph a fashion show in Johannesburg, where he thought he’d find some subjects for Rainbow Transit, a photo book on daily life in South Africa after the nation’s democratization.

Pettersson was immediately drawn to this world of fashion: glamorous models in color-rich fabrics, elegant catwalks, and the people he had come to find: well-dressed locals at fancy after-parties. Ever since, he has been documenting the boom of Africa’s fashion industry.

“I feel the story is not only about fashion but also about the new growth in Africa,” he says.

Although South Africa is the capital of Africa’s fashion scene and runs six fashion weeks a year, Pettersson says that more shows are popping up throughout the continent – a sign that Africa’s economy is developing and people’s buying power are growing.


Per-Anders Pettersson is a Swedish photojournalist who has been documenting Africa for the past 20 years. Read LightBox’s piece on his book, RainBow Transit, published by Dewi Lewis in 2013.

Mikko Takkunen, who edited this photo essay, is an Associate Photo Editor at Time.com. Follow him on Twitter @photojournalism.

Ye Ming is a contributor to TIME LightBox. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

TIME Burkina Faso

What You Need to Know About the Unrest in Burkina Faso

Anti-government protesters gather in the Place de la Nation in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, Oct. 31, 2014.
Anti-government protesters gather in the Place de la Nation in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso, Oct. 31, 2014. Joe Penney—Reuters

President Blaise Compaoré stepped down Oct. 31 after 27 years in power

The West African nation of Burkina Faso grabbed rare international headlines this week as thousands of people amassed in its capital, Ouagadougou, to protest plans to keep their longtime leader in office. After days of unrest that included setting Parliament ablaze, overrunning state TV broadcasters and deadly clashes with security forces, President Blaise Compaoré stepped down Oct. 31 after 27 years in power. Army Chief Gen. Honoré Nabéré Traoré quickly announced he would fill the void and said elections would take place within a year.

What are the basics about Burkina Faso?

Burkina Faso, which is densely populated with more than 17 million people and ranked by the United Nations as one of the world’s least-developed countries, shares borders with six countries: Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.

The country gained independence from France in 1960 and would suffer from five military coups in the first few decades that followed. It was known as Upper Volta until 1984, when it was renamed Burkina Faso, meaning “land of upright/honest people.”

Who is Blaise Compaoré?

Compaoré served as minister of state under President Thomas Sankara, who ruled from 1984 until 1987. Compaoré seized power when Sankara and 12 other officials were killed in mysterious circumstances by a group of soldiers.

He subsequently won four presidential elections, most recently in November 2010, although only 1.6 million Burkinabés (less than a tenth of the population) voted. This latest term was supposed to be Compaoré’s last, but Parliament was considering a bill this week to remove the constitutional limit, igniting the masses. (The President’s plans to extend his term in office in 2011 also led to the popular protests.)

Why does his step-down matter?

Despite his low international profile, Compaoré was a key ally of the U.S., helping in the fight against al-Qaeda affiliates operating in the Sahel and the Sahara by allowing the Americans to operate a base in Ouagadougou. France, as a former colonial power, also has Special Forces troops based in the country.

Burkina Faso’s geopolitical position also meant that Compaoré held notable diplomatic influence in the region and frequently acted as a mediator in West African conflicts, including those in Mali and Côte d’Ivoire. A report from the International Crisis Group in July 2013 said that the collapse of Burkina Faso’s diplomatic apparatus would “mean the loss of an important reference point for West Africa that, despite limitations, has played an essential role as a regulatory authority.”

The report added that Compaoré “has put in place a semi-authoritarian regime, combining [democratization] with repression, to ensure political stability,” yet suggested this system was both unsustainable and unlikely to allow for any smooth transition after his departure.

The toppling of Compaoré’s government is likely to bring a new challenges to the West by creating even more instability in the region and, potentially, a space in which extremist groups could flourish.

The White House expressed deep concern over the deteriorating situation this week and urged “all parties, including the security forces, to end the violence and return to a peaceful process to create a future for Burkina Faso that will build on Burkina Faso’s hard-won democratic gains.” France, which welcomed Compaoré’s resignation, also called for calm and urged all actors to exercise restraint.

So what’s next?

Reflecting on the week’s events, an official from the influential opposition party Movement of People for Progress (MPP), Emile Pargui Pare, told AFP: “October 30 is Burkina Faso’s Black Spring, like the Arab Spring.” Other commentators have also compared the demonstrations here with the Arab Spring, the wave of revolutionary protests and clashes that began in Tunisia in December 2010. Back in 2011, Burkinabés held up signs comparing Compaoré to the ousted Tunisian ruler, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

The political events in Burkina Faso are likely to resonate across the continent, where several national leaders are due to step aside soon, including Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, who has hinted at extending his term as President. And on Wednesday in Benin, nearly 30,000 opposition supporters demonstrated in the streets of the country’s largest city, Cotonou, to push for local elections that were due in March 2013.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: October 30

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Thirty years after the world’s worst chemical plant disaster, we must do more to avoid repeating that calamity.

By Anna Lappé in Al Jazeera America

2. Taking medicine on a schedule is key to fighting Malaria, and simple text message reminders are proving remarkably effective.

By Jesse Singal in New York Magazine’s Science of Us

3. The next step for human exploration of space is interplanetary travel, and asteroids are great stepping stones. We should go to the asteroid, not bring one to us.

By Richard P. Binzel in Nature

4. Science reporting in American media has nearly disappeared, and the Ebola coverage shows we’re worse for it.

By the Editors of the Columbia Journalism Review

5. By coming out as the first gay CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Apple’s Tim Cook topples a lingering and outmoded bias.

By Tim Cook in Bloomberg Businessweek

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME ebola

Ebola Brings Another Fear: Xenophobia

Amadou Drame, 11, and brother Pape Drame, 13, right, listen as their father, Ousmane Drame, responds to questions during a news interview on Oct. 28, 2014, in New York.
Amadou Drame, left, 11, and brother Pape Drame, right, 13, listen as their father Ousmane Drame responds to questions during a news interview on Oct. 28, 2014, in New York City Frank Franklin II—AP

A father's claim that his two boys were beaten and called "Ebola" raises concern among Africans

The father says the bullying began soon after his two sons arrived at their New York City school from Senegal almost one month ago. They were called “Ebola” by other students, taunted about possibly being contagious and excluded from playing ball. Ousmane Drame says the baiting finally erupted into a physical fight on Oct. 24 when 11-year-old Amadou and his 13-year-old brother Pape were pummeled by classmates on the playground of Intermediate School 318 in the Bronx.

“It’s not just them,” Drame said at a press conference. “All the African children suffer this.”

The brothers’ experience is an extreme example of the backlash felt by some Africans in the U.S. since the Ebola virus arrived from West Africa. Many others tell of facing subtler, but no less hurtful, forms of discrimination at work, in school and as they commute as fear of the little-known but often deadly disease has spread among the public.

In Staten Island, the largest Liberian community outside of Africa, one woman says she was forced to take temporary, unpaid leave from her job because of her nationality. Liberians in Minnesota have been told to leave work after sneezing or coughing. In New Jersey, two elementary school students from Rwanda were kept out of school after other parents pressured school officials. At Navarro College, a public community college in Texas, officials mailed letters rejecting international applicants from African countries, even ones from countries without confirmed Ebola cases. (The school has since apologized for sending out “incorrect information.”)

“This is a larger problem,” says Charles Cooper, president of the New York City–based African Advisory Council, an advocacy group. “People are on the train and they sneeze and hear, ‘I hope you don’t have Ebola. I hope you don’t give me Ebola.’ Xenophobia is growing around this, but many people are afraid to come out publicly.”

The spread of previously unknown, contagious diseases in the U.S. has often led to these sorts of overreactions. For Ebola, those fears appear driven by the circumstances of the virus — its high mortality rate, its gruesome symptoms, its origins on a continent often misunderstood by Americans — even though the odds of contracting it in the U.S. remain exceedingly low. A recent poll from the Harvard School of Public Health found that more than half of adults worry there will be a large Ebola outbreak inside in the U.S. over the next year, while over a third are worried that they or a family member will be infected.

While fears erupted around people diagnosed with polio in the 1940s and SARS in the 2000s, public-health experts point to the start of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s as the last time Americans attached a similar stigma to people even loosely associated with the virus. At the time, many Americans refused to be near those suspected of having HIV, unaware of how it was actually transmitted.

“A lot of what I’m seeing today was present at the very beginning of the AIDS epidemic,” says Robert Fullilove, a Columbia University professor of sociomedical sciences, who has been researching HIV since the mid-1980s. “It’s this tendency to separate between two different groups, when somebody’s ‘otherness’ is associated with a deadly disease. It’s like déjà vu all over again.”

That toxic brew of fear and misinformation led to discrimination against gays — the disease was unfairly yet colloquially known as the “gay plague” for its disproportionate toll among homosexual men — and people from Haiti, which was the first country in the western hemisphere with confirmed cases of HIV.

“Haiti itself became stigmatized,” says Dr. Joia Mukherjee, a Harvard Medical School associate professor. “The same thing is happening now with Liberians, and indeed all of Africa.”

In both cases, the driving forces are the same: a general lack of understanding about the disease, how it is transmitted and where it’s been concentrated.

“The average American doesn’t even recognize how big Africa is,” Fullilove says of the Ebola stereotypes.

The bullying allegedly faced by the Drame brothers is a case in point. The vast majority of Ebola cases are in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Senegal had only one confirmed case and is now considered free of the disease by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Countering such misinformation has been central to the messaging strategy of the CDC and government officials. It’s no coincidence that President Obama hugged Nina Pham after the Dallas nurse was declared free of the virus. And the image offensive may be paying off. According to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll, the people least worried about catching the disease or a larger U.S. outbreak were the ones who knew the most about how Ebola is transmitted.

Read next: 2 Kids from Senegal Were Beaten Up in NYC by Classmates Yelling ‘Ebola’

TIME On Our Radar

A Fresh Look at Africa through Nigeria’s Largest Photo Festival

When LagosPhoto Director Azu Nwagbogu, and other members of the African Artists’ Foundation, were setting up Nigeria’s first ever photo festival, they had a pretty broad goal in mind: to provide a platform for photographers to tell new stories about Africa. But perhaps an even more important part of their mission was to empower artists to remedy what Nwagbogu has termed “Afro-pessimism,” the tendency for visual representations of the continent to be negative, particularly in the western media.

“If I think about what documentary photography, in the traditional sense, has for done Africa, it hasn’t really empowered the continent,” Nwagbogu tells TIME. “Africa [is often seen] as a hopeless continent where it’s almost like nothing can be done.”

But he knew a different kind of work was out there, he says. And on his travels, he would often come across refreshing visual stories documenting various African countries, but ones that had never been shown in Africa. “I realized there was an abundance of talent,” he says. And so the festival was born.

Now in its fifth year, the show sees photographers present work under the theme Staging Reality: Documenting Fiction. Fiction here not necessarily indicating invention, Nwagbogu stresses, but rather how storytelling can represent reality. Indeed, fiction in Nigeria, and in many cultures, can often be used as a conveyor of truth, he says.

“Most of what we know about Parisian life in the 19th Century is through fiction — people like Balzac, people like Flaubert,” Nwagbogu continues.

On show are Cristina de Middel’s arresting This is What Hatred Did series, which is a modern retelling of an old Nigerian story, Namsa Leuba’s powerful Cocktail, which focuses on the representation of the female body in Africa and Seun Akisanmi’s Nigerian Punishments in which the artist explores the various forms of punishment he received as a child.

But Nwagbogu is keen to stress that this year’s theme is not about jettisoning photojournalism — last year, curators showed Jerome Delay’s work from Mali, for example — but it’s more about broadening the festival’s scope to include different kinds of photography, and indeed, narratives.

“If we engage and empower local and international photographers to embrace a newer narrative I think, maybe, we have a better solution,” he says. “We don’t need to define ourselves as who we are not anymore, we can now define ourselves as who we want to be.”


LagosPhoto runs from Oct. 25 to Nov. 26, 2014 in Lagos.

Richard Conway is reporter/producer for TIME LightBox.


TIME ebola

The Psychology Behind Our Collective Ebola Freak-Out

Airlines and the CDC Oppose Ebola Flight Bans
A protester stands outside the White House asking President Barack Obama to ban flights in effort to stop Ebola on Oct. 17, 2014 in Washington, DC. Olivier Douliery—dpa/Corbis

The almost-zero probability of acquiring Ebola in the U.S. often doesn’t register at a time of mass fear. It’s human nature

In Hazlehurst, Miss., parents pulled their children out of middle school last week after learning that the principal had recently visited southern Africa.

At Syracuse University, a Pulitzer Prize–winning photojournalist who had planned to speak about public health crises was banned from campus after working in Liberia.

An office building in Brecksville, Ohio, closed where almost 1,000 people work over fears that an employee had been exposed to Ebola.

A high school in Oregon canceled a visit from nine students from Africa — even though none of them hailed from countries containing the deadly disease.

All over the U.S., fear of contracting Ebola has prompted a collective, nationwide freak-out. Schools have emptied; businesses have temporarily shuttered; Americans who have merely traveled to Africa are being blackballed.

As the federal government works to contain the deadly disease’s spread under a newly appointed “Ebola czar,” and as others remain quarantined, the actual number of confirmed cases in the U.S. can still be counted on one hand: three. And they’ve all centered on the case of Thomas Eric Duncan, who died Oct. 8 in a Dallas hospital after traveling to Liberia; two nurses who treated him are the only other CDC-confirmed cases in the U.S.

The almost-zero probability of acquiring something like Ebola, given the virus’s very real and terrifying symptoms, often doesn’t register at a time of mass paranoia. Rationality disappears; irrational inclinations take over. It’s human nature, and we’ve been acting this way basically since we found out there were mysterious things out there that could kill us.

“There are documented cases of people misunderstanding and fearing infectious diseases going back through history,” says Andrew Noymer, an associate professor of public health at the University of California at Irvine. “Stigmatization is an old game.”

While there was widespread stigma surrounding diseases like the Black Death in Europe in the 1300s (which killed tens of millions) and more recently tuberculosis in the U.S. (patients’ family members often couldn’t get life-insurance policies, for example), our current overreaction seems more akin to collective responses in the last half of the 20th century to two other diseases: polio and HIV/AIDS.

Concern over polio in the 1950s led to widespread bans on children swimming in lakes and pools after it was discovered that they could catch the virus in the water. Thirty years later, the scare over HIV and AIDS led to many refusing to even get near those believed to have the disease. (Think of the hostile reaction from fellow players over Magic Johnson deciding to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game.)

Like the first cases of polio and HIV/AIDS, Ebola is something novel in the U.S. It is uncommon, unknown, its foreign origins alone often leading to fearful reactions. The fatality rate for those who do contract it is incredibly high, and the often gruesome symptoms — including bleeding from the eyes and possible bleeding from the ears, nose and rectum — provoke incredibly strong and often instinctual responses in attempts to avoid it or contain it.

“It hits all the risk-perception hot buttons,” says University of Oregon psychology professor Paul Slovic.

Humans essentially respond to risk in two ways: either through gut feeling or longer gestating, more reflective decisionmaking based on information and analysis. Before the era of Big Data, or data at all, we had to use our gut. Does that look like it’s going to kill us? Then stay away. Is that person ill? Well, probably best to avoid them.

“We didn’t have science and analysis to guide us,” Slovic says. “We just went with our gut feelings, and we survived.”

But even though we know today that things like the flu will likely kill tens of thousands of people this year, or that heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. every year, we’re more likely to spend time worrying about the infinitesimal chances that we’re going to contract a disease that has only affected a handful of people, thanks in part to its frightening outcomes.

“When the consequences are perceived as dreadful, probability goes out the window,” Slovic says. “Our feelings aren’t moderated by the fact that it’s unlikely.”

Slovic compares it to the threat from terrorism, something that is also unlikely to kill us yet its consequences lead to massive amounts of government resources and calls for continued vigilance from the American people.

“Statistics are human beings with the tears dried off,” he says. “We often tend to react much less to the big picture.”

And that overreaction is often counterproductive. Gene Beresin, a Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor, says that fear is causing unnecessary reactions, oftentimes by parents and school officials, and a social rejection of those who in no way could have caught Ebola.

“It’s totally ridiculous to close these schools,” Beresin says. “It’s very difficult to catch. People need to step back, calm down and look at the actual facts, because we do have the capacity to use our rationality to prevent hysterical reactions.”

Read next: Nigeria Is Ebola-Free: Here’s What They Did Right

TIME Nigeria

Why the Girls Kidnapped by Boko Haram Still Aren’t Home

Experts say the plight of the girls are "symbolic" of the larger problems in Nigeria's fight against the militant group

A lot has happened since April 14th. Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in Ukraine; the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) seized vast swathes of Iraq; and Ebola has killed thousands in Africa, and spread to at least two other continents. In our hyper-speedy news cycle, six months passes in a blink of an eye. But for the schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants when they struck the northeastern Nigerian village of Chibok in April, it probably feels like a lifetime. The militants abducted 276 girls; six months on, more than 200 remain in captivity.

Why haven’t they been rescued yet? Largely, observers say, because of Nigeria’s failure to effectively counter Boko Haram, which has claimed thousands of lives over the years in its violent campaign to carve out a hardline religious state in the north of the country. “The problem is that the girls are symbolic,” says Adotei Akwei, managing director for advocacy for Amnesty International USA. “They’re part of a larger human rights catastrophe, a bad situation in Nigeria.”

“Nigeria’s military strategy isn’t working well,” he continues. “We clearly have not been able to get the girls back, or to change the mindset or approach of the Nigerian government in terms of how it responds to Boko Haram or how it protects its citizens”

Carl LeVan, a professor at American University in Washington D.C. who writes about Nigeria, adds that many civilians consider the Nigerian military almost as bad as Boko Haram when it comes to human rights violations, even as the rebels continue their reign of terror in the north.

Akwei says the problems with the Nigerian military also hinder international efforts to lend a hand. “The Nigerian military has got such a bad reputation that even the US military is concerned about how much they can cooperate because of the kind of abuses we’ve documented,” he explains. “There’s no transparency, no accountability whatsoever.”

The military has an embarrassing track record when it comes to fighting the militant group. Earlier this year, they claimed to have rescued the girls the day after the abduction, but then had to retract that claim. In late May, they released a statement saying they knew where the girls were being held, but wouldn’t use force to rescue them. And in a tragic incident early last month, several Nigerian troops were killed by their own airstrikes aimed at Boko Haram.

U.S. planes spotted large groups of girls in early August that might have been the kidnapped students. Time, however, continues to drag on without a rescue—and, says Jennifer Cook, the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the longer they stay in captivity, the harder it becomes to bring back the missing girls.

“With hostage situations with this many people, to bring one set back without endangering another set is very difficult,” says Cooke. “In some cases, there’s a pretty good idea of where they are, but extricating them from a group of armed criminals who have so little respect for life is a difficult negotiation process. And the longer they’re there, the greater likelihood they become dispersed, and the more difficult they are to track down.”

According to Cooke, the big-picture strategy for fighting the insurgency would involve capturing key Boko Haram leaders and cutting off funding sources to weaken the militant group. But it’s also important for the government to win the support of communities in that part of the country, where many feel both abandoned by the administration and terrorized by Boko Haram.

“A lot of civilians are feeling pinched between the terror of Boko Haram and the misbehaviors of the Nigerian military,” says LeVan, whose book on Nigeria, Dictators and Democracy in African Development, is set to be released later this month. “They said ‘we’re trapped, we’re fleeing Boko Haram but we also don’t have anywhere to go because our military is suspicious of us.’”

Winning the hearts of northern Nigerians is crucial to stopping the violence and finding the girls, but some communities are reluctant to support the government for fear of violent reprisals from Boko Haram, and because they don’t trust the government to protect them. Cooke says that “fundamental distrust” in the north is one of the government’s biggest impediments to finding the girls, because it makes it much more difficult to get accurate information. In the meantime, the girls are no better off. “These girls are being held under absolutely horrific circumstances, subjected to sexual violence and rape, forced into servitude,” she said. “There are reports that some have become pregnant.”

If those reports are true—and there’s a good chance they are, based on Boko Haram’s history of impregnating abducted women—the pregnant girls could face even greater challenges down the road. Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe runs the Saint Monica Girls’ Tailoring Center in Uganda, where she helps girls who have been victims of sexual violence rebuild their lives with their children, who are often outcasts in their communities. “Because the situation they are taken in, I would not be surprised if a good number of them are pregnant,” she says. “Raising the child of a person who has been maltreating you is always [hard.] That is why there is violence and anger returned on these children. Because they give [the mother] that reminder of the pain they have gone through.”

Sister Rosemary says that if the girls are ever released, they may have trouble re-joining their families and communities. That’s why continuing their education will be crucial for helping them move forward.

“If we leave these kids and say, they cannot catch up, I think we just are going to destroy them more.”

But before anybody can worry about education and rehabilitation, the girls have to come home. “Our world must not forget these adolescent girls,” says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the Executive Director of UN Women and a United Nations Under-Secretary-General. “The world must come together and make every possible effort to rescue these girls and bring their captors to justice. We cannot and must not move on with this humanitarian tragedy still unresolved.”

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser