Containment strategies for Ebola rupture fundamental features of social, political and religious life. Control efforts that involve local people and appreciate their perspectives, social structures and institutions are therefore vital. Unfortunately such approaches have not been widespread in West Africa where response strategies have been predominantly top-down. Authoritarian tactics have had questionable effect, potentially worsening the epidemic and contributing to social and economic burdens. Failure to involve local people and their concerns is often justified by budgetary and practical restraints such as lack of time and resources. However, some of the current Ebola responses reflect problematic assumptions about local ignorance and capability. These sentiments are deeply rooted, having evolved with unequal power dynamics over long periods of time. The emerging evidence on successful local responses suggests that local populations can learn rapidly to adjust high-risk traditional practices and reduce transmission in conjunction with solid public health measures. Recognising and supporting local resilience will be essential in successfully and sustainably engaging populations in effective Ebola responses.