Liberians have become accustomed to living with demons.
Long before Ebola arrived, the people here endured 14 years of civil war, one that snuffed out 200,000 lives and ignited acts of barbarism that laid waste to the country. The war produced mad generals who led ritual sacrifices of children before going into battle, naked except for shoes and a gun. It produced amphetamine-fueled 10-year-old fighters wielding M16s while toting teddy bear backpacks, and rapists who wore Halloween masks and wedding gowns.
When it finally ended in 2003, what was left was a nation of survivors, a place where nearly every person of a certain age has a painful story to tell.
I know this all too well, as a native Liberian who emigrated to the United States. My family has our own war stories. One sister was kidnapped and fought to protect her 1-year-old son while marching for days behind rebel lines. Another sister sent her son away to avoid the war and spent two years — two years — hiding deep up country in an area known only as Territory 3C, far from the worst of the conflict, after witnessing gunmen disembowel a co-worker in front of his son.
I have long stopped asking people what happened to them during the war. But as I moved in recent weeks around this city where I was born, reporting about the Ebola epidemic, I was aware of this: There is a strength here that I had never before realized.
My friend Wael Hariz, a Lebanese citizen living here who had been away for a couple of months, said he came back in late September expecting the worst, after watching the coverage of Ebola overseas. Standing just off Tubman Boulevard, Monrovia’s main road, at midday, he looked at the cars, taxis and pedestrians going by.
“I had forgotten, after what they’ve been through, how resilient people here are,” he said.
They came by that resilience the hard way. This is a staggeringly beautiful place, where tropical rain forests give way to pure white sandy beaches dotted by coconut trees. But the average Liberian lives on $1.25 a day, has no access to clean water and does not have a flush toilet at home.
The average Liberian lives with mother, father, auntie, uncle and second cousins, sharing mattresses in cramped two-room shanties painted dark colors to ward off the equatorial sun. When one of those family members gets sick, the average Liberian picks through the muddy potholed dirt roads to Tubman Boulevard to hail a taxi to get to the nearest clinic.
When Comfort Fayiah, 32, was turned away last month from a private hospital that demanded $450, she gave birth to twins in the dirt near Du Port Road. Passers-by surrounded her to try to give her what privacy they could, while a local woman and man delivered the two girls, Faith and Mercy.
The new demon, of course, is Ebola, which has killed more than 2,000 Liberians and has struck double that number, crippled the country’s health system, ground the economy to a standstill and made international pariahs of anyone with a Liberian passport. Those facing it close up are fearful of what could happen and often angry that they are largely left on their own.
But many Liberians are treating the disease with much the same resignation as the killers of the past — accepting that the threat is there, and doing their best to navigate around it. They wash their hands with chlorine, they walk up to the laser thermometers at the entrances of public buildings to check their temperature. They still take care of family members who fall ill because there is no other alternative.
I have been trying to be as unruffled as my Liberian compatriots, but I’ve been living in the United States for too long now. My tolerance for risk has gone way down.
I have been consumed with worry. My oldest sister is a health care worker in Liberia who is deeply involved in the Ebola response. Another sister, Eunice, is a pensions manager at the Firestone rubber company; every day pensioners line up outside her office 35 miles from Monrovia and reach their hands toward her to receive their checks.
My 9-year-old niece, Nyepu, who has sickle-cell anemia, has been locked in the house since July, and is busting at the seams to get out. I have nightmares that she will escape and the worst will happen.
Packing to come here, I brought rehydration tablets for one sister, a box of latex gloves for the other and a portable DVD player for my niece. Visiting Eunice and her family, I admonished Nyepu not to touch me — I had been in an Ebola treatment unit. When Eunice and I took a picture together to send back to our third sister in the United States, we made sure not to touch.
Two days after I arrived in Monrovia, news broke that an Ebola case had been diagnosed at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, the first in the United States. American officials said they were not releasing the name of the patient, citing confidentiality, but Liberia’s health minister, Dr. Walter T. Gwenigale, was having none of it.
“I throw that out the window,” he said during a meeting with visiting health officials. “There is no privacy in Ebola.”
Just like people in the United States, everyone in Monrovia was talking about the case of Thomas Eric Duncan, the patient in Dallas. The biggest question here was whether the United States would prevent Liberians from traveling to America. It is not as if many of them get visas anyway; the fortress that is the United States Embassy, perched on a hill in the diplomatic enclave of Mamba Point, is so barricaded that even a recent high-level American delegation had to wait outside for 20 minutes before being passed through the gates.
But what if President Obama pulls out the United States troops he has sent to build treatment units? When Mr. Duncan died, the first Ebola fatality in the United States, there was suspicion in Monrovia of both governments. “They wanted him to die, to teach us a lesson” not to try to go to America in hopes of surviving the disease, a friend told me.
Source: The New York Times / Oct.19, 2014