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A Quiet Sadness

February 24, 2015

Sad baby

I arrived in Liberia exactly one week ago. Nurses met the airplane at the terminal and asked everyone to wash their hands while they aimed thermometers at our temples. It was the first sign that things were not the same, but I quickly forgot about it as I jostled for my luggage in the crowded claim area.

I’d made friends on the plane and we shouted back and forth looking for each other’s bags… but to no avail. Two of mine were missing and as the ancient conveyor belt creaked to a halt I realized they weren’t coming. I filed a claim and slid through the customs check using my rusty Mano, the last passenger left inside. I dragged my solitary bag outside and looked for the driver. I was afraid he might have given up and left, but there he was. I pulled him in for a hug despite his half-hearted protest of “No touching!” and I knew that I was home. Exhausted and filthy but home.

It was 10:30pm but still a good 85ºF and humid for dry season. As we drove into Monrovia in the dark I wondered what the daylight would bring. This couldn’t possibly be the same Liberia I left in July, but as we sped through towns I saw groups of young people crowded around video clubs and women roasting meat. I felt hopeful.

And that feeling has continued the past seven days. Things are so much the same that the images I saw on television six months ago almost seem impossible. Hand washing stations and elbow bumps have replaced the customary snap handshakes and hugs but people are getting back to their normal lives. Everyone at Cuttington has been thrilled to see me and it’s almost like my presence is a sign that “normal times” are coming back. It must be the same way many communities felt when Peace Corps finally returned after the war.

It’s humbling.

Over the weekend I walked to the village behind Cuttington to visit my friend Oretha and as we sat and lectured I started to realize things might not be as normal as they felt at first. It was something I picked up on talking to some of the students during the week but couldn’t put my finger on. It’s like a sort of quiet sadness has descended on the country. Normal things are happening on the surface, but nothing is as loud, active, or exuberant as before. It’s like the whole country is exhausted, used up.

When people say “We thank god, at least we are alive” you know that’s exactly what they mean. That’s a very Liberian kind of thing to say and the first few years I was here it seemed strange. We’d be having a faculty meeting and the principal would open by saying something like “Thank god none of us died last night and we are all together now.” That—being alive—is something we forget to appreciate in America. Any of us could go at any time. If it were your time would you be ready? Would you be proud of your life?

Today I was sitting in my office when a man came in and sat down. He asked if I was the white lady who was friends with Mistress Yekeh and did I know she was dead. I nodded quietly and told him I’d shed many tears. He had been her neighbor and was in communication with her up until the end. According to him, Mistress Yekeh’s daughter got sick and, like I suspected, she rushed to Monrovia to help her. None of the clinics would see them and the Ebola Treatment Unit at ELWA Junction, one of the only ones in Monrovia at the time, was at capacity. They slept outside the hospital hoping someone would come to help. During the night the daughter got worse and died, there on the ground just outside the hospital.

When Mistress Yekeh called her own mother with the news she dropped dead, possibly from a heart attack. A few days later Mistress Yekeh started to feel ill so she admitted herself to a treatment center and was confirmed Ebola positive. She asked someone to bring her Bible and her reading glasses. A few days later she died too and became another black body bag in an unmarked grave.

As he finished the story the man shook his head, wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, and left as quickly as he’d come. “Mistress Yekeh didn’t die of Ebola,” were his final words on the way out. “I know she died of a broken heart.” I shook my own head and fought to keep tears from splashing on the pile of books I was cataloging.

And just like that the quiet sadness came over me too. I fear it will be one of the lasting scars Ebola leaves on this beautiful country.

“If you’re going to care about the fall of the sparrow you can’t pick and choose who’s going to be the sparrow.  It’s everybody.” -Madeleine L’Engle

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrea permalink
    February 25, 2015 12:57 am

    Your words are so hard to read. I am so sorry for all the pain you and your friends are going through. My prayers for you, dear friend.

  2. February 25, 2015 9:19 am

    R.O.B., thank you for posting this. I cried as I read it. Thank you for your work. The Bible your friend requested tells us we are blessed when we mourn. May you mourn well and continue easing the quiet sadness of our friends.

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