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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

It all falls down

December 6, 2014

Frangipani Tree

They say that when it rains it pours. Right now it’s pouring and it would be so easy to let go and wash away. I’ve been juggling a lot of balls the past few months and one by one they are slipping through my hands.

At the beginning of November I sent three of my students to Monrovia to take the SAT. They managed to print their admission tickets, pick up money at the bank, and find a safe place to lodge. They followed my directions precisely but were turned away at the test center. “Come back Monday. There has been a death in the test administrator’s family.” I didn’t think the Collegeboard would approve of that but my students needed the scores for their applications so I let it go.

They returned the following Monday and the test was administered, but my student Romeo was taken in a different room and given the wrong test. He protested. My other students protested. The administrator shrugged and told him it was too late. They called me in a panic that night and I could feel the fear in Romeo’s voice. It was like he could see his dreams crashing before they had a chance to get off the ground. “Ms. RB, do something. They won’t help us!”

I know the test administrator looked at their admission tickets and underestimated them. What can three poor kids from the ‘bush’ do? Ha!

Within ten minutes I was on the phone with the SAT head office lodging a complaint and opening an investigation of the situation. It took three weeks but they agreed to let him retake the test and a nice woman helped me do a last minute registration so Romeo could retake it this weekend. He needs these scores now so we couldn’t wait until the next date at the end of January.

It was a small victory but still a victory.

And in the meantime they had finished all their applications, the transcripts had arrived at the admissions office, and the pieces were slowly coming together. I allowed myself to feel hopeful.

My own grad school application had been rejected again but something good had to be on the horizon. Flip the coin enough times and you have to get the right side sometimes.

The phone rang this morning and it was Romeo. I asked how his retake of the SAT went. “Oh, I didn’t take it. They said to come back Monday. The test administrator died. They said they can’t just leave his body laying around so they can’t give the test today.”

Liberia isn’t easy. Are you getting that?

Looking for some good news I logged into the students’ online application portals for one of the schools. I wanted to see if their test scores or transcripts had been uploaded yet. Not only had that not happened: they had already been rejected.

The school hadn’t processed or received all my students’ documents yet they determined they are not academically qualified. It’s not that I can’t take rejection. It’s that there are still major cards in play.  How can they end the game while we’re still playing?

Each student did an 11-page scholarship application in addition to the regular application. I spent hours writing glowing recommendation letters and helping them find other references in the community.

And no one is going to read any of it because of a few arbitrary numbers.

Keep climbing, kids. They can’t see you yet and they don’t care how deep the hole is. Shame on them for that.

“You are not judged by the height you have risen, but from the depth you have climbed.”

– Frederick Douglass

Life Goes On

November 10, 2014

WAEC Lunch

With so much bad news about Liberia these days it’s probably hard to imagine that anyone’s life is going on normally. Many of you have asked how my students are and the answer is, as always, busy. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you know this is scholarship season: the best-worst thing that happens each year. Add an ocean between us and it’s double the fun.

It all started back in May 2012 when I walked into my twelfth grade class on the last day of school and announced, “I’m going to the UN camp after school to try to print information about a scholarship in Costa Rica. Come to my house tomorrow if you’re interested.”

I woke up to forty people in my front yard at 6:00am.

Two bags of applications, several sleepless nights and dozens of prayers and favors later, Festus went.

Learning from my mistakes, the next year I chose six kids and we spent the weekends whispering on my porch and quietly completing forms while I told the rest of the town, “Really, I don’t know anything about scholarships. Of course I’ll let you know.”

Newton went.

By the third year I had moved to Gbarnga so we literally went on the road. I picked two promising students to win a ‘dream trip’ to Cuttington. They spent a week at my house watching DStv, learning how to microwave food and writing through most of a ream of paper.

Saye and George went.

At the end of July the three of us left Liberia together, them for four years and me for two weeks. But less than a week into my vacation I was forbidden to return because: Ebola. I’d packed none of their documents or my application files (I have an entire shelf dedicated to this). I’d hastily packed one bag, mostly with gifts, and asked someone to take care of my flowers.

In August it started becoming clear this was an extended stay—not a vacation—and both my head and my heart started racing. I’d already talked to students. I’d already made promises and plans.

And now… the Atlantic Ocean.

There was so much I didn’t have, but three years in Liberia taught me to focus instead on what remained. What I did have were scanned copies of their previous unsuccessful applications (mercifully recovered from a crashed hard drive by a Lebanese man on Randall street), a lot of cell phone numbers, and a little money in my bank account.

What can you do with $1,000 and a dream? Make a lot of international phone calls.

All I can say is thank god for Ezetop. It allows me to send money directly to their cell phones so they can call me for five cents a minute instead of the eighty cents a minute I get on my phone card. …but if I had $5LD for every time I said, “ARE YOU GETTING ME?” or got woken up at 3:00am… I’d be rolling in butter candy.

We can’t talk when it’s raining there or raining here or when they can’t afford to charge their phones, but things are slowly happening, my friend.

I have four kids this year, three sons and one daughter, and they’re moving mountains. In the middle of this Ebola storm they’ve managed to get their official transcripts, mail them at UPS in Monrovia (their first time mailing anything), as well as study for and take the SAT. They’re each almost finished with applications for two schools and I couldn’t be more proud of what they’ve chosen to study: public health, human rights, sustainability, and gender.

They have experience organizing tutoring programs, working for the court, and leading women’s groups. There is no doubt that these are tenacious, hard working future leaders. There is no doubt that they are committed to a brighter future for their country. But the question that looms and that I cannot answer is whether the American schools they’re applying to share their courage, whether they can look past Ebola, look past the fear and misunderstanding to see how much has been accomplished with so little, how much remains to be done, but how much one small act can change a life.

And when you can change a life you can start changing the world.

There is simply too much at stake to let a virus, an ocean, or a phone bill get in the way of what needs to be done. Ebola can only stop progress when we stop working.  Keep us in your thoughts next time you flip past Fox News or CNN. Keep us in your thoughts next time you post about Ebola on Facebook and Twitter. These are good people fighting for their right to life.

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”

-Mother Theresa

Tearing out the Seams

October 6, 2014
Dancing with Mistress Yekeh

In May I threw a joint birthday party with my son. My sewing teacher and dear friend Mistress Yekeh, pictured in the yellow skirt suit, danced with us for hours.

My friend Oretha knows everyone and everything about Cuttington University. So one day last February I invited her to visit and, over pepper soup, my heart spoke. “Do you know any good tailors?” I asked. “I want to learn to sew.” The next morning she returned with Mistress Yekeh and a bright light entered my life.

The same age as my mother, Mistress Yekeh taught tailoring at a vocational school before the war and travelled with her trusty Butterfly machine throughout the conflict. Trying to make a new start, she had gotten a job at the Cuttington library and was working toward a degree in education. She no longer sewed professionally but was willing to help me so she could earn money to finish plastering her house.

She quickly became one of my best friends.

I bought my own machine and she came over on the weekends to teach me the secrets of Liberian tailors. She’d give me an assignment and the next week I’d have to present it for inspection. Without fail she would drop her head and try unsuccessfully to hold back the laughter. Pulling herself together she’d straighten up and tell me, “It’s good for a learner. You tried. You actually tried.” Then she’d throw it back in my lap. “Now tear the seams. That’s the only way you will learn to do it right.”

Some weeks I’d protest, “But it’s on the inside! I’m the only one wearing it!” She always had the same response, “If you let yourself do bad work that’s all you’ll ever do. Try to be perfect. Then you’ll feel proud.” So I tore all my seams and, gradually, stopped repeating my mistakes.

As school restarted and the semester got busy we had fewer lessons, but I still saw her almost every day. She’d leave the library to walk to her village about the time I struggled to haul my bags up the hill in my tight lappa skirt. “Heeeeey, African woman!” she’d yell, “Did you finish your assignment yet?” I would shake my head and laugh, she would shake her head and laugh, and we’d both continue home.

In May I had a birthday party at Oretha’s bar and Mistress Yekeh was one of the first people I invited. She made a beautiful speech and we all danced until the rain came. It was one of the last times we spent together. Finals came and along with it graduation. I traveled to Sanniquellie and Yekepa and spent long days at my office. There was just no time for sewing.

Then at the end of July I left for a short vacation and Ebola shut down Liberia. Campus closed and Mistress Yekeh went back to Monrovia to stay with her daughter and her elderly mother.

A few weeks ago they all died of Ebola.

The news just reached me this week through the friend of a friend. I’ve been calling friends in Monrovia weekly but I hadn’t kept in touch with her because I thought she was still on campus, safe from the worst of the out break. So sure was I of her safety that I’d already packed a gift for her upon my inevitable return.

Like most Liberian women, Mistress Yekeh was a force. At fifty-seven she had seen the worst side of humanity and the hardest side of life… and survived to laugh about it. But the difference between violence and viruses is everyone knows how to run from bullets: grab your family and go.

But Ebola comes quietly and kills painfully. With not enough treatment centers families are asked to literally watch their loved ones die before their eyes. I know when Mistress Yekeh’s mother or daughter fell ill the last thing she was thinking was to run. In Liberia family is everything and the tragedy of Ebola is that the tighter that bond, the more people love and care for each other, the more deadly the disease becomes.

Ebola isn’t ravaging West Africa because people are dirty or uneducated: it’s precisely because people care and love on a level we, as Americans, have lost touch with.

Through a twist of coincidence the news of Mistress Yekeh’s death reached me around the same time an Ebola case was reported in Texas. The vitriol I saw in the news and read in Facebook feeds. The fear. The running I could feel in people’s hearts. What I want people in America to understand is that Ebola is not a threat to them because America has hospitals. It has doctors. Americans aren’t asked to take their sick loved ones back to the rented room they share with five other people. They have more than plastic shopping bags to protect their hands from contamination.

When will we, as an international community, realize we can do better? Liberia spent fourteen years tearing seams and now, just as things were starting to come back together, they’re tearing again. I pray we can get it right this time. There’s just too much at stake.

“If you let yourself do bad work that’s all you’ll ever do.”

Liberia isn’t Ebola

August 26, 2014


Liberia isn’t Ebola. It isn’t Charles Taylor and it isn’t child soldiers. But when I tell people I live in Liberia those are the only things they come up with… if they come up with anything.  In no order, here are five great things you probably didn’t know but you should:

#1 Liberia has the first democratically elected female president in Africa. She is also the first black female president in the world. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, you’re one heck of an iron lady!

#2 Cuttington University opened in Liberia in 1889. It is the oldest private, coeducational, four-year degree granting institution in sub-Saharan Africa.  (It’s also where I teach!)

#3 Liberia became Africa’s first republic in 1847.

#4 In 1995 George Weah was named the FIFA world player of the year. He is the only African to ever win the award.

#5 In 2011 President Ellen John Sirleaf and activist Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

There are always two sides to every story and everything is relative. Last week I called a Liberian friend. I asked him about Ebola and he asked me about Ferguson. Does that put things in perspective? TV and a little distance make everything scarier.

“We are the other of the other.”

– Marcus Aurelius

A Hero’s Story

August 24, 2014

My friend and host family little sister, Kristen, posted this recently on her blog zozuafricanus.  Last year she was placed in Foya, Lofa County, which is very close to the border and the first place Ebola entered Liberia from Guinea.  The person she so poignantly describes here recently lost his life fighting the disease.  Kristen’s story is a stark reminder that talented and dedicated Liberians are sacrificing the most to contain this epidemic and, in the end, the county will take years (not WHO’s months) to recover from the loss.

Thank you, Tamba, for your courage and thank you, Kristen, for sharing his story.

A Hero’s Story

Fortitude: Be brave. Courage is the noblest of all attainments.
—The Woodcraft Laws

Normally, for fairly obvious reasons, these blog posts are about me – my experiences and feelings.  However, in light of recent events, I want to dedicate this entry to a person that I’ll be calling Tamba.

The international world has suddenly become fascinated by the Ebola crisis in West Africa, and all the news outlets are telling heart-wrenching tales of American citizens being evacuated, exposed, and infected.  The world has zeroed-in on the inspiring courage and devotion of all the international aid workers striving tirelessly to end this epidemic that’s killing hundreds of poor, ignorant African villagers.  While the sacrifices and efforts of international organizations are indeed incredible and admirable, I want to talk about another side of the Ebola outbreak that is getting less coverage in the Western media. And it starts with my friend Tamba.

Back in March, before all of this started, I was at the hospital waiting to meet with a few of the hospital staff to discuss a potential health-related project.  Tamba shuffled in about 30 minutes late (frustrating, but predictably Liberian), brandishing a large stick of sugar cane that he gifted to me. He slumped into a chair and apologized for his tardiness, explaining that he had been up all night with a patient who had been losing fluids by the liter from diarrhea and vomiting, showing signs of a worryingly contagious hemorrhagic fever.  The members of the meeting began to discuss the protocols and dangers associated with a Lassa fever outbreak. There had been reports of something resembling Lassa fever in Guinea, and now it appeared to have moved to Liberia.

Three of the people, not counting myself, at that meeting were expats, and immediately resolved to avoid any physical contact with patients at the hospital, even going as far to say they might return to their countries of origin if an outbreak really did occur.  Tamba smiled quietly and then launched into a tirade about the lack of supplies at the hospital, which was currently out of gloves, gauze, and sutures.  The hospital never stocked medicine, forcing patients to travel to a pharmacy to buy the prescribed medicine and return to the hospital for treatment. Those at the hospital who tried to observe the proper sanitary procedures in order to avoid the spread of disease and infection were forced to buy their own gloves and cleansing alcohol.

Two days later, the patient at the hospital was confirmed as an Ebola case, and all the expats at that meeting (including myself) left to escape the disease.  Tamba stayed, not even for a moment considering going back to his home in Monrovia.  While I was waiting for the all-clear to return, Tamba watched two of his colleagues at the hospital die after exposure to the virus.  He worked 24-48 hour shifts as many other workers from the hospital fled and more cases manifested themselves.  In the face of mounting distrust of hospital workers in the community, Tamba went to work every day and advised people on various ways to prevent the spread of Ebola, even after the hospital was almost attacked by a mob of angry, grieving people attempting to recover the body of an Ebola victim. Every time I called him and asked how he was, his response was always, “I am fine; I am doing well.  We are working and praying for this outbreak to finish.”

When I returned, I asked if he had ever considered leaving, and he responded, “How can I leave? There are people sick and dying here, and we need to treat them.”

He hadn’t received any payment from the hospital or the government in over 6 months because of a clerical error that left him off the payroll (a fairly common occurrence in all public institutions in Liberia).

He was among the first to volunteer to work at the isolation unit that MSF was building on the outskirts of town, and has since been splitting his time between the hospital and the isolation unit. His friends accused him of aligning himself with the white people in order to make more money.

The last time I was at site, I told him that Peace Corps was removing us, and he looked a little sad, but then he smiled.  He said, “I am glad, there’s no need for you people to be here putting yourselves in danger for this sickness. Peace Corps are doing well taking you people out of Liberia. Meanwhile, we will be here, and we will be praying for this epidemic to end soon.”

I wanted to make this entry about him because I wish the world were talking more about people like Tamba.  Because when all the international organizations leave to protect their people, it’s people like Tamba that are left trying to end an epidemic with hope and rubbing alcohol.  Right now, the Ebola story is about West African victims and international heroes, by and large ignoring the thousands of Liberian, Guinean, and Sierra Leonean health workers that are putting their lives at risk to fight Ebola in their communities – that have been struggling for months without enough aid or supplies before the world realized that it’s a problem when people are dying by the hundreds, even if it’s happening in Africa.

Feel My Pain (Ebola)

August 23, 2014

Yesterday I didn’t get on the airplane to fly home to Liberia.  In the three weeks since I’ve been gone rats have undoubtedly moved into my food stores and mold has undoubtedly crept into my closet.  But outside I know the heavy rains have helped my flowers send roots deeper and branches higher.  I just hope to be back in time to help them through the dry season.

With Ebola continuing to disrupt life, more Liberian artists are writing new songs.  Since my previous posts about recent LIB music have been so popular I’m bringing you a new one from Scientific.  A Liberian rapper currently living in Ghana, Scientific is best known for songs like I like You Girl and Keep Pushing but he recently released this track, Feel My Pain (Ebola), that resonates with me right now. (Click the link to download it or watch the youtube video above.)  Here are the lyrics:

Scientific – Feel My Pain

Can you feel my pain right now?
Africa and the world
Ya’ll pay attention to this, man
West Africa cryin’
Tell the world it’s emergency
Ebola raging hell
Devil smile we need some urgency
Is it the wrath of God because we’re sinning?
If not why LIB, NIG, Sierra Leone, and Guinea?
Is this virus man made to wipe out the black race?
Let me speak to the jury, I’m pleading my case
Most traumatized for wars for many years
Now they’re trapping those, constant living in fears
With sanitizers, chlorine, wearing gloves and masks
Physical contact with a victim could be your last
Victims are quarantined, an act to contain this
Once they’re dead, these bodies are buried or cremated
No more handshakes and hugs, sex or making love
Body fluid is major, no kissing or sharing blood
This from monkey or bats
Let me get my prayer on
Stop the rumors: Ebola is not airborne

This my message to every family out there
Who lost someone to the deadly virus, man
I know a lot of people are living in fear
But I have to say this, man
God is with us, man
This is serious, man
It hurts me, man
Liberia is a beautiful nation
And our people, they can’t think straight right now
Everybody trying to get out someway or the other
Too much happening, man
I love my country
And I got ya’ll right up in my heart right now, man
So our prayers are going to get us out of this
I love my country

“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”

– Ernest Hemingway

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