There’s a saying that goes, ‘You can’t go home again’. It offers no direction on where you’re supposed to go. It’s meant to be poignant: some manner of existential examination of how things once lost can’t be retrieved, relived – at least, not from the same perspective. I think. I’ve always been a little too literal for deep sayings.
16–22 MARCH 2014
DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA
‘Ja, but where are you from originally?’ the journalist presses me.
Ah. This again. I’m one of the featured authors at Durban’s seventeenth Time of the Writer arts festival and, at these events, being grilled about ‘otherness’ is a train that’s never late. ‘You can’t be unoriginally from somewhere. I don’t think that’s a thing.’
She waves her hand. ‘But you know what I mean. You’re quite accomplished, considering.’ She catches herself and flinches at ‘considering’. I let it slide. ‘You’ve lived in South Africa for years, right? You’ve gotten most of your education here?’
I smile. She’s doing that cherry-picking thing people feel obliged to do with foreigners, timelining the best of your attributes so their country can take credit for them. ‘Postgrad education,’ I correct. But I’m tired and cranky, not exactly shipshape for interviews. It’s not going to matter anyway. No one reads articles about writers, and we don’t much care – just buy the book.
‘So. West Africa. There’s that virus scare starting up at the moment.’
I sit up. ‘It’s across the border. In Guinea.’ Is she putting this in the piece? Why do I keep clarifying where the reported cases are from whenever I’m asked? It’s not like viruses need visas to travel.
‘You mentioned you moved home two years ago. Why’d you decide to go back?’
I want to say it was less a deliberate decision and more a quest for closure, a need to tie up a loose end that had dangled, frayed and fraught, for too long. But I’ve stopped saying this. I morph into a mumbling cretin when I do, as if afraid that the real-real reasons will seem ridiculous. People then feel the need to tilt their heads and nod, like it’s noble and they get it, or they don’t but won’t be rude enough to admit it.
Instead, I beauty-queen my reply: it was time to move on, to help my recovering country. To fully revert to my native state, which, aside from the odd visit, I haven’t done in over two decades. To see how much it’s changed, the land in which small me took for granted she’d grow up, get a job, marry, have piccaninnies, likely grow old and die. Life has taken me down brighter, more meandering lanes, for which I’m very grateful. The journalist nods to my words, scribbling away.
When the article comes out, it says I went home because it’s where I’d always wanted to get married and have children, as if finally I can stop being a loser and make it happen. My best friend calls me to laugh; she’s just learnt something new about me. I sigh. No one reads articles about writers anyway.
23 MARCH – 12 APRIL
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
My friend Fran laughs like a bawdy barmaid in a Chaucer tale, a comforting sound. I’ve decided to round my stay up to a month, so I’m staying at her flat, plotting insidious ways of never leaving. Our mouths run all day, about shoes and sex, politics and career changes, original versus fusion curry recipes, TV content – the meaningful mindlessness that any red-blooded woman who lives in a male-dominated household doesn’t know she is missing until the tap is turned back on. Her spare bedroom is a cloud of amenities. Superspar is five minutes away, full of strawberries, peaches and other edible exotica that I never see or can’t afford in Monrovia. The guy behind the counter at the Clicks pharmacy is so delicious he’s practically a food group. I trawl the malls, stoked to be back in Jozi, home of posh cars and cinched-waist lovelies with awesome hair. Feeling uncouth, I get a Zimbabwean hairdresser to braid me; her price is a blip on my radar. I’m balling in dollars.
On rare occasions, Fran gets serious. ‘Ebola’s making the news online. You know it’s getting serious when it makes the news.’ She glances at me. I stay quiet. ‘Are you considering going back to your job?’
‘I’m at my job,’ I answer tersely. ‘National health coordinator at Ministry of Health’ is a title I’ve buried, along with career dissatisfaction. After all those years studying to be, then working as, a medical immunologist, I’m now an author, a career switcher, trying to fade out the former as I find my feet in the latter. The irony is that I left a tough profession involving assays and articles that few understood to do ‘what anyone who knows the alphabet could manage’, as my critics say. Writing isn’t respectable – not in Africa, anyway. I’m considered a sufferer of Me Disease, an unrepentant member of the selfish generation, we who shirk duty to follow pipe dreams. There’s little consideration for how hard it’s been to let go – which I still haven’t done fully – for how much I question myself.
‘Do you think they’ll be able to contain it?’ Fran asks.
‘No.’ Snip. Snarl. I cringe at my tone. She means well. We drop it, switch back to safe terrain. A guy back home has thrown his hat into the ring for my affection. I don’t know. Men are dicks . . . but then again, men have dicks. So. I’m vacillating between uncertainty and blushes. We’ve spent more time talking and texting now that I’m on the other side of the continent than we did when I was home; social media makes Bravehearts out of us all. Fran does her laugh: please give Contender a whirl. Hmm.
At night, though, on my laptop, I’m stealth-surfing the web. Numbers are climbing in Guinea, and now Sierra Leone, but I know the true figures are understated. Through the grapevine at my old job, I hear they’re not really doing anything or mobilising forces to stop it leaking through the borders. Immobile. Do we even have forces? The Neglected Tropical Diseases Unit – they contend with elephantiasis and yellow fever, last of the unicorn afflictions. Is Ebola contemporary enough and, if not, will it get an upgrade quickly enough to make us take it seriously? Because haemorrhagic viruses are the last word in seriousness. And we don’t have testing centres. We won’t know which measures to take. We don’t have anywhere near enough doctors. On a normal day, our one major hospital, John F. Kennedy Medical, is heaving with humanity, all waiting for hours on end for treatment.
‘But it’s across the border mostly,’ says my ex-colleague. ‘And we weren’t really infectious-infectious. You were one of the few real disease scientists we had. And you left.’ Pause. ‘Anyway, you know our government. These old guys move slow. Let’s see.’
Guilt bites a chunk out of me. I kick it in the teeth. It goes away. Well, retreats. Into a dark corner, where it squats, eyeing me, gnawing on something I didn’t give it permission to eat. I don’t lock it up or put it on a leash. I want it to come back and harass me. We have a weird relationship.
O.R. TAMBO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
The airport is cold. Winter should be winding down, but Joburg tends to be clingy when it comes to its seasons. I’m double-layered, jacket in carry-on just in case. I don’t mind airports; they’re like hospitals – you do your time and get out. Mostly. I do hate this particular red-eye, though. Departure: one-frickin’-thirty in the morning. The airline assured me the flight would leave an hour earlier than usual, but it seems they didn’t take into account that the plane needed things like cleaning and refuelling before they made their wayward promises, so it looks like we’re taking off at the same time. I can’t wait to leave. Airports get seriously wrong, creepy, after all the shops close. Like abandoned warehouses. Unlucky stragglers huddle by the gates, bleary-eyed, giving each other grim stares. And there are always a few gratingly cheerful chipmunks who want to story-of-my-life you until the boarding call sounds. I walk around to avoid them, Viber-flirting with Contender as I pace.
O.R. TAMBO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT: LAST ROUND OF IMMIGRATION
The official asks me why I don’t have a national ID book since I’m a permanent resident. I explain: I applied, and it took over a year for it to be processed, by which time, when I went to collect it, Home Affairs told me the ID had been misplaced and I needed to reapply. They assured me it would be no problem, and in the three years I’ve travelled on my permit stamp it’s never been one. The official and I snicker over a Home Affairs joke. He raises his hand to stamp the exit permit, pauses for too long. (Stamp it!) He doesn’t. He calls over a colleague; they confer at length out of earshot.
‘Are you from Zimbabwe?’ Official Two asks.
‘No!’ Immediately I twinge at my vehemence. I had good times in Zim. Jacaranda days.
They take my passport and other papers and disappear. On the other side of the glass partition passengers get on their feet, many throwing me worried glances. Boarding has begun. My skin prickles and my temper blooms; I suck the storm back in. I’m going home, dammit. They can throw me out if I want to stay; they can’t hold me if I’m trying to leave. I’m going home.
The two officials in grey return and escort me upstairs, neither of them answering my questions. They leave me in an office with a new lot in navy uniforms. Ambient IQ drops fifty points. Office navies look more jaded, less equable. No, actually they just look shittier. Their job is to clear out the filth, and once you’re dragged upstairs you’ve qualified, no negotiation. They begin filling out forms and throwing instructions at each other in isiZulu, or Sesotho, or isiXhosa. Shaking, I remind them they’re supposed to speak in a language I understand and explain what’s going on. They shout that this doesn’t concern me (How the hell do you figure that?!); what’s concerning is a passport stating I’m Nigerian (Liberian! Oh my God, can you read?!), yet their system has me down as Zimbabwean. I shout back. Behind the desk, Navy Bitch, the most abusive and least helpful, decides to settle it. After a short phone call to their boss, who’s clearly too big of a shot to be here fielding crises of this kind, she informs me at her leisure, ‘We’re arresting you.’ (Later I realise they meant ‘detaining’, but at that point, nuance).
Impersonating a resident. Carrying fake documents. Maybe they’ll think of more infractions, but that’s enough to be getting on with for now. One of the flight attendants, who followed me upstairs and is miraculously still outside, is deeply apologetic as she says my baggage will be offloaded from the plane and put in holding. They have to go.
‘I get to make calls,’ I quail, already dialling. I wake Contender in Monrovia. He’s a lawyer; he’ll know what to do. He immediately realises this is not a practical joke and switches to disaster response mode. He’ll call my mother and the ambassador in Pretoria. I hang up, thinking if ever I’ve owed a man my firstborn, this is it. Drinks. We’ll start with drinks.
Nothing else can be done. It’s well past one in the morning. I didn’t even hear the plane take off.
2:00 A.M. – 3:00 A.M.
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA: THE STATIONS
At the first station they put me in a cell alone, the sole insurgent of the evening. It’s unbelievably cold. I’m totally blank on how so many greats have produced good pieces of literature from lock-up. The place is a buzzkill, even for a crime writer. I wait for stirrings of productive angst and all I get are claws of hunger raking up and down my stomach; I haven’t eaten in about five hours.
The next station is Kempton Park. This is lock-up, proper. The cops fill out paperwork, not asking for my story. I don’t bother giving it to them. I expect monstrously vile mistreatment, shouts in my face, and the contents of my carry-on emptied onto the floor and lit into a pyre to warm their hands. They all look bored; this isn’t Robben Island. This time around the cells are appalling, and I’ve seen a lot. Filthy, freezing and cramped, the walls practically marinated in human effluent. I perch on an outcrop of the wall and try to sleep.
5:00 A.M. – 7:00 P.M.
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA: KEMPTON PARK STATION . . . STILL
The situation moves, in the wrong direction at first. I wake up in a cloud of my own stench. The officer in charge has updates: I’m to be deported, my permit revoked. For the first time I feel real fear, and rage. I earned that permit through hard work, mounds of application documents, and countless bile-inducing visits to Home Affairs. Now I am to be hustled onto a flight, a disgraced imposter.
The threats fizzle to nothing at dusk. An official from Airport Immigration swoops in, barks orders at the cops, who gather me and my belongings together, and drives me to the airport. He tells me he assisted the Liberian ambassador in proving my permit’s validity. At head office I receive profuse apologies and pleas for forgiveness, from none other than the dickhead boss who couldn’t have been bothered to leave his bed and put a stop to my arrest. In the interest of security, they have to make certain assumptions, and sometimes innocent people get caught in the crossfire. They are incredibly sorry . . . oh, and by the way, they cannot foot the cost of the forfeited air ticket. Collateral damage, unfortunately . . . again, so sorry. I shout and cuss and deflate, tearful and exhausted. The ambassador squeezes my hand – let it go, the embassy will carry the cost.
O.R. TAMBO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT, JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
I’m finally going home.
MID-MAY TO MID-JUNE
Ebola is here. It’s been at our back door since March, waiting like a wolf, the big bad wolf. The atmosphere I met when I touched down in April didn’t indicate that there was a huge threat looming, which is reckless for a country that can’t withstand its straw house being blown down. I wanted to look around the airport and be pleasantly surprised, see some hand-washing stations and men in protective gear checking for ailing passengers, see signs screaming about what to look for, see something. I was disappointed at my disappointment; I know better. Monrovia is the Liberia that matters most, and this has always been so, shamefully elitist as that is; until something unsettles our tiny capital, it will never cause a stir.
Now Ebola has crept out of the deeply forested villages and truly permeated the psyche of Monrovia. ‘Real’ is the buzzword for its takeover – the huge reality, the horrifying realness! – as if when it was across the border it was an underfed, coquettish slip of a thing, and now it’s gorging itself to a respectable maturity within our borders. Hipco songs on the radio make light of it; others tell the populace to pull up their socks or die. For every believer that the threat is real, there’s a naysayer guffawing at a mystery virus that skulks out of the jungle, riding bush meat as a host. Officials argue on the radio: the offensive strikers want the borders closed immediately; the more mercenary counter that it’s already through the gates, what would isolation solve? Debate rages about ‘the responsibility of the international community’ – how many aid agencies have come, will there be more, which measures would they advise us to put in place in the meantime? It’s the usual distress code of all African countries to the West to bring the fury, the Bat-Signal in the sky to summon the superhero, the underhanded ‘we’re not asking but . . . okay, we’re asking for your help.’ Things have gotten out of hand. In truth, there had never really been a hand for it to be in in the first place.
‘We’ve never had a health crisis like this before,’ shrills every radio and TV announcer.
News comes thick and fast from different communities about the steadily climbing death toll. It sounds movie-script-bizarre and melodramatic – bodies piling up! – but unless there’s an undercover and seriously twisted Hollywood crew micromanaging the debacle for ratings, it really is happening. Facebook is electric with commentary. Liberians in the diaspora flare up, playing crisis managers: corruption has once again let us down in the worst way, how could the citizenry allow this to happen? Liberians at home fire back with righteous outrage: people are dying! We on ground and y’all don’t know what’s going on, step up or shut up! My own posts start off level-headed and descend into flatulent rants. Everyone on the outside feels they know what those of us in the mix should be doing, and it enrages me. Friends on social media aim and fire only two questions at me now: Are you okay? and Are you doing something to help? I lash out, but underneath the anger, my guilt creature taunts me. I’m trained to handle every substance that can ooze or squirt out of a human being and, in doing so, have rarely felt afraid. Now, fear taints everything. Ebola kills heroes, too. Helplessness is unfamiliar and, in typical me style, that which I can’t solve or soothe makes me livid.
We are all on edge. Our tiny country has been through enough.
Every day, every newspaper, everybody adds a new tale to the fray. There’s the one about the household that lost both parents (or the aunt, or uncle, or grandparents), leaving the kids to fend for themselves. There’s the household where everyone died saved one, and the neighbourhood barricaded the lone survivor inside to stop the spread to other homes. There’s the pregnant woman who ruptures like an overripe mango at a community clinic, her dead body dragged into a corner of the ward for the emergency response team to pick up because the nurses were too afraid to treat her.
Driving alone, I often stop to give lifts to hopefuls at the roadside, waiting for public transport. We drive to town in silence, everyone but me drenched, thanks to rainy season. I put the radio on – prevention ads and songs abound now, warning us that the crisis is no joke, listing symptoms to watch out for. A young nurse breaks the lull at last. She intimates in a leaden voice that she’s stopped going to work and found a desk job doing data entry with an NGO (non-governmental organisation). She’s trained to help the sick, but this isn’t what she signed up for, the possibility of bleeding out and liquefying to death. She looks like she’ll never forgive herself. I want to tell her how much I get it, feeling like a coward, a deserter. I want to, but I don’t. Something about this particular emotional tumult feels like it should be borne alone, unalleviated by sharing and understanding. When the car empties out I drive on, realising I ought to stop giving rides to strangers, because you never know. Another dick move added to my list.
EARLY TO LATE JULY
The life we know is fractured. By month-end the border will be closed, for God knows how long. We are advised of our civic duty to report via hotline anyone who looks vaguely zombie-like, or neighbours who are harbouring Anne Frankensteins in the back room. Physical friendliness is over. All unnecessary touching must stop: handshaking, kissing, hugging, humping, all of it. The embargo on frivolous sex seems to hit the hardest. Men across the spectrum of virility laugh uproariously: ‘Dah whetin you say – no eatin’ sumtin’ because of Ebola?!’ Women crow and flash superior smirks. Mother Nature is a girl after their own heart, cracking the whip so they don’t have to. Now their significant others are forced, in theory at least, to come home to them and only them. Significantly othered myself, I am unfussed – Contender and I are now in a relationship, though it’s more a polite passing of time, the only cool, composed thing going on in a frenzied hot zone.
Buckets filled with bleach water for sanitising hands and in-ear thermometers have become du jour outside places of business. Conspiracy theories flow thick and fast. The United States designed Ebola and released it on us as a form of population control. Pharmaceutical companies wanted to run a massive trial of a new vaccine, but they needed to create an epidemic to test its legs. The cure-all remedies are not far behind. Bathing in hot water mixed with raw pepper or bouillon cubes will stop the virus from infecting you. Churches hold prayer vigils for the infected and pronounce them cured after all-night hallelujahs. Calamity breeds a tragic form of hilarity.
The three little ruffians from the house next door no longer run to anyone for hugs. They scamper away and peep from behind the mango tree in their yard, giggling and slow-waving at me whenever I pass. Their mother’s face is grave as she shoots me an apologetic smile: Don’t take it personally. They’ve been warned. We all have.
The inevitable media pile-on is in full swing. The worst has happened, in the worst way possible. After a sluggish debut, the outbreak is now headlining internationally. It has also acquired its first poster boy in the form of Patrick Sawyer. The government official travelled on business and singlehandedly turned Lagos International Airport into a biohazardous area, becoming the patient who drew Nigeria into the epidemic. His case leaves nineteen infected and eight dead in total. Online, the Naijas spew pure vitriol: how could the Liberian government allow their people to travel willy-nilly, without getting tested for exposure? Where was the regard for protocol, for citizens of other nations, for international security?! All flights from affected countries must be monitored or stopped!
Clubbing and partying has petered out. Gatherings are furtive and sombre, and we can’t help but pontificate and piss-contest. Everyone is an expert now; the situation demands it. It makes us feel useful somehow, especially since the international health agencies have taken over, rendering the natives superfluous. We smelt questions into fiery debates: Was it ever a serious consideration to ground flights to and from affected countries when SARS broke out, or was the medical community simply put on high alert? In fact, didn’t SARS spread even faster because air traffic to Asia was so busy? Come to think of it, this virus has never been known to spread this fast over so short a period – what’s changed all of a sudden?
A friend drops by one afternoon. My father has banned all casual visitors, so she drops in for only a couple of hours while he’s at work. Patrick Sawyer was employed at the Finance Ministry where she works, she says, partly horrified, partly amused, partly thrilled. Of course, she only had dealings with him in a very peripheral way, and only saw him once from afar before he travelled (oh, he really didn’t look sick . . . you’re only infectious when you look sick), but still. My sister and I are wild-eyed, practically levitating in disbelief. A possible contact of a celebrity index case is in our house. We all make light of it, scooching away and forcing her to sit at the far end of the living room and not touch anything, ha ha ha this is so hilarious, right! But she stays long enough for . . .
Three days later I have a headache that morphs into a mild fever. Our jolliness rises to screeching hysterics. ‘HA HA HA, SLEEP IN THE OTHER ROOM!!’ my sister says, face clenched in a rictus smile that she thinks is reassuring. I know it’s malaria. My pulse has always been a siren song to mosquitoes, my blood their elixir. Of course it’s malaria. No one goes full-blown in thirty-six hours. I start the three-day treatment course.
At night, insomniac with fever, I strip down to nothing and examine my entire body for sores, lesions, any signs of bleeding or necrosis. None . . . but my eyes look like marinara meatballs. (This is how I go . . . this is how I end . . . and I won’t be a hero, I’ll be that fucking moron who should’ve known better, the infectious disease scientist that blundered into the worst infectious disease ever . . . I didn’t finish writing my book, my latest draft is tripe, no publisher will care to publish it posthumously . . .)
In two days, the malaria’s melted off.
My neighbourhood, Duport Road, is now steadily reporting cases. We’re not as badly hit as other high-densities like New Kru Town, for instance; so far, we tiptoe rather than sprint. Our watchman revels in regaling us with new developments. One morning, he has an alarming update: at the marketplace up the road there’s an uproar over a man’s body. Nearly two days dead; the clean-up ambulances have been alerted, but none have shown up. Enraged, the market women have dragged the body from the vendors’ compound and dumped it in the middle of the road.
Out loud I say it’s rubbish, but make a mental note to keep an eye out on my way to the supermarket. I board a pehn-pehn motorbike. As we zip down the road, I see nothing. Just before the supermarket, we pass a blockade of sorts in the middle of the street. As the pehn-pehn driver slows and manoeuvres around it, I catch a glimpse of a human face. Or what looks like a human face, had it been whizzed in a blender. I tap the driver’s shoulder till he stops, and I jump down. The misshapen heap of debris is indeed mostly human, the body of a man surrounded and partly covered by rocks and wooden planks. I tell the pehn-pehn guy to wait because I want to take a picture. He laughs and tells me kindly, matter-of-factly, to go fuck myself. He’s not taking me anywhere after I’ve gone within selfie distance of an Ebola corpse. Chewing my lip at the side of the road, I think long and hard. I hear my parents’ roars in my head, think of the household of trusting individuals who swarm around me day in and out. Think of what I’m contemplating, and the reason behind my compulsion to make up for one thing by doing an even stupider one. I trudge back and climb onto the bike. Pehn-pehn Guy nods sagely before pushing off, as if proud of my sound decision. This time, regret boxes with my conscience. I feel horrible, but I wanted to take that photo.
He could have died of anything, I keep telling myself. Any old thing. (But you’ve never seen someone’s eyes caked with blood like that, their flesh turn to mush so quickly . . .)
My household is abuzz again less than a week later. There’s an Ebola ambulance parked outside our gate, across the road. I slip outside to observe, the cook hissing and trying to pull me back inside. I try to sound brave as I tell her I won’t get too close, but my heart is a fist in the back of my throat, trying to punch through. We’ve never had a van this close. All the nearby houses empty as the neighbours congregate to gawk. I creep close enough to get snaps of the white PPE-suited guys bringing the stretcher out. On it is the Old Ma from the brown house opposite ours. Some of the women start wailing, hands on their heads.
Later we get the news that she died. Some say she was just sick and the clinics and treatment units were too crowded to provide her care. Others say it was indeed EVD. The wildest theory is she was poisoned by a rival in the church, a schemer with the foresight to use the epidemic as a cover for darker deeds.
Monrovia’s quickly emptying out, becoming a ghost town. Everyone is leaving, and by that I mean the privileged ones who can afford to. We who have stayed are often teased, ‘Yor dey kwii [civilised] pipo dem. The first to leave when there’s trouble, like when the war happened . . . how come yor still here?’
In that this epidemic is vividly reminiscent of the civil war, dey no lie. I feel ten years old all over again. Monrovia’s aura even tastes like 1990, dense and indigo and hot-wired, like it did just before Charles Taylor marched into town and hell broke loose. I didn’t get it back then. I remember being told that our family was taking ‘a li’l’ vacation’ and doing twirls of rabid glee round the lounge, excited because I’d never travelled before. That vacation lasted two-thirds of my life and left behind a fragile ache where a solid sense of home should be. I’ve been moving, running, balancing on a razor’s edge for too long. Damaged I may be, but grown and stubborn I have also become. I’m not going anywhere unless I bloody well must. My father pleads with me daily to reconsider, but I refuse – how can I leave the rest of my family behind? Besides, go where? South Africa has closed its borders to affected nationalities. Although I’m still furious over the detention, it’s my first choice of refuge, and now that option is dead.
I walk. I don’t know what else to do, and cabin fever from being cooped up all day is shredding my nerves. My route is Duport Road, Paynesville, and the neighbourhoods around Samuel K. Doe Stadium and Airfield Highway. Before the outbreak walking was more to air my thoughts than for fitness, but in my current state I find I’m not untangling the gnarls in my brain as effectively, whether I’m mobile or stationary. So I just trudge, and look at people, and they look back at me. We all wear ‘coping’ expressions. On the surface, life carries on as normally and best it can, but if you’re local you can’t miss the undercurrent of surrealism. The usual throngs on the streets have thinned and don’t look as vibrant as they did before. Hardly surprising: the death toll has reportedly reached more than a dozen a day, the infection rate over a hundred per week. For the living, fear has driven us inside our homes or outside the borders. We’ve changed our habits, and I compulsively take snaps of the new normal with my phone: no more mystery meat – people buy only cuts they can recognise from market stalls and barbeque vendors; pickup trucks on clean-up duty zoom down the highway to burial sites, corpses in the back covered with tarp; shoppers leave stores with arms overloaded with provisions; the new game of tag children play is ‘don’t touch me, you got Ebola!’
Walking on Airfield Highway one day, I see high walls and a metal gate, outside of which a line has formed. In a moment of total confusion, I think it’s an awareness concert of some kind and people are queuing for tickets to get in. I tiptoe to peep over the fence. At the sight of tents, a concentration camp sprawl of white, it dawns in slow-mo horror: this is a treatment centre, and that’s a line of sick or suspected patients hoping to get a bed inside. My heart aches imagining all those full beds; my brain hurts trying not to imagine the hole in which all those bodies will end up.
MID TO LATE AUGUST
My birthday comes – with relief I declare myself single again – and goes. I haven’t heard from Contender in almost a month; I gather he’s left without a word. I tried to end it before his departure (This really isn’t working, we’re too different) and he appealed for more time, a break (We’ll work on it once your book is out of the way). Now we’ve fizzled into a ridiculous unsaid, a flaccid tale of love, or lack thereof, in the time of Ebola. This was quite literally not the time or the place – there are far greater worries.
The week after my birthday the residents of West Point, a slum settlement, mob and loot an Ebola clinic in protest, stealing supplies that may be tainted with the virus. Within days, West Point is quarantined. Riots erupt and spill into central town. Two days later, I take a taxi into town and walk around aimlessly. Never have I seen Broad Street look this dead. It’s humbling and frightening at the same time, witnessing how the might of man can cower when challenged by an organism only an electron microscope can see. I wander down a street opening onto Waterside Market, close to the blockades that keep the West Point residents in. Camera ready, I try to bribe two of the riot cops loafing around to let me go closer, but I’m half-hearted about it. One wants the cash; the other tells me with lazy surliness to leave or he’ll take my phone and break it. In that moment, photo-diarying becomes pointless. I take one snap before my phone dies, then I go home.
My hand is forced. The Port Harcourt Book Festival is hosting the Africa39 nominees at their annual book fair, an event I’ve been excited about since I was selected as one of the thirty-nine laureates. Now it’s all gone sour in my mouth. The organisers have been pressing for my confirmation of attendance since June. It’s far from simple: if I leave I cannot return – not for several weeks, perhaps months. Against the WHO’s advice opposing strangling the virus-stricken countries by closing them off from routes of assistance, not only is the border still closed, but all major airlines save one have stopped flying to Liberia.
I confirm that I’m in. A leaden sense of déjà vu sits on me as I pack. Yet again, I’m a clueless child about to be cast adrift, only this time there’s no crackle of exhilaration for the adventure ahead.
I leave on the second-to-last Arik Air flight out of Monrovia. The airport is jam-packed but creepily silent. There’s an international news channel filming the mass exodus; they ask a few of us for a quick interview, to share our harrowing tale with a world that wants to share our pain. I put my hoodie up and walk past them.
SEPTEMBER TO DECEMBER
It is the best of times as much as it is the worst.
Some weeks after I land in Ghana, it happens: my cousin dies of Ebola. He contracts it from his fiancée, and three months before their wedding the happy couple and three others close to them are gone. Everybody knew somebody who died, thousands of families were affected, yet you never conceive of a direct hit until it occurs. My family isn’t big on emotional expressiveness – we cover grief with gruffness – but this numbs us all. I recall refusing to visualise where the bodies go for burial . . . now I have to. My cousin will not be returned to us, a family with Muslim roots, for final rites before sunset. We can’t visit his grave with flowers on Decoration Day. His three-year-old daughter, my namesake, is fatherless.
I flit and day-trip – Accra–Kasua–Port Harcourt–Lagos–Kasua–Accra – like a nouveau brand of refugee, a fugitive of biological war, which sounds ludicrous even to me. I’m a hologram of myself most of the time, my emotions submerged, oddly calm and grateful some days, unable to get out of bed on others. People head-tilt and shoulder-squeeze me a lot, Are you okay? We understand . . .
Life trudges on . . .
. . . I embrace my first trip to Nigeria, although I maintain an internal chant to remind myself I deserve this, I worked for this. I am among my tribe of writers and it feels glorious. I am Liberian, I am not a virus . . .
. . . Until I confide in a fellow scribe about my loss and am told, ‘Oh, wow. Well, at least it was only a cousin’ . . .
. . . At a literary fair, a journalist sits me down for an interview and asks nothing about my book and everything about Ebola, and how contrite Liberians should feel for killing Nigerian citizens . . .
. . . Everyone seems to have money to burn while I pinch pennies, my face hot as I turn down every deal. I ‘party’ but never really party. Guys grin and flirt, then flinch; one actually wipes the hand that brushed my shoulder on his jeans as he walks away. No hard feelings. I never want to stay out long . . .
. . . I get robbed at Accra Mall, my passport graciously left behind. I want to leave. Why can’t I leave? I’m stuck. No flights. The body count back home is now in the thousands. I wait. Read, write, sleep for two-thirds of the day. And wait.
I’ve managed to wrangle a flight via Casablanca. I’m going home.
9 MAY 2015
‘But the whole country is rejoicing. We’ve been declared Ebola-free. It’s gone, for, like, ever. Why can’t you be happy like everybody else?’ My friend looks disappointed in me.
I sip my beer and say nothing.
Photograph © UNMEER