Dutch Sierra Leonean Babah Tarawally has lived in fear of the Ebola virus for the past seven months. This is his diary.
March 18, 2014
“Patient zero was identified as a two year old boy. He died on December 6, 2013 in Gueckedou in south-eastern Guinea. A week after his death his mother died, then his 3-year-old sister, then his grandmother. All had fever, vomiting and diarrhea, but no one knew what had sickened them.”
It is an entry on a Facebook page that catches my attention. I know Gueckedou: I lived there after fleeing the civil war in my country Sierra Leone in 1992.
“Two mourners at the grandmother’s funeral took the virus home to their village. A health worker died, as did his doctor. They both infected relatives from other towns. By the time Ebola was recognized, in mid-March, dozens of people had died in eight Guinean communities.”
It doesn’t make sense. How can a two year old be ‘patient zero’? The assumption is that he might have come in contact with an Ebola infected monkey or bat. But our people have been eating monkeys and bats for centuries without getting sick.
There are reports of suspected cases in Sierra Leone, where my family lives.
March 29, 2014
Confusion and denial rage in my head. I am not a conspiracy theorist, but the explanations we are given are not good enough. There was Ebola in the Congo thirty years ago. How did it get to Sierra Leone? Did our monkeys and bats travel thousands of miles to Congo to get infected and then travel back to poison us?
Have foreigners brought their diseases here?
I look for information on the Internet and become overwhelmed by the many scientific-looking indications that the virus was once developed as a biological weapon in the USA. Suddenly I hear the voice of my grandfather. ‘West Africa was called the white man’s grave. Malaria chased the European colonizers from West Africa. That is how we got our independence.’ This was the way he saw it. But if ‘our’ diseases chased the foreigners, what to make of this new, foreign disease, plaguing us after fifty years of independence? Have they been bringing their diseases to us? I gaze at the sky looking to him for answers.
April 4, 2014
Ernest Bai Koroma, the president of Sierra Leone, is addressing a town hall meeting in The Hague for a Q&A with the Sierra Leone diaspora community. Men in suits and women in traditional African dresses listen as Koroma talks for long, but not about Ebola. As far as I can see there are only investors here, no medical experts, no representative of Doctors Without Borders or The World Health Organization. My president too seems to be in denial.
A lady in the front row arranges her long colourful dress and introduces herself as Sally, from Koindu in Kailahun District on the Guinea border. She asks the Ebola question. “We are monitoring the situation carefully”, is the answer. “Qualified doctors from the United States are to take on any case of Ebola crossing in to Sierra Leone.’ I go home with mixed feelings.
April 30, 2014
The radio reports that many people in Kailahun District are staying indoors for fear of catching the virus. Kailahun is my maternal home. I call my uncle who confirms the panic. A widely respected traditional healer who was visited by desperate patients seeking her care, has died, he says. Mourners then came by the hundreds, also from other nearby towns, to honour her memory. Many of these mourners are now infected and have brought the disease to their homes.A strange, absurd and dangerous force around us.
A strange, absurd and dangerous force around us
But denial still rules in the capital. “There is no such thing as Ebola”, a friend in Freetown tells me when I phone him. His response reminds me of the civil war in Sierra Leone in the nineties. Just like Ebola, when rebellion started from this same border town of Koindu, the people in Freetown denied that there was a war on. Maybe some truths are just impossible to face.
May 27, 2014
The first confirmed case in Sierra Leone is a young woman, admitted to a government hospital in Kailahun following a miscarriage on 24 May. A health worker suspected Ebola and she was placed in isolation the next day. Quick investigations by local health authorities suggested that she attended the funeral of the traditional healer. They suspect that she is linked to fifteen other cases and five recent deaths.
All cases are from Kailahun District.
I call my mum. ‘It is not Ebola’, she says convincingly to me. ‘What is it then? I ask. ‘My son, a plane carrying witches at night crashed and those on board perished. That’s why they are bleeding as they take their last breath.’ I realise that she struggles with the same questions and confusion as I do. To her, a witchcraft explanation is the most logical one. Magic explains the unexplainable.Beliefs can help find peace of mind. My mum passed on her beliefs to me when I was little. I departed from them when I learned to distinguish between believing and knowing. But now that Ebola seems to appear magically to both of us, our knowing and believing are in disarray. We both grapple to make sense of a strange, absurd and dangerous force around us.
But there is knowledge on how to prevent it. I tell my mum Ebola is a virus and advise her not to shake hands, not to visit sick people, not to touch dead bodies and not to go to burials. It is asking the impossible. ‘But where does this so-called Ebola come from? she asks. ‘The origin does not matter. It is how we should try to kick it out that is important’, I answer. But she is still not convinced.
“The virus is meant to attack us,” I rant
Finally I resolve to give her the theory that will fit her expectation. ‘This disease is from the white man, it is made in the West.’ It is the only way I can make her understand that this isn’t something our native healers can handle. It works. ‘No wonder most traditional healers have died of the virus,” she sighs. Yes! I rant on. “It is meant to attack us poor African people! It is above the power of nature. It is a biological product, biological warfare!”
The battle is won. ‘You talk like your grandfather’, my mum says to me. I can hear that she knows now that she has to follow my advice. Her educated son in the West who understands the secrets of the white man has said it all. Ebola is real.
June 22, 2014
I have invited friends to a meeting to discuss a way to crowd fund for Ebola victims. In the middle of the meeting my mobile phone rings. My mum. “I have to take this”, I say, my heart bonking like crazy, and walk to the corridor.
It is bad news. “My sister Musu died and today her eldest daughter is having diarrhoea and vomiting and bleeding. It is Ebola.” I know Musu. My mum calls her her sister but she is her cousin; in our tribe the word cousin does not exist. She continues: ‘I was on the phone with Musu’s younger daughter. She told me her elder sisters condition is bad. I advised her to go away from her and call an ambulance. The girl burst into tears. She cried that she could not watch from a distance while her sister was bleeding to death. I insisted, but she told me it was too late for her now, she believed she too is infected.”
July 14, 2014
It is a sunny afternoon in my garden when the land number 00232 appears on my phone again. Mum tells me that my elder brother is back after having been away from home for a year. No one knew his whereabouts. Why has he come home now? An old African saying comes to mind; “when things are good for you, your father’s land is yours, but when things go bad you come back home to your mother.”
My brother must be treated as a suspect
‘He said nothing, he just came back with his luggage and occupied his room’, she tells me. ‘He should not be allowed into your home in case he has Ebola”, I tell her sternly. My mum is silent. Then says, loudly: ‘But he is my son’. I insist. ‘Ebola is just like smoking cigarettes in the midst of non-smokers. Don’t allow him to smoke you.” Her response shows that she has been educating herself. “Ebola is not transferred by air, only through contact with an infected person showing symptoms of the disease. He seems very healthy.”
I still tell my mum to treat him as a suspect. ‘Let no one enter his room and watch him carefully. If he starts to show symptoms of the disease, you call the ambulance immediately, do you understand? She agrees. After hanging up I castigate myself for my lack of empathy. But you don’t kick Ebola out with weak feet.
August 5, 2014
It is twenty one days later. The incubation time for my brother is over. I call my mum for a final check. ‘He is doing fine’, she says. Then: ‘The only problem here is that the neighbour next door died yesterday of Ebola, and their home is now under quarantine’. I feel as if the ground is collapsing beneath me. The neighbour’s house is just a stone’s throw away from her own. All the neighbour’s kids come at night to my mum’s house to watch television. I start talking to myself.
In fact I have been talking to myself a lot. The thought of living so far away from my mum, brothers, sisters, relatives and friends is making me crazy. Except for close friends, nobody in my neighbourhood here in the Netherlands has an idea of what I am going through. I feel as if a bridge is broken between me and my family back home. I am in a foreign place, trying to be with them in my mind. I have visions of my mum carried away by the burial team in a plastic body bag and dumped in an unmarked grave. I have nightmares.
September 12, 2014
My mum calls to thank me for the medicines I sent her. She had worried that her slight fever, headache and vomiting could have been interpreted by those around her as ‘Ebola’. But the Malarone and Ibuprofen helped. “I am happy that I don’t have to go to hospital”, she says. “Ebola even kills the healer.”
The fact that even doctors die can mean that we are losing the fight against the disease. But it also means something else. When I see on TV how the fearless men and women in my country come forward to fight the disease, I feel so proud of my people. They are heroes.
October 23 2014
Ebola has skyrocketed to 3896 cases and 1281 deaths in Sierra Leone. I wonder how my mum and my other relatives have managed to escape so far. I hear that the first vaccine trials will take place in January 2015. It is like working towards a ticking clock.
November 1, 2014
It has taken five thousand lives and thirteen thousand infections before the international community has stepped in with committed efforts to contain the spread. Finally Liberia, which had seen the worst cases so far, has started seeing some improvements. There are less cases and more available beds to cater for the sick. The Ebola cases in Guinea are slowing down. This is not yet the case in Sierra Leone, which has thrown all its resources into the fight to contain the disease. With vaccines ready in January there is hope that we may be saying goodbye to Ebola in a few months.
November 16, 2014
Despite my prayers for a Godly intervention the Ebola cases keep on rising in Sierra Leone. 'Mr Aruna is still in quarantine', my mum says. Mr Aruna is almost a son to her. She is crying, whilst talking to me on the phone, that he may be infected. She calls him every hour. Mr Aruna runs a provision shop and lives opposite my mum's house. The shop, his only source of income, is now closed. He was quarantined with fifty-four others in the same compound. The Red Cross supplies them with food on a daily basis. 'The food is not enough but they can manage', my mum says. According to her, an elderly woman smuggled her sick son of 27 years from another neighbourhood into the compound where Mr. Aruna lives. She was treating him herself. Someone noticed and alarmed the authorities. The sick man was immediately taken to an Ebola centre where he tested positive and died the next day. Because all 54 people used the same toilet as the deceased they all now run a higher chance of been infected. The coming weeks are crucial and all await to see who falls next.
I tell my mum we should be thankful that someone called the authorities on time. Mr Aruna could have been the one to bring Ebola into her house.
Note: Babah Tarawally is a Dutch Sierra Leonean writer and journalist who lives in the Netherlands. He has started a crowdfunding project for his neighbourhood in Sierra Leone. The successful crowdfunding campaign on www.pimpmyvillage.nl/ebola has ended.