In early August 2014, I left Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, which was quickly descending into Ebola-induced chaos. I headed to South Africa on business travel for my employer, a youth empowerment NGO. Things had gone south almost overnight – the Peace Corps and numerous international NGOs abruptly pulled out, but there was no curfew in place (there is now), no state of emergency (one was soon instated and was recently lifted), and I naively thought that I’d return home to Monrovia within a few weeks. However, midway through my time in southern Africa, Kenya Airways ceased flights to Liberia, and I found myself stuck in Zimbabwe. I would spend eight weeks in southern Africa rather than the two I had expected.
Ebola fears followed my travels – a feverish pregnant women from Guinea caused hysteria in South Africa and scores of travellers from west Africa were quarantined for Ebola observation in Harare. As September ended, I prepared to return to the United States; I figured I’d be leaving both Ebola and Africa behind.
However, shortly before my departure, a Liberian visitor in the US fell ill from Ebola and subsequently infected two nurses prior to his death. Suddenly, Ebola was as topical in the US in October as it had been in Liberia in August. Operating from our Washington D.C. office over the next three months, I was able to conduct a successful networking blitz from afar. The numerous think tank events and congressional hearings on Ebola provided ample opportunities to meet former Liberian ministers, mayors of major Liberian cities, and the country’s Ambassador.
About a month ago, I finally returned to Liberia. The flight from Brussels to Monrovia was nowhere near capacity – a surprise, given that it was the only way to access the country from outside of Africa, and one of only three airlines flying to the country. Before entering the airport in Monrovia, we washed our hands from taps on large plastic buckets and had our temperatures checked while a handful of US soldiers idled around.
On the surface, it is hard to assess the extent to which things have changed in Liberia as a result of Ebola. As I overheard one Liberian in a recent meeting of civil society organisations supported by a major international donor note, “(Ebola) exposed the vulnerability of our entire government.” An enormous Ebola Treatment Unit now sits in front of the shell of the Ministry of Defence, a building that was not completed due to the country’s civil war. Numerous Ebola murals have sprung up on Monrovia’s main thoroughfare. Nearly all businesses, from small tin-roofed general stores to multi-floor government offices, are equipped with hand washing stations (the more prosperous establishments have an attendant who will even turn on the tap installed on the plastic bucket for you after checking your temperature). Following government decree, shared taxis now seat only three at the back, further contributing to Monrovia’s chronic shortage of public transportation. Schools are just reopening after a prolonged break.
Liberians continue to enjoy nightlife, despite a 12am – 6am curfew, although the popular nightspot Exodus is now much more relaxed on a Friday night. Several karaoke nights are no more, while a monthly trivia gathering dominated by expats at a Lebanese restaurant has just resumed. The recent African Cup of Nations final between Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, countries where many Liberians settled during the civil war, did not generate much enthusiasm.
Work responsibilities have not changed significantly, although due to donor demands many organisations have shifted their core operations to Ebola outreach and awareness. I never imagined that I’d be meeting with the Centres for Diseases Control and Prevention in Monrovia’s plush seaside Lebanese-owned hotels, but otherwise, meetings with local partners continue. On a recent visit to a partner in West Point, the township that was briefly quarantined and the site of several riots soon after I left Monrovia in August, life seemed normal. The main access road was bustling with economic activity, most notably large numbers of fishmongers hawking their wares.
In recent weeks the government has hosted the heads of state of Guinea and Togo for brief ‘solidarity visits’. Of the trio of countries hit by Ebola, Liberia has received by far the greatest amount of support from the international community. The success in combating Ebola does seem to be tied to these efforts. Unfortunately, as the Swedish writer Henning Mankell recently noted, “We are always very interested in how Africans die, but we do not care enough about how they live.” As Liberia and its neighbors recover from the current crisis, those of us living in Liberia are faced with a crucial opportunity to show that we really care about the factors that drove the Ebola outbreak. Liberia must also seize the Ebola opportunity, but as I recently heard a local civil society advocate note, “There’s a history of us not learning from our lessons.”
Do we care? Can we prove that we are not just waiting for our favourite karaoke spots to reopen? For direct flights to Kenya to resume? Or are we just waiting for the next crisis to emerge and remind us that we haven’t learned the lessons of the past? DM
Brooks Marmon leads the Africa portfolio of the Accountability Lab from Monrovia, Liberia