The Nigerian experience is physical, emotional and sometimes international. No one knows it better than our features on #TheAbroadLife, a series where we detail and explore Nigerian experiences while living abroad.
In the first-ever non-Nigerian Abroad Life, Dounard, a Liberian citizen, spent the better part of his life, growing up in Nigeria. After returning to Liberia, a country changed from the time he left it, ravaged by a civil war and the deadly ebola pandemic, his optimism at helping to re-build the country is currently put on hold, while the storm of the coronavirus is being weathered. This is his story.
So let’s play a little ‘then and now’. Is life in Liberia any different from what it was say, three weeks ago?
It depends. In some ways, it’s completely the same. If I look outside my window right now, people are walking the streets, the church close to my house still held a vigil last night, you know, things like that. But in other ways, because of the coronavirus, things are completely different. Transport for one is changed. There’s been a spike in transport prices because the government has mandated keke drivers to carry only two passengers at the back, nobody in the front seat. Taxis too. They can only carry three people at the back, where it used to be four. And that’s just transport.
Oh? What else has changed?
So when the president was addressing us on the coronavirus, he mentioned how —
Your president addressed you on the virus? Hm. Never felt that emotion, but it sounds powerful.
Haha, I’m sure your president will stop keeping malice with you soon enough … or not.
But, when George Weah was addressing the country, he placed all non-essential government staff on paid leave. Same thing with schools. Students will observe a one-week break to try to contain the spread of the virus.
The planning is great, but I’m curious – any idea what counts as a non-essential staff?
Hm. I’ll be honest, I’m not very sure. But I have a friend that works at the Central Bank and deciding who was essential and non-essential was up to the head of department. So I guess it depends on a management decision.
Got it. So the Liberian government is clearly being proactive with handling the coronavirus. Would you say this is the same treatment ebola got when it first started making rounds in 2014?
I can’t say for sure because at the time, I had spent most of my life in Nigeria. When Ebola started, I was in Babcock University, Ogun State, insulated from what was happening to an extent. But from what I’ve heard, Liberia was a little slow to act for a number of reasons. So no, I wouldn’t say the energy the coronavirus is getting now, was the same case in 2014.
We’ll get to those reasons in a little bit. But before then, how is it that you came to live most of your life in Nigeria?
So during the Liberian Civil War — wait, let me clarify. Liberia had two civil wars, one that ousted Samuel Doe, and the other that involved Charles Taylor, a lot of outsiders never realise that Liberia had two civil wars.
Guilty outsider here
See! Well, during the Charles Taylor civil war, my parents, who are missionaries wanted to pursue their masters. Unfortunately for them, none of the schools they applied to granted them the joint admission they wanted. So when a seminary in Lagos granted them joint scholarships, we were off. We settled into our new lives fast, my parents completed their double masters and even built a church in Lagos. That’s how I came to spend 15 years in Nigeria.
That’s fantastic! But to a less cheery subject. What reasons did you come to hear for Liberia being slow to act when ebola struck?
So you need to understand this. When ebola first came in, a large percentage of Liberians thought it was all a rumour. To them, there was no way monkeys could have caused something so terrible, this was something they had eaten regularly, their grandparents had grown up on. It was just hard to wrap their heads around some disease suddenly springing up, so they didn’t take it seriously.
It wasn’t just that. From doubting it existed, they graduated to ebola probably being a white man’s disease. This whole doubtful period, the disease was spreading in a way that, well, as we all saw, eventually the whole country paid for.
After that, maybe because the first case of the disease in Liberia was a Guinean, people thought the virus was some type of ‘jazz’ at work. This whole time, the clock was ticking, people were dying, the virus was multiplying. It was crazy.
There is this community called New Georgia, it has a large Muslim population. In the early days of ebola, when someone turned up dead in the community, they kept performing the usual rites – washing the bodies, worsening the spread. They kept at this until an imam actually had to intervene and plead with them to stop.
I can’t imagine what going through that must have felt like. I can’t even begin to imagine how helpless you’d have felt, receiving news about friends and family from home, when you in Nigeria.
It was terrible, just terrible. Every week, every other day was news about this uncle, or that aunty’s son or this family being affected by the virus or dying. But that was just one part of the tragedy, there was another layer to the ebola crisis that’s mostly overlooked.
And what layer is that?
You know how there were people that died of ebola? There was another really large number of people that died because of ebola.
Wait, can you explain that?
Let me start from the beginning. When ebola hit, there were maybe 100 doctors for the whole country.
(Reports put the number of doctors at 50 to Liberia’s 4.3 million people when ebola struck)
This was because of how the medical education system was set up. To become a Liberian doctor, you needed a first degree in something, microbiology, geology – anything, this could take anywhere from four to five years. From there, you needed another six years of medical school, the only one in the country, which, from all accounts was incredibly difficult to get in.
So by the time ebola blew up, there were very limited doctors to attend to ebola patients, and next to no doctors to handle anything that wasn’t ebola related. I lost a friend who had sickle cell anaemia, and was also asthmatic because the hospitals just wouldn’t take him in.
There were so many cases like that. I had an aunt who had a miscarriage and because the healthcare workers were so scared of touching her blood, nobody wanted to attend to her. It took the intervention of some higher up family member to convince them to help.
Another time, a government official who had just lost his daughter to a non-ebola related illness, went on a radio program to complain about the poor treatment his daughter got at the hospital. The phone lines were flooded with everyday Liberians reminding him that it took the loss of his daughter for him to acknowledge a problem they had been suffering through and complaining about for months. It was terrible.
I can’t even begin to imagine the horror
Me too. Then there were cases of ebola patients that were routinely sprayed with chlorine. They developed all sorts of skin diseases. Experiencing all of this first hand must have felt like living in a nightmare. Back in Nigeria, I just had to deal with quite a bit of teasing from classmates.
They did not!
Ah! Right from time, I was called ‘Liberia’ in school. So when ebola started, I was singled out by default. I got a lot of: ‘I hope you didn’t visit your country recently?’. You know a parent called their child, trying to confirm that they weren’t in the same hall as me? Just random things like that.
Oh my goodness!
Then Nigeria had its first case and it was a Liberian, so you already know I entered it in school during that period. But it was just a lot of banter. What wasn’t banter was someone giving a testimony in church, saying how God loved Nigeria because there were countries like Liberia in hot soup with ebola. It was just ridiculous to suggest that Liberians weren’t prayerful or loved by God and that’s why we were being punished. I couldn’t wrap my head around it.
Ridiculous! Has she seen Nigeria? So sorry you had to sit through that.
But let’s talk about when you did eventually visit Liberia. How different was it from the country you left behind years ago?
Well, I was very young when I left, so I didn’t really have any memories. But I’ll tell you this, when I landed at the Liberian airport which, at that time was the size of a mini-flat because the old one had been destroyed in the war, a real need to be a part of re-building the country came over me and it has never left.
I get that. So from your time in Liberia, do you think the country has returned to a semblance of normal, considering all it has been through?
I’m going to have to say yes to this one. Liberians are very resilient people. They’re the first to make jokes about the ebola period and if you don’t reach out first, they’ll definitely pull you in for a hug.
That said, you can’t miss all the fixtures of buckets with taps used to wash hands placed in the front of business establishments everywhere. Even ‘Fula Shops’ – what Nigerians call mallam shops or aboki shops, have their own bucket washers. You also still need to sanitize your hands before entering an establishment. Because while there is relative calm, nobody is ready to let down their guard.
And even now, with the coronavirus? How are Liberians taking it?
So far, there have been two reactions to the coronavirus in Liberia. There are those that believe the coronavirus is real, like the management of the Providence Baptist Church, a very popular church, which you might know is where the Liberian declaration of independence was signed. They’ve barred any public services and have switched online, while the coronavirus is contained. This group has seen what a pandemic can do and nobody wants a repeat of that.
Admirable! Can someone send the minutes of meeting where this was decided, to Nigerian religious institutions, please?
Well, that’s just one group. We have others that doubt that the coronavirus is real at all. Because they believe the Liberian government is using it as a ploy to get funding. Back when ebola was raging, a considerable amount of foreign aid was given to help manage it. So there are conspiracy theorists weaving that about. But, to be fair, it’s only a very small percentage of the country that believes this.
Interesting. And how many reported cases have been made so far?
Just two. First was the head of Liberia’s Environmental Protection Agency, who refused to be quarantined when he arrived Liberia from Switzerland, eventually infecting his housekeeper – which was the second case.
You probably saw the video of his driver on social media, being chased by members of his community to go under quarantine. He ended up testing negative for the virus, but I understood his fear.
Back in 2014, if you were taken to be quarantined at the Ebola Treatment Unit, you weren’t coming back. You would die there, your body would be burnt and your family notified. It was just a given. Who would stand for that?
Christ, that’s completely understandable.
But for those who are taking it seriously, what precautions are they observing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus?
Well there’s the transport limit, where a reduced number of passengers are being carried, then schools being shut down and the one-week work leave. Beyond that, the two airlines that fly international in Liberia – Air Moroc and KLM are having their last flights in and out of the country on Friday, March 20th, 2020. Before then, anyone that has come into Liberia from a high-risk country is placed on a mandatory 14-day quarantine. I can’t speak to the standard of the quarantine centre, but for sure people returning aren’t mixing with Liberians until it is confirmed that they do not carry the virus.
Got it. And stocking up? Are there incidents of panic buying?
Hm. Panic buying? I mean, like everywhere, the costs of hand sanitizers have gone through the roof. People kept trying to get for themselves and their families. But beyond that, no, no real cases of panic buying.
The truth is, the average Liberian can’t even afford to panic buy. At this point, people probably have bought the essentials that they require and can afford, and that’s it.
This even brings another thing to attention. Liberia is very import-heavy. We import everything, rice, maybe even cooking oil. So when these countries stop supplying Liberia and when border closures are enforced, there’s a big question on how food and essential product supplies will be provided in Liberia.
I definitely hope measures will be put in place, because that’s another crisis on its own. How are you preparing to weather the worst of the coronavirus?
Well, I’m a little sulky. I had law school exams right before the virus struck, so I’d have appreciated it if it came right before, and we were given this one week break to study some more, but that’s just me being silly.
I’ve stocked on my favourite essentials, I have enough Liberian garri to last me through many storms, so that’s good. Beyond that, I’m using this period to clear my reading list. Last week was ‘We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed by our families’ a book on the Rwandan war. Two days ago, I read ‘A Long Way Gone’ – A book written by a Sierra Leonean child soldier. Today, it’s ‘A Swamp Full of Dollars’ – on Nigeria’s oil and gas and militancy. I’ll probably read some school books to prepare for the next semester, so we’ll see.
Are you optimistic that the virus will be contained in Liberia?
I mean, it’s good to be optimistic and I respect that, but for all the efforts the government has put in place to contain the virus – rather than a containment, I wish the world could hurry on with a cure. I would feel safer.
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