A nation ravaged: Liberia and Ebola


Two young women pose for a photo in front of the soccer field of Cuttington College in Bong County, Liberia in 1965. (Pam O’Meara/Review)

Liberians gather to watch the dedication of Phebe Hospital in Bong County, central Liberia in 1965. Also attending were President Tubman and newly capped nurses. (Pam O’Meara/Review)

Remembering earlier times in West African country

“I wish I could describe to you the way it is between 6:15 and 7:30 p.m. when the sun goes down. There’s always at least one big cloud that is glowing hot pink. At the same time, you can hear one or two Liberian boys playing a flute-like instrument. This part of the day is indescribably beautiful,” I wrote to my parents from Liberia many years ago.

Now it’s quite different there. As one of the epicenters of the Ebola outbreak, the nation has been steadily in the news, but I really took notice when the front page of the New York Times on Nov. 2 mentioned Sam Siakor, a supervisor of water, sanitation and hygiene teams at an Ebola clinic in Suakoko, Liberia.

The news article said the clinic rose out of the tropical forest in September to isolate Ebola victims, and a mobile lab operated by the U.S. Navy was set up in October at a shuttered university so test results could come back in hours instead of days.

A familiar location

I discovered this shuttered university was Cuttington, exactly where I lived years ago when I was 21 and teaching at the campus grade school.

Recently, the once-lovely, peaceful campus surrounded by rainforest was closed by government order, as were primary and secondary schools, to help prevent the spread of the Ebola virus.

The college now houses many new clinic staff members and serves as a food preparation area. Eventually, the 2,000 students are expected to return. In the meantime, the college was supplying gasoline for the vehicles transporting patients or bodies and was providing food from its garden as well as rice, canned meat and cooking oil.

Liberia is just north of the equator and home to part of the last great rainforest in West Africa, a perfect breeding ground for the Ebola virus with its heat and humidity.

After I read the Times article, I pulled out my faded photos, and memories of the people I met and places I visited came streaming back.

Briefly, my home

At age 21 and fresh out of college, I taught fifth grade for one semester in the campus school of Cuttington College, 120 miles north of the capital of Monrovia. Founded by the Episcopal Church in the 1800s, the present campus was established in 1948 and is now known as Cuttington University. Many political leaders and civil servants of Liberia and other African countries are educated there.

My six students were children of foreigners working in the country. One father was an economist from Stanford who was working on his Ph.D. dissertation on the effects of rapid culture change on the Liberians.

Another parent was a physician out in the bush. One was an anthropologist translating a tribal dialect, Lomi, into English and another worked for RCA.

I went there through the Episcopal Church’s Volunteers for Mission Program. My housemate was a Peace Corps volunteer.

In another letter I wrote:

“I went to the Cuttington faculty hamburger picnic last night in a valley near one end of the campus. ... When it got dark, we sat around a fire for a couple of hours singing. After that, another teacher and I walked down to a small village and talked to a couple villagers, and then to a couple of students, one Liberian and one Nigerian, about world affairs - very interesting.”

Ebola at Phebe

Along with the new 70-patient Ebola clinic and mobile lab, a seven-bed isolation center built by Lutheran Development Service was added to nearby Phebe Hospital, a pre-condition for the reopening after five nurses and a doctor contracted Ebola and died, and many other health care workers fled in fear. The devastating effects of Ebola had never been seen before, so it started spreading before anyone knew what it was or how to handle it.

Back in 1965, I attended the dedication of Phebe Hospital and in another letter to my parents, I wrote:

“The dedication of Phebe Hospital was really something. ... There were thousands of people all colorfully dressed for the big occasion. President Tubman spoke ... there were a few people playing wooden musical instruments, the Muslims were in their colorful long robes, a few men had fur ornaments for a headdress ... and the Liberian nurses had just been capped that morning.”

Before the Ebola epidemic, Phebe, one of Liberia’s best hospitals, was a training hospital for Cuttington nursing students.

Wealth and squalor

Liberia was peaceful when I was there. The Cuttington College campus was filled with bougainvillea and flamboyant trees, and I had a banana tree in my backyard. Liberians hiked from their bush huts through the campus. It  was a beautiful country.

But after I left, that changed. A devastating 14-year civil war killed 250,000 and displaced 1.3 million, and decimated the education and health care systems. Cuttington was severely damaged during the turmoil in the 1990s.

Now, 80 percent of Liberia’s 3.5 million citizens live below the poverty line and 35 percent are malnourished, and due to the Ebola outbreak there’s a serious food shortage, according to media outlets.

This may help explain why the Liberia I’ve seen in the news lately looks so much like the Liberia I knew in 1965. Liberia is ranked by the United Nations as the world’s fifth poorest country.

“Wealth and squalor are side by side in the capital of Monrovia. ... Yesterday when I was shopping, I saw a dead dog lying in the gutter. Its eyes were open, its mouth was full of flies and its body was terribly bloated like a stuffed animal. It was a startling sight. ... It was quite remarkable to see tumble-down shacks next to modern stucco buildings in the capital,” I wrote.

Out of the bush

After the Liberian Ebola epidemic began around March, people unknowingly carried it out of the bush and into the more populated capital of Monrovia where it spread quickly and Thomas Duncan caught it. He then traveled to Texas, where he died on Oct. 8 in Houston.

The Oct. 22 World Health Organization Ebola report said Liberia remains the most affected country, and transmission is intense in Monrovia, and high in Bong County where Cuttington and Phebe are located.

However, WHO says fewer cases of Ebola have been reported in the last few weeks, but it’s too soon to know if the tide has turned.

All the dreadful Ebola news brought long-dormant memories back into focus. I wonder about the children in the villages I visited. They would be adults with grandchildren now. Have they lost loved ones or succumbed themselves to the virulent virus?

It was so long ago when I was there, and yet so little seems to have changed for the better, which makes me quite sad.

Pamela O’Meara can be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7818.

 

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