Although President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf officially lifted the national state of emergency last week, it was not to say that the battle is over, even as some new hotspots have developed, but rather to encourage the country that the situation is now enough under control to allow people to move around again and to reopen markets in the rural areas.
With the Ebola crisis so much in the news these days and the emphasis on fear-mongering, it is a bit surprising that so little is being written or broadcast in the United States about the actual area where this epidemic broke out. Who lives there? Why did the outbreak occur there? Why did it spread so rapidly?
I have wanted to write about the West African country of Liberia for a long time. Liberia occupies a deep space in my heart. It taught me about animism and love of nature. My first child was born and died there, resting, one hopes, in a peaceful field that later became a virulent battlefield. Liberia taught me about humor and music. It taught me to love the rainforest and anticipate the rising of the full moon. And now there is Ebola. Although its President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf officially lifted the national state of emergency last week, it was not to say that the battle is over, even as some new hotspots have developed, but rather to encourage the country that the situation is now enough under control to allow people to move around again and to reopen markets in the rural areas.
When I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia from 1969-72, I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined the tragic future that lay ahead in just a short tick away. Two devastating civil wars from 1989 to 1996 and 1999 to 2003 spawned unthinkable violence and the virtual destruction of the entire country, and, now, Ebola. While the wars were in many respects internal cultural or "racial" fights, the fight with Ebola is for the soul of the country.
How is it that such tragic circumstances pick out a certain place or bedevil a certain group of people? More importantly, perhaps, is the question, how does a place recover from such incomprehensible turmoil? This isn't intended to be a scientific discussion about Ebola but rather an introspective look into the heart and spirit of this area fighting for its very survival—a struggle of almost biblical proportions. While the number of deaths appears to be dropping in Liberia, they continue to rise in Sierra Leone and Guinea, and a new case has recently emerged in Mali. To date, an estimated 5,177 deaths have been reported by the World Health Organization.
The original Ebola outbreak in this area reportedly started in the forested area around Gueckedougo in northeastern Guinea as the result of eating infected "bush meat" (bats, monkeys and small deer, among many other things) and quickly spread into neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia. As the disease spread, it became of immediate concern to France and Great Britain. Guinea was a French colony until 1958 and many Guineans live in France. Sierra Leone became independent of British rule in 1961, although it remained part of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Liberia was another historic matter altogether. Along with Ethiopia, Liberia laid claim to being one of the longest independent nations in Africa. But still, and regardless of who is now in control, the colonizers of these places are deeply affected.
After the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, a group of Americans, in large part Southern plantation owners, formed the American Colonization Society in 1816, with the intention of "repatriating" freed slaves back into West Africa. The first groups reached Sierra Leone in 1821 and Liberia in 1822. From the outset, the colonists met resistance from indigenous groups, including the 16 different linguistic groups in Liberia. The American Navy, however, intervened in numerous instances and provided the coastal stability that the original group needed to take root and eventually create their own independent state in 1847.
Indeed, coastal Liberia was and still is an anachronistic throwback to the southern United States. Rambling, two-story wood and zinc houses with verandas dot the swampy coastline and punctuate equally arcane small settlements with names like Virginia, Maryland, Paynesville, Harper, Buchanan and Robertsport. Each community in turn harbors a small church, usually Baptist, Methodist, Catholic or Lutheran. I remember driving through a small community one day and seeing a sign that read: "Church of the Ladder Day Saints." That's a short and easy way to get to heaven, I thought.
In addition to the Christian influence, there has also been a strong Muslim presence in Liberia, especially from Mandingo traders, teachers and entrepreneurs originally from Guinea and Mali. Despite these more overt religious influences, the strong undertow that pulls the indigenous people of Liberia has been the belief in animism and the spiritual power of the forests. In many respects, at least until the civil wars, the zoes, or traditional spiritual leaders of the forested areas, wielded more power than even the pastors or imams. Ironically, the civil wars and Ebola both emanated from these regions.
In the small town of Kpaiyea (Corn Hill), just at the Guinea border in the far reaches of northeastern Liberia (and in the heart of the current Ebola outbreak), where I lived for two years among the ethnic Kpelle people as an elementary school teacher and agricultural consultant, the storms and lightning were so fierce that someone was trained and appointed as the “lightning zoe,” or lightning medicine man (or woman) whose specific job was to chase the storms out of town and send them elsewhere, to the Caribbean I guessed, in the form of hurricanes. As it turns out, Kpaiyea sits on a hill of iron ore, a magnet for the lightning. Some in the Western press are referring to these people as "witch doctors.” The tribal people of Liberia would more correctly refer to them as the keepers or guardians of the forests.
Liberia, one of the most, if not the most, impoverished places on earth, is abundantly wealthy in natural resources.
While iron ore mining and rubber cultivation created a strong economic surge in Liberia for many years, it was also the abundance of natural resources such as valuable hardwoods, gold and diamonds (blood diamonds) that funded the purchase of arms during the civil wars and added to the depletion of these important forests. It is this infringement on the forests that some Liberians believe triggers the Ebola virus as a mechanism to keep people out of the deepest and most sacred areas. The whole area where the Ebola outbreak occurred is considered a unique and mysterious region.
These zoes or traditional healers are the teachers and controllers of two important secret societies in these areas. Known as Poro for the men and boys and Sande for women and girls, they virtually control social life in these areas in teaching both agricultural and survival skills but also in controlling behavior and social activity.
These groups, while they have been widely criticized for initiation ceremonies that include male and female circumcision and body mutilation in the form of scarification (teeth marks of the ngamu, or spirits, they say), have been, in reality, the bond that has held together their civilization in harmony with the environment for hundreds of years.
"When you go in the bush (bush school is the Poro and Sande initiation time), you are eaten up and spit out as a new person," one young boy told me. I keep thinking that Liberia itself is back in the bush being eaten up and will be regurgitated as a new form of tropical society.
An outsider is never allowed much information about these secret society groups and can only understand very little that is made manifest through the masked spirit dancers (ngamu), which become the mouthpieces of the mysteries of the deep forest to the outside world. I always respected that. A secret is a secret, after all. But I innately knew they knew something of great importance.
There are many types of masked interlopers. Some like the stilt dancers and whirling dancers (bada ngamu) come strictly to entertain, even appearing at presidential inaugurations and other important ceremonies. They came out to greet Pat Nixon when she attended the William Tolbert inauguration in January 1972.
Others with more malevolent or disciplinary intentions (mala ngamu) come late at night, speaking in tongues different than their own, forbidden to be seen by the uninitiated and come with a more serious and purposeful intention. One of these spirits came one night to confront a man in our village who had become a raving drunk. He would drink early in the morning and by mid-morning would be abusing everyone in town. The spirit came one night and told him to stop drinking immediately or he would be dead, immediately. He opted for life.
Later during my stay in Liberia, I lived in Monrovia but kept contact with my village friends through two Kpelle teenagers that lived with me while I worked for the Department of Agriculture. One day I was particularly disturbed by reports that several Kpelle kids had been involved in a burglary ring. "How could they do they?" I asked my friends. "Easy" they said, "As soon as they learn that ngamu no longer has control over them, they do what they want."
Recent reports from the interior suggest that the Poro and Sande secret societies virtually disappeared during the civil wars, and there is now vigorous debate about their relevance to contemporary times. They have been essentially the keepers of the forest for hundreds of years. They have also controlled the masked entities and the medicines that have emanated from the jungle. They have controlled society in the interior of Liberia. Now they are an endangered cultural species. And what is their relevance in the fight against Ebola?
On the one hand, some Liberians believe the disease was caused by Westerners, while others believe it is the traditional healers and zoes who have the power to cure it. Some recent information coming out of the interior suggest that indeed many people are seeking refuge deeper in the forested areas, just as they did during the civil wars. This is also a reaction to outsiders and health officials coming into these small villages and attempting to take away the bodies of their deceased friends and relatives or asking to cremate the dead bodies of the Ebola victims. Not washing the bodies of the deceased and not burying them is considered sacrilegious.
In the midst of my trying to understand all of these cultural differences as a Peace Corps volunteer back in the late '60s and early '70s was when the American astronauts landed (supposedly) on the moon. Everyone in town sat around a radio that night listening to the broadcast in Kpelle coming out of a multilingual station. Because of the technological nature of the event, many words were in English. Astronaut became astronuu or "astronaut person." There was a very lively discussion when the broadcast was over. "How ridiculous," one older women yelled out. "Everyone knows that the moon goes down into the ocean to wash itself at night. They all would have drowned for sure. Let's see if they're still there tomorrow when the moon comes back. I don't think they'll be there." She walked off laughing.
I'm writing that story now because it's also a reflection of how traditional Liberians view "reality." People walking on the moon was not a real situation to them. The fact that so many people could be dying from an unknown, invasive disease was not real to them. As Liberian writer Nvesikie Konneh recently pointed out in a forum in New York City, "Liberians thought it was a joke, it was not real." To further complicate and allow the Ebola situation to spread so rapidly, Liberian government officials were also in denial. Konneh says that average Liberians initially thought "the Liberian government was using Ebola as a way to get money from international donors."
Liberia’s civil wars essentially removed Americo-Liberians (descendants of freed American slaves) from their political control for the first time since the country's independence and forced it into the hands of indigenous and often conflicting ethnic groups. The conflict primarily centered on two things: depletion and inaccessibility of the forest due to paramilitary gangsters having taken control of it, and the fact that Liberia’s indigenous and colonial worlds are both struggling to acculturate with modern times and modern problems.
Now, with Ebola, Liberia searches its soul again for a new path. Or maybe a clearing of the old path that leads back into the heart of the rain forest. Which one will depend on leadership and cultural integrity and commitment, challenges that face all of us no matter what country we live in.
What is the fate of a beautiful place like Liberia and why should we care?
Everything about Liberia puts America in a difficult, if not ironic, situation. It reminds us that our own country was founded, in part, on slavery and the horrors of that fundamental underpinning of our economic and cultural past. Slavery was based on subjugation, brutality and injustice, even as we espoused democracy and a constitution based on equal rights. We practiced our own form of apartheid, some would argue, up until the 1960s. Liberia will remind us of that. Liberia was an experiment in trying to resolve the scars of slavery. It didn’t work. It created a bizarre form of American colonialism from its founding up until the mid-90s that backfired.
And now Ebola. Liberia is already branded with the stigma of "that Ebola place" which will make it very difficult to recover from and to redevelop itself into a more modern and accepted place. How can it possibly recover from that? I mentioned to someone recently that I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia 45 years ago, and they still took a step away from me.
A new era must emerge in which indigenous people and Americo-Liberians can live together without crucifying and castrating each other—as happened when ethnic Krahn soldier Samuel Doe's coup d'etat ousted President Tolbert in 1980 and continued through the turbulent fights between Prince Johnson (who executed Doe in 1990) and Charles Taylor (now being tried for war crimes in The Hague). As a long standing political ally, America does owe it to Liberia to help them enter a new era, no matter what.
Liberia has the potential to become an incredible partner to America. Its diverse, lush environment and beautiful forests and beaches could become a haven for unique game preserves (Liberian forests are home to pygmy elephant and hippopotamus) and positive eco-tourism (surfing has actually become a fad along the coast in Robertsport). Entrepreneurial investment could help create a model for agriculture production based on traditional systems and opportunities abound for the fishing industry and an ecologically sound timber business, among many other options. There are current discussions taking place about potential off-shore oil production.
But the future of Liberia is now just speculation as Ebola not only ravages the countryside but wreaks havoc on the urban areas, especially Monrovia and its unhealthy slums like West Point, that already have substandard infrastructure and living conditions. What should, or can, happen?
Most importantly, Ebola must be contained in situ, in Liberia, in Sierra Leone and in Guinea. That has to be the initial challenge. How we deal with incoming flights from the "Ebola zone" and deal with our own medical protocols is, in my opinion, secondary.
Perhaps this is finally an experiment, albeit of a gruesome nature, to impress upon all of us that old ways and modern ways must come together in new pathways to progress and evolution. Somehow the traditional ways and information need to be consulted and respected just as the older ways need to release themselves from fear and superstition. It's as if creation and evolution need to share the same arc. Many of the drugs and pharmaceuticals that we use today come from the forests of the world. Maybe the very cure for Ebola comes from Liberia itself. But to do that requires a new kind of problem solving construct and a new kind of cooperation, one involving, well, just maybe, the whole world.
As I was watching a news clip showing some of our 3,500 combat ready troops set up camps near Robertsfield International Airport 45 miles outside of Monrovia, I was wondering why we sent in troops. To fill a political vacuum if everything should eventually fall apart in Liberia? They won't have an easy time of it up-country in the small villages.
My little week-old newborn is buried out there in a field not too far away from the airfield, and I suspect he is keeping an eye on things.
Somehow, nothing about Liberia makes any sense.
Somehow, everything about Liberia makes sense.