The Ebola effect

West Africa is so much more than the sum of its troubles, explains a returned Peace Corps volunteer

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The recent outbreak of Ebola in West Africa made things a lot easier for me.

After two years as a Peace Corps volunteer, in January I left Guinea-Conakry, a nation of over 10 million inhabitants, a month before the outbreak first began in the country’s forest region. Since then, the constant flow of news headlines about Ebola has familiarized Americans with an often forgotten part of the world.

When people asked me where I had served in Africa, my response used to draw blank stares and awkward pauses. Now, to ease the conversation, I’ve updated my answer. “Guinea,” I say, no longer waiting for the other person’s silence, “the Ebola country … ”

It hurts me to reduce the country that I love to an epidemic of disease, but such is the case with West Africa in the U.S. news. Islamist rebels burning libraries in northern Mali, Boko Haram capturing schoolgirls in Nigeria — if West Africa makes the news, you can bet that something bad has happened there.

Back home in the United States, I’ve followed the increasingly frenzied coverage of the Ebola epidemic from afar. I grew used to the constant updates and panic over the possibility of the disease spreading to the United States, but it didn’t seem as though my Peace Corps friends still serving in Guinea were worried. I kept in touch with friends and my village host family in Guinea, and they were paying more attention to the World Cup and the results of school exams than Ebola.

After the Peace Corps evacuated all of its volunteers from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia and the first Americans were diagnosed with Ebola — and only then — did I realize that things were really bad. I asked my best friend in Guinea, Namori, about the epidemic.

“Oh, yeah … I heard about that,” he said, his voice trailing off. It was as if I had asked him about something as remote as the default in Argentina. Namori said he had heard rumors that a few people in the area might have contracted Ebola, but he wasn’t sure. I told Namori my understanding of the ways in which Ebola spread, and then we moved on to more pressing matters such as the upcoming European soccer season.

My friend Namori is an intelligent and extremely motivated student. He has passed his middle- and high-school entrance exams and is in his final year of study before taking the baccalaureate exam to see if he can attend college — in a country where only 23 percent of young people even made it to high school in 2006, according to the International Monetary Fund. All this makes Namori’s response to my question rather surprising — and says very telling things about the way a disease like Ebola affects a place like Guinea.

On the one hand, it is obviously worrying that a well-informed person such as Namori would be so unsure about the specifics of a disease that has killed more than 1,000 people to date. The northeastern region of Guinea where Namori lives has so far seen relatively few suspected cases of Ebola, but this kind of ignorance shows how the disease has been able to spread so rapidly across the region.

On the other hand, speaking with Namori reminded me that in villages and cities all across the region, life goes on. As the disease has spread from Guinea to neighboring countries and beyond, people in places that both have and haven’t seen Ebola cases have taken school exams, fasted for Ramadan and celebrated the end of the holy month. My Peace Corps friends in Guinea described no noticeable difference in the health situation in their communities when they were told to evacuate. One day they were going about their business as usual, the next day they were packing their bags.

News coverage of the African continent, which, it should be pointed out, is too vast and diverse for simplification, often seems stuck in an obligatory template of sick starving children or ruthless militiamen terrorizing defenseless villagers. Yes, bad things happen, but that shouldn’t be the entire narrative. It’s too easy and too predictable. If all Guineans ever heard about the United States were the child immigration crisis, 9/​11 or school shootings, they would think the United States was a pretty bad place to live. They’d probably feel sorry for us.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be talking about Ebola in West Africa. If done with perspective, compassion and good intentions, it can only be a good thing.

Think of the hundreds who have died so far — and their families and communities.

Think of the volunteer doctors for organizations such as Doctors Without Borders (doctorswithoutborders.org) and Samaritan’s Purse (samaritanspurse.org ) who have risked their lives to help treat the disease and give them the welcome they deserve when they return home.

And once the Ebola threat has subsided, please keep thinking about the people of West Africa. After the TV news crews leave, problems remain, such as inefficient governments and underpaid civil servants, including health workers and teachers. Remember that a child in Africa dies every minute from malaria and that other diseases such as tuberculosis and diarrheal diseases kill many more people than Ebola ever will. Don’t wait until the next tragedy to think of Namori and the people of West Africa.

But also remember that the vast majority of people in Africa go about their daily lives much like Americans do — they go to school and work, they care for their children, they love, argue, play games and watch soccer, a lot of soccer.

Chris Merriman was a summer intern at the Post-Gazette in 2010 while a senior majoring in history at Yale University (christopher.a.merriman@gmail.com). He has since graduated and returned home to Connecticut after serving in the Peace Corps.


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