One of the greatest pleasures of traveling around the U.S. on public transportation to give presentations and attend fundraisers for the Jeneba Project Inc., a nonprofit I founded to provide educational opportunities to the children of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea after more than a decade of civil war in that region, is the privilege of talking to ordinary Americans about these countries and the work we do. In my experience, when Americans are interested in an issue, they ask questions, express concern and usually offer to help. Sometimes they genuinely want to know what life has been for me personally after surviving those wars and living in the U.S.
But things have changed drastically since the outbreak of ebola in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. People still want to know where I am from, but instead of telling them about my roots in those three countries, I simply answer D.C. or Vermont, where I last lived. My non-U.S. accent usually makes people want to know where I am really from, but my facial expression now conveys the message that they are not purview to my true origin at the moment. A random American state would have to suffice. A few weeks ago, Angelique Kidjo, one of Africa’s finest musicians and a Béninoise, posted her excitement about her upcoming performance in honour of Miriam Makeba at Carnegie Hall on facebook, and someone commented as to whether she was bringing ebola with her. When she later told a curious New York Cab driver that she was from West Africa, his response was to mutter: ebola.
A few weeks ago, I took a bus from MD to NYC with a troop of girls’ scouts and their teachers. Before boarding the bus I overheard their teachers instructing them to refrain from touching strangers and other public objects because there is a new deadly disease going around. One of the teachers sat next to me on the bus and she was rather boisterous. She had been a law librarian, so we bonded on books and the emergence of reading technology, which we both concluded should never replace actual books. At some point during our lively conversation she said to me: “Now, where are you from?”
I was deeply saddened, because any other day, I would have told her about Sierra Leone and the story of the Amistad. I would have told her about the freed slaves of the American south, the American Colonization Society and the founding of Monrovia in honour of President James Monroe. I would have told her about Guinea as the only African country to boldly reject membership to La plus grande France. But I couldn’t! I simply looked her straight in the eyes and said: Maryland!
I felt very uneasy afterwards, but how could I possibly tell one of the supervisors of a girls’ scout trip that I am from Sierra Leone! There wouldn’t have been enough time to inform her that I haven’t been home in almost two years. As Madam Kidjo put it, “[o]vernight it seems that all the naïve and evil preconceptions about Africa surfaced again.” Ebola stigmatization is something we Sierra Leoneans, Guineans, Liberians, and perhaps all Africans, have to be prepared for long after the outbreak. It won’t be the first time we have had to live with a stigma. U.S. parents whose children were going on a missionary trip or some other visit to Sierra Leone used to call me even a decade after the war for assurance that their children weren’t going to get amputated.
Ebola is taking both human and economic toll on an already devastated region. The best our friends around the world can do is pressure their governments to offer needed assistance on the ground. In spite of the fear mongering in some camps, ebola is not going to spread in America, and your African neighbour is not all of a sudden contagious. Instead of stigmatizing West Africans, Americans should show the compassionate side I have seen on so many occasions when I informed them about the suffering and victimization of the same people who now desperately need their help in eradicating a deadly virus that continues to spread. As I have stated before, ebola is a disease and not a crime.
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Tags: ebola "joseph kaifala" "sierra leone" guinea liberia "jeneba project"
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