A St Andrean in Liberia

In 2011, Lisa Heintges visited Liberia as an intern with a national NGO. Now, as the Ebola epidemic spreads across the country, she has learned first-hand the daily reality of this global crisis.

Photo: Lisa Heintges
Photo: Lisa Heintges

When I visited Liberia in early 2011, the country was full of life. The capital, Monrovia, was pulsating. Its streets were crowded, music blasted out of enormous loudspeakers at every corner and the markets were a cacophony of lively bargaining.

However, the scene we see today is completely different. Currently, people are afraid to step out of the homes because threats of Ebola are seemingly lurking around every corner. It is easy to get the sense that the virus is sucking the life out of the country.

Rudolf is a bright 21-year-old student who grew up in the peaceful neighbourhood of Paynesville, a suburb of Monrovia. We met during my stay in Liberia and now keep in touch through Facebook. He describes the current situation as alarming. “Everything in Liberia right now is a risk. You don’t know who is carrying the virus,” he said.

At his age, Rudolf is on the cusp of adulthood, waiting for his future to start like many other students all around the world. But, with the outbreak of the Ebola epidemic, his life – and the lives of everyone in his country – has been drastically changed.

Despite his family’s good health, Rudolf worries about securing enough money for food, and thus survival. Liberia is currently in the midst of a financial depression, and almost all job positions have been eliminated. There are almost no sources of income available for people like Rudolph.

His daily life has been turned upside down as a result of the virus. “The situation is getting more alarming,” Rudolph reports. “We can’t travel anywhere. Everyone [stays] at his or her house.”

Schools and universities have been closed to prevent the spread of the disease, and meeting up with people – even friends – now poses and imminent danger. The Liberian youth, like everyone else experiencing this crisis, find little distraction from the gravity of their situation.

Daily survival has become a dreadful, monotonous routine. Hygiene rituals and the constant avoidance of human contact are just a few of the regulations that are difficult to keep up. Of course, Ebola does not only devastate those who become infected; it also threatens the health of the rest of the population.

The fact that no one knows who could potentially be carrying the virus generates an enormous amount of fear and anxiety. For some, it is mentally debilitating. The inevitability of contact with other humans makes necessary activities risky. Buying food at the local markets, for example, has now become a dangerous outing in and of itself. Life in the cities is especially fraught. This is doubly true in the capital, where an estimated one million people make their homes and where it is obviously more dangerous to venture outside than it would be in the small communities of the hinterland.

The capital city, Monrovia. Photo: Lisa Heintges
The capital city, Monrovia.
Photo: Lisa Heintges

In the spring of 2011, I visited both the city of Monrovia and the village of Konjorlloe while taking part in an internship with the Liberian NGO Village People Empowerment. Konjorlloe is a small village in the northeastern region of Liberia. Like many of its surrounding communities, Konjorllow can only be reached by traveling through many miles of dirt roads covered with potholes. The state of the roads means it is near impossible to drive a conventional vehicle, especially one without four-wheel drive. During the summer months, this journey becomes even more difficult as the season’s heavy rainfalls transform the roads into an impassable, muddy disaster. However, the most extreme obstacles I faced while trying to reach Konjorlloe are the bridges along the way. These bridges are often nothing more than a few tree trunks laid sporadically over the small rivers and gorges along the way.

The difficulty of reaching Konjorlloe from the outer world may be a blessing as well as a curse. R Janke from Village People Empowerment says that the preventative measures introduced by both government and aid organizations in an attempt to stop the spread of Ebola are mainly concentrated in Monrovia. Little help reaches the rural regions.

Konjorlloe Photo: Lisa Heintges
Photo: Lisa Heintges

For this reason, the work of organizations like Village People Empowerment is essential. The group provides villages like Konjorlloe with rice, medication and sanitizing products that help these communities survive these hard times. Thanks to these measures being taken, there is hope that rural towns may avoid unnecessary contact with the outside world. Furthermore, communities such as these are able to sustain themselves more or less with their local food production.

Nonetheless, both rural and urban populations alike are suffering from the current state of emergency. The social and economic implications of the emergency disrupts the life of the healthy population. New policies put in place to deal with the crisis have isolated entire regions. The shutting down of national borders has led to a severe food shortage due to a lack of imports and trade. In addition to this shortage, fear of infection has also contributed to rising food prices and the closure of many markets.

Perhaps the best indication of the changing landscape of Liberia is the song ‘State of Emergency,’ by Tan Tan B and Quincy B, which has distinguished itself as one of the country’s most played tracks in recent weeks. The chorus keenly represents the current national nightmare:

Got my gloves on my hands but tonight
is for a different reason,
I know the storm’s pouring down
outside but it’s a different season .
How many lives must we lose before
we realize, start believing…
I might be calm outside but down
inside I’m weeping.
Ebola is real…

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