On Christmas break of 2011, my parents both decided that their home country of Liberia was safe enough for my younger brother and me to visit. After sustaining a military coup and a nearly 20-year civil war, the country seemed ready for a turnaround once the war ended in 2003.
The only things I knew about Liberia before then were by word of mouth. Most pictures of the Liberia my parents grew up in had been destroyed by military rebels back in the 1990s. My parents did make sure to visit Liberia on separate occasions before our family trip, just to make sure they could actually bring their children in the future.
We stayed in Liberia for nearly a month. Seeing, hearing and tasting everything that Liberia had to offer opened my eyes and solidified my identity as a Liberian American more than ever. While sitting in a small gazebo in my mom’s birth town of Marshall I looked out at the tranquil bay before me while my mom and aunt half-jokingly talked about us adopting my younger cousin who suffers from sickle cell.
As I looked out at the horizon I felt nothing but peace knowing that life at home could continue without me and that I could survive without life at home.
“This is my country,” I thought. “I could never think otherwise and I will make sure to come back.”
Three years and many pleas to return to Liberia later, an outbreak of Ebola erupted through West Africa. At first I felt a little worried but the intervention of the UN placated me a bit. Still, I made a point to check up on my cousin and her family. Marshall’s location is pretty remote and there isn’t a hospital for miles over there.
I thought the situation would be handled in a matter of weeks. Wrong.
Almost overnight my Liberian friends and family members’ Facebook pages mentioned almost nothing but Ebola. Scrolling down my feed I would see pictures of friends’ summertime selfies or the occasional post about their lives and then right under them a sobering post from an aunt or uncle about the Liberian government’s lack of preparation for Ebola or symptoms and ways to avoid the spread of Ebola. I had a Facebook friend from Liberia who asked me to friend her because we shared the same first and last name. She hasn’t been online since April which is really unlike her.
The talk in my house fluctuates between everyday conversations of dog walking and lunch to the subject of who’s dying, who’s dead, government corruption, and on days when all hope seems lost, how we’ll probably have to wait five or more years to return to Liberia at best. If I happen to be around two or more Liberians, the topic of Ebola is inescapable. Lately, I’m too scared to contact my cousin’s family only to hear more bad news. Reports from Liberia seem to be getting more worrisome. The worst part however, is that no one in the United States seems to be focusing on these problems.
Doctors Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol bravely risked their lives to help combat Ebola. From what I’ve heard both are recovering here in the United States. Amen! However, people on social media seem to be focusing on two things: the possibility of Ebola spreading to the United States and whether transporting the doctors infected with Ebola into the United States could have spelled the end for us all.
Yes, people are aware that Ebola is occurring, but they don’t think of it as a problem until it comes knocking at their back door. It’s not a tragedy until two highly educated white American doctors contract it. It’s especially heartbreaking because in reality Americans whose relatives are in non-infected countries aren’t being affected at all. They’re just worried.
The people and places that I and many others hold dear are wasting away. Liberians and Liberian Americans alike are scared and angry, and all the while most people are worrying about a virus that would most likely be extremely manageable in a country as developed as the United States.
If you’re currently living in the United States or virtually anywhere that isn’t the affected areas, you’re fine. Don’t worry about an outbreak. Worry about workers like Sister Chantal Pascaline, a Congolese nun who died of Ebola in a Liberian hospital while a Spanish nun and priest from the same order were flown back to Spain to be given better care. Worry about the fact that some colleges had to ask their employees to make sure that their international African students weren’t being ostracized for being rumored to be infected and contagious.
If you’re American and your loved ones aren’t anywhere near the affected West African countries absolutely nothing is happening to you and probably nothing ever will. While many Americans keep watch on Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leon to make sure no one makes it overseas, a certain percentage of us watch to make sure everyone we love will make it through this outbreak.
Janjay Mason is a Liberian American, a Texan and a writer.