I’m not sure how to deal with it yet.
I’m scared, sad, and worried that I may have to find a way to “get used to it”—somehow. You’re wondering what “it” is, and I’m still trying to figure out how to explain to you.
“It” is opening my email Inbox or my Facebook page to a message that a friend or colleague has passed. “It” is a phone call or a text message that comes in the middle of my day, which is thousands of miles away from where I feel I should be—away from my home, my man, my second family—trying to restart a life while still hanging on to the life, and the people, I won’t (can’t) let go of.
And I’ve already lost three so far. What will I feel, how will I respond, when there are more? And there will be more.
Ebola is killing my friends.
A year and a half ago, I sold everything I had acquired in my forty-eight years of life and moved to Liberia. I invested everything I had left—me, my talents, abilities, and social capital—in a people I fell in love with in 2008. After years of humanitarian work, raising money for programs that fed, saved, and educated children, women, and families in eight countries, I was finally fulfilling a long-held dream to be “on the ground” to serve every day, instead of “just passing through it.”
I organized trips and brought teams of donors and educators from nine countries to Liberia to empower and train hundreds of Liberia’s teachers, teams that joined me in the rebuilding of this volatile post-war nation, the nation that WHO, in 2013, called the “second poorest nation on earth,” and the nation that Transparency.org called the most corrupt. In March of 2014, 148 teachers began what was to be a ten-month-long leadership and success training program. They were each gifted a clean water system on the day of their first training, a system that would provide safe drinking water to thousands of their students. Over the next several months, we settled into a core group of one hundred eight teachers, dedicated educators who showed up even through torrential rains, after three hours of often six-to-a-ride taxi travel, arriving early and sleeping on the floor, where I would find them when I arrived to open the doors, because they would do anything to create a better way for themselves, their students, their nation.
Then a silent killer crept into our lives, and, like an insatiable monster, began gobbling up victims, and worse, terrorizing a culture already steeped in fear and distress.
Its hunger quickly outpaced efforts to stop it, piling up victims in maxed-out clinics, closing up needed medical facilities, and killing off health care workers, so that even people with minor and treatable illnesses could no longer get medical care, and they also began dying.
Last month, I packed my two suitcases, kissed my man good-bye (who stayed behind to lend support in quelling the rise of civil unrest), and left with my dog, to nowhere to call “home,” with a sadness I do not have words for. The sadness was not about my predicament—let me be clear. What I’m dealing with back in the safety and development of the US is a speck on the Hubble telescope’s vast vision compared to what I left behind.
I can still see the light of promise in her eyes.
The first of my friends to go, one of my best, most talented, promising young teachers, died not from Ebola, but of poisoning, or so they say. And sadly, we will never really know—there is no time or capacity for anyone to find out. Her family is left with no answers, and not even able to provide her a proper burial because of government restrictions in its efforts to try to stop the spread of the disease. (Ebola is most highly spread to health care workers and family members caring for the sick or from touching a diseased body in burial preparation.)
The next to go was the principal of another of my favorite teacher’s school. I remember so clearly when, just this past June, I sat next to the principal in his school’s tiny assembly area on a hotter-than-hot, sweltering day, and helped “graduate” his second graders. It was one of my most memorable days of service in Liberia, where, though I was visibly dripping with sweat from head to toe, I got to deliver a short empowerment commencement speech for the entire school and parents, and then hand out awards to star students.
Some things have to be experienced to be fully understood. Unless one has been there, one can’t quite imagine what it is like to be part of a team of post-war educators—teachers who make less than $50 USD a month—encouraging children to stay in school. And simultaneously, imploring more-tired-than-tired parents, who can barely afford food, let alone school tuition, to find the money from somewhere to keep their child in school. But even with all the obstacles, this small group made it through second grade, and so the school leaders donned them in cap and gown (beyond adorable to see), and graduate they did.
The principal stood out to me because he was so filled with pride as a first grader got up to sing a tribute to the graduating class, and he was so enamored by her beautiful voice and star-like presence that he pledged to her parents then and there to sponsor her into the second grade (in other words, pay her next year’s tuition)!
He’s gone. I’m just wondering now, what will happen to her? Will she get to go back to school when it reopens? How many will? Schools have been closed since the outbreak began spreading, and the new school year is postponed from opening until mid-October instead of September 2. But, as of now, we know there is a very good chance the schools will not reopen at all.
And if they do, should they? Too many questions swirl.
And as I try to make sense of it, I hear a ding from my computer. It’s a Facebook message—a friend telling me of one of our colleagues who has passed. He managed the conference hall I rented two Saturdays a month to conduct our teacher trainings. His father died of Ebola two weeks ago. It’s now taken him, too.
And so, this is how it goes with Ebola.
A friend reminded me tonight that Mother Teresa was able to help multitudes for decades because she knew she was serving those who were sick, and she knew that, eventually, they would die. Her goal was to just love them and serve them until they died.
But see, I never saw my teachers and friends and those I served as people who were going to die!
I only saw them as people who were survivors of war, rape, murder, sickness, and famine, people who were learning to be thrivers—people who were learning to receive and create something better than what they had previously. There was evidence of this new life in all of them; like the phoenix rising from the ashes, Liberians—and Liberia—were on the uptake.
We never saw “it” coming.