The man wore a brown shirt with a floral pattern.
I remember this because when it was all done, I asked if I could take a picture of it, to have a tailor make me one. It was a fairly normal request, and he was not offended.
I had studied it as he talked.
There were about twenty of us. All gathered in a tight room.
“…and then,” he spoke with passion, mixed with pity, “ebola came to the next village. Before anyone knew it, people were dying. People left, to try to warn the next village, but it was already there..” I had come in late to a prayer meeting at our mission. I had no idea we were having a special guest speaking, or what the topic was.
“The disease was being spread by local merchants. Traders and those who traveled. Nobody could believe the speed with which it was spreading! Before it would come, people would say, ‘all is well here. It will never come here,’ but before they would know it, it would be there. And there would just be death, and death, and death…”
Ebola, I knew, was a terrible disease. With a three-week gestation period, people in the streets could be carrying it and not know it. Some recovered with no symptoms. They were the lucky ones. But also the carriers. The unlucky ones began to bleed sometime in the fourth week. The virus was liquifying their internal organs. They would begin to bleed from their bowels, their kidneys, their nose…there ears…their eyes. At this point, all of the medicine in the world could not save. Once the bleeding began, death was virtually certain.
“…it was just spreading so fast!” he kept emphasizing, “nobody knew it was coming…and then it was too late!” He spoke with animation and sadness about how many people did not believe in the virus. Some believed that the health care workers themselves were spreading it. One hospital in a particularly rough neighbourhood was attacked and looted. “And all those bloody sheets and mattresses just went out into the community! Who knows where the spread is now! Just about anyone could be carrying it…”
Well then why in the hell are we all in a small room, talking to you!?
I wanted to scream it. I wanted to yell. I wanted to get the fuck out of there. I wanted to get on a plane and fly home. I wanted my family safe.
But I did note of those things. I was a missionary. I had signed up for this. I was ready to die, if it came right down to it. I had placed my family in the hands of God.
But was I really ready to die foolishly, needlessly?
Later that week, I learned that the man’s daughter was in quarantine. Perhaps she was from a different part of the country, or had fled later. Perhaps this should have made me feel safer: she was in quarantine, so perhaps her father was not, and for good reason. But I did not feel safer for three reasons. First, because my daughter had had an unexplained fever for over a week now. Second, because there was a confirmed case of ebola not 200 kilometres from us, to the south. How could I know that I had not picked it up in the markets, and brought it home? And third, because the mission nurse whom we had called to check our baby girl for malaria (did I mention that cerebral malaria could kill a person within 48 hours, by causing a brain clot, and a stroke?) casually mentioned this bit of information. Oh yes, the daughter of so-and-so is in quarantine. “I know,” she was making conversation. As though this was the most normal thing in the world, “because I am the one who does daily checkups on her.”
You are doing daily checkups on someone on quarantine from ebola, and you didn’t think to check with us before you came into our home?
There were no measures in place. The mission sleepily issued an e-mail of some suggested procedures if ebola came into our country. When we eventually left the county, four months later, the level of security was this: upon entering my home country, a man in a uniform asked me, “have you been to a country affected by ebola?” I said, “no,” and he let me pass. That was it. No proof, not even a glance at my passport. Nothing. Just took my word for it.
That was the level of our preparedness in the face of the 2014 pandemic.
…and I shook that man’s hand. There was no way not to. It was cultural. We all lined up — like lemmings — to shake the man’s hand and thank him for talking to us. You can better believe i went to the bathroom after, and washed the hell out of that hand. But, I noticed, most other people just went back to work. It was all so very normal.
Afterwards, some strange urge compelled me, and I asked to take a picture of his shirt.
I still have the picture, but I never got around to asking a local tailor to make me a shirt from the picture.
I wonder why not.
It really was a nice shirt.
** This is a real PTSD flashback with which I struggled. It was triggered by covid-19, and caused me much loss of sleep, and PTSD symptoms during the day until I resolved it through hypnotherapy **