I cried, but I’m good now (sort of)

Sorry that posting about my evacuation has taken one whole month (how long have I been home?!). The emotional roller coaster has taken the following progression:

  1. Disbelief and complete shock/feigning normalcy, but then lying awake at night
  2. Deep realization and reawakening of my love for specific people and aspects of Liberia/trying to savor fleeting moments that seem to occur in 4x fast-forward
  3. Utter despair over leaving and simultaneous insecurity about my unpreparedness for returning to America/crying to the point of exhaustion
  4. Total loneliness; this is a tragedy but no one is acting as such to make me feel better/sporadic bursts of tears
  5. Numbness/eating my feelings in front of a screen

About a week ago, I recognized the possibility that I might not go back to Liberia. With the negative trend in Ebola’s spread, I’m not sure what will happen, and no one really has the answers. It makes me angry, helpless, and heartbroken.

I have this visceral jarring feeling when I envision the faces of my best students, so I basically force myself not to think about them. (What are they doing and how are they feeling right now??)

 

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That’s the overview. This post will be general updates, my evacuation story, and FAQs.

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UPDATES/GENERAL INFO

  • Most telling article I’ve come across about the Ebola epidemic, from the NYT.
  • Ken Isaacs of Samartian’s Purse on CSPAN testifying about the gravity of the outbreak and limited resources and response. Candid and well-articulated for the Western world’s understanding.
  • Brief comments from the MSF on the world’s response. Accurately reflects my personal sentiments.
  • Informative and personal fellow PCV posts on why Ebola is hard to contain and comments on Liberian nationals and their role in fighting Ebola.

On the lighter side:

  • My new photo albums site.
  • Mustapha’s science fair presentation. The slides aren’t very clear, but hopefully you can understand him. He probably had the best standard English of all the presenters.

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FAQ’s

Why were you evacuated?

Mainly, two Peace Corps volunteers in Liberia came into contact with people who died of Ebola. Health centers were and still are inundated and people stopped trusting their safety, so many sicknesses went untreated, putting our own health at risk.

Is everyone okay? How did you know you didn’t have Ebola?

We’re all okay. Ebola is hard to contract. Most of us exercised proper caution and everyone was checked at the airport.

Do most Liberians really deny the existence of Ebola?

Yes. There’s a general lack of trust in many governing agencies. Since corruption is rampant, it’s somewhat expected that any crusade is a scheme to receive foreign aid. There’s also an unwillingness to part with tradition beliefs about sickness and customs surrounding treatment.

For how long will you be home?

Initially, 60-90  days, or 21 days after the last known case (incubation period of the virus). Now, on September 15th, I’ll know if they plan to allow us back at all. We might close our service early, go back as “response” or more experienced volunteers, and maybe January will bring a bright new year in Liberia with all 340 of those from Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea back in the grind. So, by that, I haven’t a clue.

What have you been doing?

Wallowing. Consuming as much dairy and cold brews as my digestive tract can handle. Applying to jobs. I accepted a rather ideal offer north of Philly (moving ASAP), and will be off to grad school next September.

But wait, you don’t want to go back?

Of course I do. But can’t I sit around my parents’ house until further notice. If I get the opportunity, I’ll go visit. For a long time, I was rather idealistic, but now I’m trying to be much more realistic about how feasible it would be to quit a job and go back for limited time. That’s not a conversation I’m going to have with my employer until the time comes, though.

But… how do you feel?

Depressed. There were so many loose ends at school and in the community, so much to look forward to. I was uprooted, and I’m disappointed at how fast I’ve fallen to concerns over “first world problems.” And I don’t like talking about it. It’s hard to explain the connections I’ve made and that I felt crumbling as soon as I left. Especially to people who will not get it (no offense).

But I just need to charge ahead. Wounds take time to heal but life can’t stop, yadda yadda.

It also sucks that everyone is so relieved to have me back and prays I don’t leave again. I appreciate it, but ya know, I had my life and closest friends there. Don’t just disregard over a year of my most human experience.

Are you in touch with your friends?

Barely. Lack of internet, expensive calling. But I finally got an international card. I’m almost afraid to call at this point. There are a couple of students on facebook or with email addresses, but written communication is extremely difficult with people who don’t have command of English. Even What’sApp with my Lebanese friends – long, thoughtful messages aren’t a thing. It’s more a “hw r u?” or “Ah miss u.”

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HOW I WAS EVAC’D

You’ve probably gathered from my last post that the end of school was not a happy time. I was disappointed professionally, and was beginning to feel socially frustrated and anxious. But then with some changes in the school and a new potential counterpart to help share the weight, things were looking up. A new academic year still seemed daunting, but it was a challenge I wanted to face. Unfinished business, you know?

This crude optimism made it past my barely hinged doors.

Scene: I was camping in the bush, and got a text message. I didn’t read it; I was busy having fun. Then I got a phone call from one my closest PCV friends. She told me that all trainees and volunteers were to be evacuated, maybe within the next week, but that there’s no telling when. I started to cry. I didn’t know how to react. I kind of saw it coming, but basically had denied all the signs. As usual, I scraped to find a savior in distraction, and did.

My friend who

My friend who

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Earlier that day, a well-connected friend told me that it was announced on the news that Americans would be sent home — I didn’t believe it at all, especially after conducting my own search. Only news about doctors and others falling fatally ill. The choking in my voice and look in my eyes apparently told my friend that it was best he let me find out from the proper source, and never revealed his own. Upon seeing me cry on the phone, my friend immediately knew what was up, and advised me to be careful in letting community members know about the situation. I wouldn’t want to scare anyone; the last time Americans were evacuated and schools and government facilities closed was right before a very long civil war.

I remained at the campsite in the bush, and didn’t sleep that night. Then I went to a school meeting that I had forced, and finished helping prepare for the coming academic year. After completing our (my) goals, I informed my administration of the situation. Even considering our relationship, it was underwhelming. I couldn’t help but get the sense that they were quietly pleased that half the school year was wiped away but that they’d still have their regular salary.

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Finally, I headed home. I secretively told my kids. The younger ones were all relaxed — “yeah, don’ die here.” The older ones were like, “eyyy, Liberia… it looking like the war come again.” Okay, I thought, the reactions won’t be worse than this; I could now approach the adults. First, I just told my close friends — “no, I not know what time I going-o” and “it for the Ebola business” and “for true, that disease real.” I revealed more and more details as I felt the gravity when everybody said they’d miss me, asked me more about when I’d come back, and as people enthusiastically asserted that Ebola would be gone in no time — “go, come, yeah!”

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I tried to spend quality time with my good friends, but it was hard. Hanging out isn’t activity centered – you just sit and chew the fat. And life goes on, especially for them. They’re kind of used to people just picking up and leaving and not really knowing when they’d next hear from or of that person. The difference between adults and children was interesting for this very reason — the younger kids never understood the war completely and their emotional responses are more intact for lack of a better word.

That night, I got a phone call from another PCV. Knowing it was probably to try and arrange ourselves to move toward Monrovia since we hadn’t received any information since the text message, I started to walk home. Maybe go to our consolidation point? We had no idea. And we didn’t want to risk public transportation with the Ebola situation so severe.

But no, my haphazardly coordinated plans to leave site in two days remained. I got to my porch, frustrated, and heard my kids call out. I answered tersely.. “Yeah, what you want??”

“Sis Hawa, we want spend time with you, you be leaving us soon!”

I laugh. In that case, let’s sit in the dark on my porch and I’ll engage you all as you monkey around because no other adult gives you the space or time for it. And I realized this was something I’d really miss. People just want to sit near me? Offer accepted.

Then, immediately after we all sat down, I got a call from another volunteer. It snowballed. People now had conflicting information. Staff was apparently going around calling us individually now. Something about them picking us up? I must have been on the phone with 10 different people within 4 minutes. One of them was a staff member telling me to pack a bag and be ready to leave by breakfast the following day. WHAT. It was 9pm.

My kids were trying to understand the one-sided fast and angry standard English conversations. They knew what was coming before I could swallow it and then explain it. I totally fell apart. I have never cried like that in front of anyone or even alone in my entire life. They were somewhat bemused by my sorrow; they’d give anything to leave and go to America. But they told me all the right things. It would be awful if Ebola came to our village, I have a worried family, I need to make sure I survive, I should graciously accept the opportunity I have and that they would love to have. I was coming back anyway, they’d see me again.

I was stubborn. “I don’t want to go! I don’t want to pack! I don’t want to be alone!”

Even the most macho kid, who is only like 11 years old and takes pride in disobeying anyone and having a total lack of regard for people’s feelings (he’s hilarious though) said he was about to shed a tear just watching me.

“Antie Hawa, we’ll stay here until midnight, even the whole night, as you pack. We won’t leave you. But you need to start now.”

I step inside the doorway past the privacy curtain always drawn in front of my open door. Then I turn around and pull it aside. “You know what? Come in and help me.” 

Such gleeful faces. The volunteers before me never let people inside. I rarely allowed it, and usually only adults. They all rushed inside. Like I opened the gates to an amusement park with a plastic matted floor and filled with books and cushioned chairs.

I grabbed the largest duffel I had, and started grabbing things sporadically. They went around digging through all my junk asking if I needed or wanted things. I left almost nothing. Gave away my food, some books, old flashlights, used batteries, clothes, chess boards, cards… you name it. I popped open this random nonalcoholic champagne that someone had gifted me. They all pretended to get drunk, and ran around just playing and comparing goodies in the candlelight. Then they found a bag of squealing baby rats in my room and killed them on my porch. I was definitely hiding behind a 14 year old for that part.

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I laid a mattress out around midnight, and six half-grown boys crammed onto it as I laid on the couch. I didn’t want to be in a different room. With my personal reserve, I got myself ready to pass out and the kids did not even bat an eyelash. They probably knew anyway, honestly.

At sunrise, after a night of snapping at each other to make more room, they funneled out my front door and disappeared for their morning chores. I had them draw my water, which I almost never let anyone do, and collected myself to go around the community quickly to inform people that I’d be leaving in a few hours.

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That morning turned into afternoon. I got some good time in with people, but some people I didn’t get to see at all. After putting on a reassuring face and saying goodbyes (and people feeding me ridiculous amounts of food), I headed home to lie down. Peace Corps was apparently on the way — the night before, some crazy stuff happened on the road taking the Trainees to the airport that prevented an early start in my direction. So I just sat around the empty porch. My eyes and body just hurt from all the crying.

I went inside, eyed the massive duffel bag packed the night before, and called Peace Corps to see what was up. I was almost 5pm. As I was on the phone, a friend came over, and sat with me as I tried to wrap up the call. Then we heard a vehicle pull up from the dirt road. I froze. He smiled and told me to close up the house as I nervously turned in a circle in the middle of the room. As he carried my bag outside, the other PCVs greeted me along with the staff. Then almost all the women within vision of the road slowly gathered around the truck. I hugged everyone twice. People cried. But I couldn’t. I looked desperately for my favorite kids… nope, off on their farms.

I numbly climbed into the truck and was on my way. We arrived at Doe Palace in Kakata around 9 or 10pm, with issues at all the immigration checkpoints asking people to leave their vehicles, get out and wash their hands, and then reenter the same vehicles with the same people. Upon arrival, peace corps had a late night meeting – we’d be leaving for the airport at 2am in two mornings. Then we crashed.

The next day was a total blur of last hoorah’s. One foot was in numbness, one in disbelief, a hand in sorrow, and another in freak-out mode. I made an unsuccessful attempt to nap before we left in a massive caravan of SUVs to the airport. I cried as we exited the walled compound and passed all the wonderful Peace Corps staff. And then we arrived at the airport, boarded the plane, and took off for London.

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9 thoughts on “I cried, but I’m good now (sort of)

    • Thanks so much, Curt! I really appreciate your always thoughtful comments. (Also, I reposted the bush societies post from February in case you’re interested.)

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      • Your so welcome, Nimu. I remember it was tough leaving Liberia at the end of my tour. It must have been much more difficult having to leave the way you did.

        Ebola is really scary stuff, and I am frightened for Liberia. The country desperately needs a break.

        I want to go back and reread the bush society piece. Interestingly, the Liberian Observer used a photo of a bush devil I took in 1967 to illustrate a piece it was doing on a bush devil this summer. Certainly surprised me, but at least it gave credit.

        Curt

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  1. Reblogged this on Wandering through Time and Place and commented:
    I rarely reblog posts, but this one touched my heart. Those who know me are aware that I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, way back when. I’ve followed several blogs of Peace Corps Volunteers serving now, Volunteers who were pulled out of the country last month because of Ebola. This blog brings Ebola a little closer. We must face it and deal with it. But it also captures the meaning of what it is to be a Peace Corps Volunteer. Thank you Nimu for sharing your thoughts. –Curt

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  2. Have been thinking of Liberia a lot lately, knowing Curt’s connection and the work of the Peace Corps. Today’s death tallies on the bbc show Liberia taking the brunt of the numbers. It really is going to take a long time to contain and you’d be best to move on with your life however heartbreaking it will be to do so. Good luck to you and all your friends in Liberia.

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    • Thank you for your thoughts! I’ve come to recognize that I need to be realistic about my own future – I’m no good to anyone else otherwise.

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  3. Thanks to Curt Mekemson, I am reading your story and discovering a really great new blog. Of course what I just read is tough and I wish you well. Thank you, though, for sharing your experience and feelings with such honesty.

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