9 September 2014

ThinkAfricaPress

Sierra Leone: Freetown - Life in the Time of Ebola

opinion

Although most residents of Sierra Leone's capital have yet to witness Ebola firsthand, the outbreak has nevertheless affected virtually all aspects of daily life.

Freetown - It's midnight and I am driving around the East End of Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, with a young taxi driver known as Human Right. For the past year, I have regularly been accompanying Human Right on journeys picking up passengers as part of my doctoral research in anthropology.

The East End is usually buzzing at night, every junction packed with people drinking, eating street food, and hanging out. But today there are only a handful of passengers. "The streets are dry," Human Right tells me.

The slowing down of the rainy season normally leads to there being more people are on the streets, which means more business for many, including drivers, but in the past month, Sierra Leone's government has issued numerous restrictions to tackle the country's Ebola outbreak.

Motorbike taxis are running on a limited basis during daylight hours. Places of assembly, such as bars, cinemas and schools, are closed countrywide. Travel in and out of the outbreak epicentres in the east of the country is severely restricted. Many people do not have places to go, or money to spend.

Human Right comments that the elite in the country are not suffering from the Ebola epidemic the way that ordinary people are. And he is far from alone in feeling that some are even benefiting personally from the donations being made by the international community and local big businesses. These elites also have a lower risk of infection than those who work on the streets.

We approach a police checkpoint as we head downtown. They pull us over and point out various problems with the car, threatening to take us to the police station.

As expected, Human Right gives them a portion of his earnings and we continue. With fewer drivers on the streets, the traffic police, who gain an income through bribes and fines, are resorting to harsher penalties. Human Right is confident that the crisis will end soon; the dry weather will kill the virus, which thrives, he believes, in wet conditions.

But some are less confident. Abdul Johnson is a police officer, a neighbour of mine and a drinking buddy. A few months ago, when the boundaries between 'Ebola' as rumour, conspiracy and reality were hard to separate for myself and many around me, Abdul was sceptical. He suggested that Ebola was fabricated by the government to siphon international aid money, or that it is part of a terrorist plot to drain the country's resources.

Now, like many others, he is critical of the government for not acting more quickly when the outbreak started in neighbouring Guinea, allowing the virus to fester and spread. These suspicions of the government are not uncommon or necessarily unfounded. They reflect people's genuine experiences of corruption and inequality.

Additionally, it is easy for people here to feel a sense of disconnect between their own experiences and the international media reports that place them in the heart of a global crisis. People that I speak to insist that they do not know anyone who has Ebola; the epicentres of the outbreak are in the east of the country, several hours drive from Freetown. They point out that Sierra Leoneans suffer all the time in multiple ways, but rarely get the international attention and relief that is being directed at Ebola.

Abdul compares this experience of disconnect to that which residents of Freetown experienced during the country's devastating civil war from 1991-2002. For most of those years. the war, which started when rebels crossed the Liberian border, did not 'reach' Freetown.

Most of the fighting took place in the provinces - the same regions that are currently most affected. Thousands fled to the capital, but for long periods it was hard to travel, because, like now, roads were often heavily policed or blocked. But life continued in Freetown, albeit with an even greater sense of uncertainty than normal, until the city was invaded in January 1999 with disastrous consequences.

A similar sense of ambiguity about the future is strongly felt in Freetown today. It is not just school and work that are put on hold or limited, but key life events. Abdul is waiting until the restrictions on gatherings are lifted - and also until more money becomes available - to perform the naming ceremony for his newborn son. Most people I know are waiting for normality and greater clarity, rather than disaster.

One such person is Hawa Bangura, who runs a small grocery shop outside her mother's house in my neighbourhood of Congo Town. She set up the shop in partnership with her boyfriend, Arthur, who works as a receptionist at a guesthouse and restaurant frequented by expats. Hawa is halfway through a four-year university course in Financial Services, but she doesn't know if term will start as usual next month.

Arthur meanwhile has been laid off until further notice; most potential customers have left the country and most airlines have stopped flying to Sierra Leone. This puts more pressure on Hawa, as Arthur, along with other family members, is now relying solely on the shop. At the same time, the prices of items the shop stocks have risen.

Many goods sold in Sierra Leone are imported through Guinea, but with the border currently closed, they are either smuggled at great cost, or sourced elsewhere. Some produce from Sierra Leone, such as coal and palm oil, is also hard to purchase now that the luma, the weekly produce markets, have been banned.

The situation is changing every day, but the vast majority of Freetown residents have yet to witness at firsthand a case of Ebola. Yet everything seems to be affected by the disease.

As the dominant topic of conversation, 'Ebola' can simultaneously act as a vehicle for humour and absurdity, as when friends almost shake hands but then comically decide against it; a source of anger and sadness; and a medium for criticism and suspicion. Knowing what to believe and who to trust is not easy, and many do not consider themselves to be at risk of catching the virus itself. But the harsh economic realities of the crisis are inescapable.

Jonah Lipton is a doctoral student in the anthropology department at the London School of Economics. His research looks at work, everyday life, and aspirations of young people in Sierra Leone, particularly taxi drivers.

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