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Katherine Hill: May, Monrovia

Notes from the eve of an epidemic.

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Image from Flickr via jbdodane

By Katherine Hill

You touch down on the Delta from Accra, observe the UN planes on the tarmac. You descend the steps to the terminal, and are all set to walk inside, when the bus arrives to take you there, the shortest possible lift. This turns out to be a fair introduction. Here, you ride everywhere in vehicles, namely one particular sport utility vehicle, with NGO plates and tennis rackets in the back, on loan to your aid worker friend.

At dinner you are joined by more development ex-pats, all of them looking just like your friends back home. Or maybe even better. The women’s hair is straight and silky. They do not appear to sweat, not even on the bridges of their noses. You want to ask them what they do to stay so cool in this climate. Are there special powders or something? Good looks in exchange for doing good? But anything you learn here is already useless. This is just a jaunt after your conference in Ghana; in seventy-two hours, you’ll be home.

Is it worse to be here, intruding, or would it have been worse to stay oblivious at home?

You learn how dedicated these people are. One of them even has a Millennium Development Goal icon tattooed on his flank. They want food programs to work with local growers, rather than importing American staples Liberians don’t know how to use. They want to protect the nation’s resources from marauding multinationals. They want a zip line to link all their favorite Monrovia bars, but failing that, ha ha, they’d ride a drone! Their sense of irony is a relief, a dose of levity in this serious place. Across the street is the blue-and-white World Food Program compound, with security men guarding your SUVs. Before the night is over, you have learned the chorus to the new local dance hit: “Ebola/Ebola in town/Don’t touch your friend!” It’s infectious. No, really. It is.

Your host has spent the last month in the States recovering from typhoid, and he looks thinner now. His voice is thinner, too. But he is determined to stick it out. He isn’t worried about Ebola. Well, sometimes in the shared taxis he ordinarily takes to work he is, because people sneeze and cough all over each other in those, but mostly, no, he’s not worried. And strangely, you aren’t worried either. He’s already gotten typhoid. How could he get Ebola, too?

The lights go out periodically. The generators outside your host’s apartment building are bigger than oil drums. In the kitchen, a metal device that looks like an industrial espresso maker turns the water into something you can drink.

You visit some local small businesses via a “social impact” tour. One man runs a green waste operation—collection, recycling, compost—the first of its kind in the country. A woman on the outskirts is growing and manufacturing healthy flour made of potato, rice, and plantain. You leave with a box of each, eager to smuggle them back to the States.

At times you wonder what you are doing here. You are not working for an NGO. You are not even spending much money because there’s not very much you can buy. Some kola nuts here and there. A banana from a fruit vendor. You would buy a postcard if there were postcards, but there aren’t, and so you don’t. Everyone here survived a hellish war, and you can’t help but read that into the stares you receive, which seem especially double-edged. We can take it, they seem to be saying, and at the same time, please don’t. Is it worse to be here, intruding, or would it have been worse to stay oblivious at home?

You carry on, to an abandoned hotel where Idi Amin once slept and which Qaddafi once tried to restore. There are no walls anymore, and in some places, no floors, but for a token fee, you can go up to the roof and see the entire city, a beautiful jungle of painted roofs and green trees. West Point is particularly striking, a warren of tiny, crowded houses built right at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The government will be moving people out of there, says Emmanuel, the young, thin man who patrols the roof with a baton and a blue uniform that suggests he is police, though you and he both know he is not. You look at the shoreline; you think about the government. There’s really no good answer here. You watch the sunset together: you, your host, and Emmanuel, who must watch it here every night, and isn’t too impressed, though when you point it out, he fully agrees that, yes, it’s very nice. You leave before it gets completely dark, with the help of Emmanuel’s flashlight on the stairs, because after all, in your country, a building like this would be condemned, and you have to make it home in one piece. Dinner is at an ex-pat favorite: Thai food under palm trees at plastic tables on the beach, surrounded by hale Dutch and Australians laughing in the dark.

At customs in New York, you get the officer who looks like a boxer. “Got some diamonds in there?” he asks you with aggressive jollity. “Some nice jewelry?”

You shake your head, playing along. “I wish!”

You don’t wish, of course. You hate diamonds. You won’t wear them. But you’ll go to West Africa on the eve of an epidemic and escape completely unscathed.

Your potato, rice, and plantain flours make it through. So do your kola nuts. Do they have Ebola? you wonder now in your stupider moments. Even so they sit in the cupboard, unused.

Katherine Hill is the author of the novel The Violet Hour (Scribner 2013), and her fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared in numerous venues including Bookforum, The Guardian, and n+1. She teaches in the MFA program at Arcadia University. http://www.katherine-hill.com/

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