Sierra Leone: No Touching, No handshaking – Ebola; Stealing Our Humanity

Chlorinated Water

Chlorinated Water: Most buildings demand that you wash your hands before entering. FI-Bank, Lumley, Freetown

Monday July 6th I flew from Schiphol Airport via Casablanca to Freetown. My first trip back to Sierra Leone since the Ebola Disease Virus broke in April 2014. I was in Sierra Leone and Liberia during the months of April and May when the cases begun to appear. I left because my wife and I were expecting a baby in June – we had a beautiful girl who turned 1year a few weeks earlier.

During the rest of 2014, I have looked for ways to return to be part of the non-medical workforce in either Sierra Leone or Liberia but as fate would have it, I was not successful, not for the lack of trying but fate decided otherwise. You see, I am a strong believer in fate – I will explain: in 2009, I had a dream of plane crashes involving me and two other friends who were based in different parts of West Africa. I called them and they too had the same dreams during the week like me. We resolved to tackle the vision we had spiritually – we did what had to be done. I refused to fly the rest of the month and did some meditation. I am not party to what my friends did.

During the Ebola crisis I dreamt on two occasions that I would not return if I went. So the one time I was close to clinching a job, I left the decision to “If I will go and return, then this job was going to be it”. I did not get the job and my sister and mother also had dreams and called to postpone travelling.

For the first time in four years, I was apprehensive to travel. My spirit was disturbed. I was worried about many things travelling to Freetown after I am a believer in fate and destiny shaping my life. Others say its God, I just say it is “energy”. Well, lets not delve into metaphysics or religion.

July 6th I was on Flight AT 853 operated by Royal Air Maroc. I arrived at Lungi Airport on the Morning of July 7th. It was humid and wet – the ground crew looked unhappy. After a short shuttle ride to the entrance to the airport, it begun!

Buckets of water were placed at the entrance for us to disinfect before going through passport and security check. Some passengers tried to escape washing their hands but the guards refused to let those people pass.

The meet-and-greet was awkward, people that know each other were hesitant to shake hands or be affectionate. It was the awkward misstep to hug, the extended hand in mid-air; or in my case the apology: “I want to shake you but they say not to touch”, followed by the standard response: “Yes o!”

I have a staff of two in Freetown and in the nearly two weeks I have been here, we have not shake hands! I wish to have hugged them and say something nice to them having gone through a very traumatic time. While we have talked and keep joking about the “No touch” rule, I can feel the distance as the days went by; it is a jungle. Everyone just want to survive and anything will do. But what is important is that, we are HUMANS! We are programmed to touch – Sierra Leoneans like the rest of West Africa and people that love to shake hands! The streets are busy and bodies milling around and bumping into each other is normal but walking on the streets of Siaka Stevens Street, or the centre of the ; the pace is slower, there is less bumping and shoving. With the heat and sweat you do not want to touch.

Ebola has redefined how we live. It is defining how we love, can love, show affection and communicate. A gentleman I had not seen in 2 years and when we met, he was excited and run towards me, hands extended to embrace but I had to coldly remind him we can not hug! I was sad all day! I could not forgive myself for hurting him – by refusing to hug him, I have suggested he could have Ebola. While we all know that is not the case, the thought lingers.

Just the other day two young men, not older than twenty; they may have been relations or long lost friends. They see each other and one runs across the street to hug the other. The one being hugged stood limp, trying not to hug. I watched and felt the enthusiasm dissipate from the “huger”. It must be hard on both of them. But what do I know? And I can cite more than 20 instances where this had had to be repeated over and over again.

Why question is, will these basic things we take for granted leave us? The basics of a handshake, of a pat on the shoulder, of a touch of the arm, of a hug, of a kiss on the cheek…

Will people become desensitised and detached?

But I was shocked by the school children – they were lost in their little world. It was end of the school day and they are prancing and playing along the street. Some walking in twos and threes with arms linked at the shoulders. I have seen others race and lift another off his feet and I wonder… is it their innocence or is it my paranoia?

School kids on Main Motor Road, Brookfields, Freetown

School kids on Main Motor Road, Brookfields, Freetown

I am afraid to shake the hands of the little kids that come to my door and say hello. I could not shake my neighbours whom I have not seen in 12 months!

If Ebola continues, we will lose our humanity here in Sierra Leone (maybe just me). We will become loveless, heartless, emotionless people. Drowning our emotions in bottles and bottles of alcohol as the sirens of the ambulances once again return to haunt us.

Dear God, please take this cup away from us!

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