Life On The Other Side Of The Fence

Well, I’m nearing the end of my fourth week here in Liberia, and there hasn’t been a dull moment yet! I’ve been working pretty much constantly, carefully balancing my output with downtime and self-reflection so that I don’t burn myself out.

I’m filling two roles here, as the job description I shared in my last post hinted at. I’ve got two (metaphorical) hats I switch between: “Information Officer” and “Monitoring and Evaluation Officer”. As Information Officer I go to meetings with other organizations and technical interest groups (called “clusters” here — there’s one for logistics, one for medical, one for contact tracing, etc.) and try to untangle the web of activities happening and make sure other people know what we’re doing. As Monitoring and Evaluation officer, I’m helping create the forms and systems needed to track the logistical/financial/program information that we need to report back to our donors (we just recently got a OFDA grant that requires a bunch of this). We’re also hoping that the information we collect about our efforts and their impact could give us more insight into designing effective strategies to contain Ebola.

In all, it’s been a mammoth amount of work. And since I arrived three weeks after the program officially started, I’ve been having to play catch-up on all this tracking. That should explain why I haven’t been updating my blog or talking to many people back home.

It’s been wonderful being back in Liberia, although it’s quite a different experience. It’s not because daily life in Liberia has changed much, though. From American media reports you’d think the streets were empty with bodies everywhere, but that’s simply not the case. People are still living their lives, running their markets, and raising their families.

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The crowds are smaller, there’s less traffic, and jobs are more scarce. It’s not an easy time, but everybody is working through it.

The thing that has really changed for me about Liberia is the fact that I’ve traded my life as a rural Liberian schoolteacher for the life as an expat. I’m no longer living embedded in a Liberian community — instead I live inside a big fenced-in area on the outskirts of Monrovia called the “ELWA compound”.

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The ELWA area in Liberia is named after the Christian radio station “Eternal Love Winning Africa” that was started here in 1954 and still broadcasts from inside the compound I’m in. The compound is also home to a hospital, a school, a couple guesthouses, a couple missionary organizations (including Samaritan’s Purse), and a large Christian expat community.

I live in a house right on the beach (far right):

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It’s quite a change from my Peace Corps residence, inside and out. (I’ve put the pictures side by side for comparison)

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My house has 24/7 electricity, A/C, internet, running water, and guards. Wierd!

Before entering and exiting any building we’re supposed to wash our hands and dip our feet in bleach water to minimize infection risk. Here’s my spigot and bucket:

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If you forget to do this, our guard Tony will remind you. Part of the guards’ job is to mix the bleach solutions for the house.

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Our compound is also the home to “ELWA 3”, one of MSF’s largest Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs), with 250 beds:

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Those guards at the front passageway will take your temperature, insure that you wash your hands, and spray your feet with bleach before you walk in. They also take your temperature with a remote sensing thermometer.

Back a few months ago when things were out of control, the beds were full and they were having to turn away patients. But in the past month or so as the number of new cases has dropped, there have been many beds available. On November 5, only 54 of the 250 beds were occupied.

Experts are saying that the low case counts are signaling a new phase in the epidemic, where infections have gone off the radar as cases have moved into remote communities. It might also be a temporary lull (it wouldn’t be the first time). The point is that we shouldn’t take the lowered case counts as a sign that the outbreak is ending — just that it might be time to shift strategies.

Samaritan’s Purse Liberia’s main office is right behind ELWA 3, and only a five minute walk from my house:

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Like ELWA 3, before you enter in the fence, you wash your hands, get the bottom of your feet sprayed down, and your temperature checked with a remote sensing thermometer.  Car tires are also sprayed down before they can come inside.

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(The perspective in the picture looks like it’s touching the man’s head, but it’s actually not.)  Temperatures are taken on the side of the head so if the person throws up it doesn’t get on the guy taking the temperature.  After you get your temperature taken, they staple on a little colored tab to your shirt that you wear for the rest of the day.  If your temperature is too high, they won’t let you in.  We get a different color each day to ensure nobody uses the same tab two days in a row. I’ve been saving mine for the last couple weeks:

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This new life isn’t bad — just different. It’s weird being on the other side of the fence now. When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer I was confused as to why Liberians were surprised that I would walk short distances instead of finding a car to drive me. But here inside the fence everybody drives instead of taking the five minute walk to the office. (I still walk).

When people on the street hassle me for money I can’t hassle them back in the same way I did as a Peace Corps Volunteer, because I have money now. I’m interacting more with the higher educated and upper class in Monrovia, which is a new culture all to itself — I was surprised to find that it can be offensive to speak to these people in Liberian English because it can be seen as if you’re talking down to them. It’s quite the adjustment from my rural Liberian experience.

As I said before, all this isn’t bad — just different. Just another world to add to the long list of weird worlds I’ve had the privilege to be a part of. It’ll be interesting to see where I end up next. But in the meantime, I’ve got a bunch of work to do.

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11 Responses to Life On The Other Side Of The Fence

  1. Bessie says:

    Have fun and take care.(Gamouyou)

  2. Leo says:

    Love this post, Kyle! Been thinking of you often and praying every time I do! Fascinating insider look at what we’re hearing about on the news. The new house is quite the contrast to your other house! Wow. Stay safe. Love, Evie

  3. shoreacres says:

    I spent my first night in Liberia at the Lutheran Church House in Sinkor, and came to know ELWA pretty well. So, quite apart from the interest of your reports about your work, and conditions there, I’m happy to have some memories stirred.

    Of all the things I’d like to know about Monrovia today (and there are plenty), I have to ask: do you know if Alfred Sirleaf still is maintaining The Daily Talk down on Tubman Blvd? I’ve seen some photos of his blackboard since Ebola became a reality — sure do hope he’s still well and working.

    I really appreciate the update, and will be passing this on to others who have ties to and concern for the country.

  4. Mitch Mercer says:

    I really enjoyed reading this; I feel you that has to be a crazy change. I’m sure it’s really rewarding living both sides. I’d love to do the same! Awesome work Kyle I’m jealous

  5. Liz Triche says:

    Hang in there Kyle. Sending you virtual physical contact. I can’t believe you didn’t mention that they don’t allow you guys to touch or hug!!!

    • Risha says:

      No hugs?! Kyle, Liz and I will arrange a meeting place somewhere in the world someday soon if your withdrawal symptoms become too severe 😉 Until then, my prayers are with you. I’m so happy you get the chance to fulfill your calling to be a part of the work going on in West Africa. I’m a very proud friend.

      • Liz Triche says:

        Agreed!! Name some nice middle point between all three would put us in Asia, I’m pretty sure. Name your country, Kyle!

  6. The Goodrich6 says:

    Kyle – Super proud of you and the work you are doing. We pray everyday with our kids for you but also for the people you are there to help. Thanks for being a great role model for our children. Please stay safe. Love to you from your cousins in NC!

  7. Wanda Viola says:

    Thanks for the update, Kyle! it really helps with your explanations and photos to get a sense of your role in helping stop Elbola. May the Lord bring this disease to a halt and protect all of you who are working hard to ensure the safety of many.

  8. carol Ross says:

    Hi Kyle,
    Thank you for this informative blog, unfortunately I can’t bring up any of the pictures on my computer. Elwa is where PBCC groups stay every year by the beautiful ocean.
    We continue to work hard to raise money for our Liberian friends by working closely with Robert and Siakor Sondah. The money we raise from the Craft Faire and the garage sales are all going to help provide much needed food and supplies to prevent the spread of Ebola.
    I am so grateful for all you are doing and we continue to pray for you and your work.
    Jenna just helped launched information about how VisionTrust is responding to Ebola Crisis at http://www.visiontrust.org/ebola.
    I’m so glad your at Elwa. It brings up so many wonderful memories and I know you are protected by all their precautions. I have been a little concerned about your cat. Do they know Ebola can’t be spread through cat’s,? Please take care and stay healthy.

    Much Love,
    Carol and Pete

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