Well, my time at Samaritan’s Purse has come to a close and I’m back home to California! It’s been quite the battle to get here: I took off from Liberia at 7:30p on 4/20, and touched down in San Jose at 10:40p on 4/22… that’s over 58 hours in transit. I might write up the whole story in a future post; it’s been nuts — I experienced more attempted extortions and flight snafus than I thought could be possible in a single trip. But I’m happy to report that I manage to weasel myself through without paying a single bribe! And they didn’t even steal my luggage!
I’ve been quite impressed with California’s reasonable 21-day policy. As someone who never did any clinical work or interacted with Ebola patients (which means basically zero risk of Ebola), they only require that I record my temperature twice a day and check in with them on the phone once a day. They even provided me with a phone and minutes that they’ll let me keep after the 21 days! I was pretty excited about the phone… who knew you got a free phone with each ticket back from Liberia! I need to make this flight more often!!
In case you haven’t been following the news, Liberia has been doing excellent for the past while on the Ebola-front. The last confirmed case was on March 21, 34 days ago. Praise God! I’m so glad I was able to stay long enough to see this epidemic in Liberia through to its last little bits. It’s been quite the experience.
Sadly, Sierra Leone and Guinea are still struggling, and so of course Liberia won’t be in the clear until the whole region has calmed down.
It’s hard to say why Liberia has done so well compared to Sierra Leone and Guinea. Personally, I think it’s because the bulk of transmissions happen due to traditional burial practices and somehow Liberian culture was more open to making the behavior changes necessary to stop the spread. An alternative theory I heard that I liked was that the huge concentrated spike of cases in Monrovia in September was drastic enough that it sent ripples throughout the country and turned the tide of public denial and inaction. Sierra Leone and Guinea, by contrast experienced a slower burn that didn’t create such a strong shock. There have also been differences in the way the response has been managed in the three countries. There could be any number of reasons — there are too many variables to know anything for certain.
Over the last three months, even as the numbers in Liberia were dropping, Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs) and Community Care Centers (CCCs) were continuing to be built and operated. Many facilities have still never even seen a single Ebola patient. The reason behind this is that grants have been slow to adapt to the fast moving epidemic. By the time the paperwork would go through, the outbreak had already moved on. Resources allocated for one purpose couldn’t be reallocated without updating the grant, so even if you have a bunch of doctors sitting around because there are no Ebola patients (for example) you could not use them to fill other health gaps in the community until you got it approved through more bureaucracy and paperwork. It makes me really appreciate how MSF gets their funding — most of it is from private donors which gives them a lot of flexibility to adapt to changing situations quickly.
People will cite these low numbers and extra ETUs and complain that all that money was wasted, but I disagree. The money flowing into communities to build ETUs also bought essential trust and awareness that was desperately needed to stop the outbreak. Remember that when the outbreak started, many people did not believe Ebola was real? America’s decision to commit so many resources to Liberia was a powerful statement of solidarity and investment that brought hope and trust into the chaos. I believe this hope and trust was a major factor in bringing about the behavior changes needed to halt the spread of the outbreak.
That said, it’s been interesting to watch as all the money flowed into the country. It never occurred to me that there was so much profit to be made in humanitarian aid. It’s an industry in itself. I’m still deciding how I feel about all of that… not to mention all the resources that fall through the cracks. (Other countries have these challenges too). But it’s a discussion for another time.
The most constructive commentary on the effort I’ve seen recently was released by the WHO. It’s pure gold. We need to take these “lessons learned” to heart, and make the necessary changes to our global systems sooner rather than later. New diseases will come that will make Ebola look tame and easy to contain by comparison, and we need to be ready.
(On a side note — we’ve got similar lessons to learn and work to do in the areas of climate change and growing economic inequality, just to name a few… We’re in a number of slow-motion train-wrecks that are going to start getting really bad really quick in my generation’s lifetime.)
As the situation improved in Liberia, I progressively got more freedom to move outside the ELWA compound. I also got a little bit more free time as my workload was reduced. I made a number of visits to my people in Marshall (where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer), and my host family in Kakata (where I did my Peace Corps training) and was happy to find everyone in good health and good spirits. I started learning how to surf (which might strike some people as a little bit silly to start doing in Liberia, considering I’m from California), and now I’m addicted. I even was baking sourdough bread for awhile like I used to do when I was in the Peace Corps. (But It’s much easier with a refrigerator and oven, let me tell you).
We’re still not touching in Liberia, but gradually Samaritan Purse’s policies are changing — shoes and car tires are no longer being sprayed before you walk into the office (but the handwashing and temperature taking is still required). And we only have to record our temperature twice a day instead of the four times that we had to do back in October. The families of SP staff are going to be allowed to return in June. Life outside the fence seems to be going back to normal, too — the Liberian handshake isn’t quite back yet, but the usual hustle and bustle on the streets has gone back to pre-Ebola levels, and schools have reopened.
My time with SP has been an extremely valuable learning experience for me. I’ve learned how to integrate myself into “international development / NGO” culture, as well as urban Liberian culture. I’ve been able to watch how aid programs are designed and funded, how NGOs and government organizations work together, and how internal and external politics drive decision-making processes. My work in monitoring and evaluation has given me a better understanding of the challenges associated with collecting data in the field, and ways those challenges can be addressed. Near the end of my time I began to help develop new tracking and record-keeping systems for our HR, logistics and finance departments, so I got to see in close detail how an NGO is run and managed. All this knowledge and skill I have collected will be invaluable if I want to make my own NGO/business/something in Liberia someday. (Which is a direction I think I’m headed — more below).
It’s been hard to leave. I found a wonderful community here and became an integral part of the SP Liberia team. But it’s clear to me that it’s time to go. In the short term I’m going to be getting ready for my sister’s wedding which is happening next month, and after that I’m going to be a camp counselor at a camp for kids with chronic medical issues (something I’ve always wanted to do since a friend told me about it three years ago).
From there, I am hoping to return to Liberia in September or so. This time, I’d like to go independently. I want to live immersed in a community like a Peace Corps Volunteer, but add the challenge of supporting myself. I’m planning to start by working with a Liberian friend in Kakata who’s in the electronic repair business (cellphones, DVD players, laptops… you name it), and then see what opportunities present themselves from there. I won’t need to earn much — living costs will be super low because I’ll be living minimally, and while I’m figuring out the details I’ll be easily supported by the money I saved from my time with SP.
It’ll be an interesting experiment. I’m excited about the idea of participating in the local economy, which I wasn’t allowed to fully do as a PC volunteer (we could not accept money under any circumstances, for example). While I understand the reasons behind PC’s policies, I have found that being too self-sufficient or getting too much outside support can be a hinderance in relating to people. Relationships in Liberia are built on co-dependence, common struggle, and mutual benefit — so I think that having to “hustle” along with everyone else will allow me to gain a deeper trust, equality, and status in the community that has the potential to create some interesting opportunities. I’m excited to see what will happen in this new context!
In the meantime, message me if you want to visit! 🙂