what if most sierra leonans do not believe covid-19 exists?(ZAM Magazine)
Translation of Krio terms in this article:
cookry—complete meals sold on the street
plasas—stew made from green leaves, national dish
poda-poda—minivans that function as taxi’s
kongosabench—a low wooden stool
Freetown, fall 2020
I am in the back of a taxi. Approaching a police checkpoint, my eye catches the phrase #Maskup on a billboard towering above the chaotic street in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
You mean #chinmask. In my mind I laugh when the checkpoint nears. I laugh on my face as well, but you cannot see it because an Africana cloth facemask hides my expression. The police stare at me for a flash second. Their masks are so low I can see their sweat pearling on their upper lip, the corners of their mouths pulled down in dismay. Missed another opportunity at gaining some pocket money? Tough luck. I have been in Sierra Leone for a week, and know that the fine you pay for not wearing a facemáks can be easily avoided if you quickly put on your facemask when approaching a checkpoint.
Northern Sierra Leone, fall 2020
I am on my way to the provinces, or upline, as the British termed the vast lands surrounding the peninsula. My visit cuts two mangoes in one slice. One, I get to see my 90-year-old grandfather (Pa Ibrahim), my small cousin (baby Ibrahim), and my uncle (younger than me, uncle Ibrahim). Two, I get to check up on the farm my father is running from oversees. Take some pictures, motivate the workers. That last point is essential. My father falls within a risk category, so I have to lie that he is ‘on his way’ to see the work progress. Non-attendance works demotivating. My presence is supposed to fire up the spirit.
Dear reader, I can read your thoughts.
“Wait- is this 2020? Fall 2020?” You may ask.
“Yes it is, why?” I may answer apprehensively, knowing what you’re nudging at.
“But your grandfather is 90-“
“What about social distancing-“
“Is it safe to-“
“But aren’t you afraid that – “
Dear reader, I can read your doubts. In fact, they are all mine. These Corona-doubts that made my movements so restricted. If not by a government imposed ‘intelligent lockdown’, then by a conviction that to stop the pandemic means restricting yourself. Your movements, your wants, your connections. And so I did, literally since the outbreak came to light.
But not here. Not in Sierra Leone. Where COVID-19 is rumoured not to exist. Where it is a currency. Where it is yet another ploy to receive cash from the big donors. Where the disease does not match the dangers of Malaria, of Dengue, of Yellow Fever (and let’s not get started on Ebola). My words, or that of the public? My doubts, or that of the nation?
Amsterdam, Spring 2020
I was on the phone with a good friend of mine, discussing the eeriness of the pandemic, the oddities of being locked down. The details are fuzzy, but I remember her saying that she noticed two types of responses. The panicky one (bad), and the relaxed one (better). I adapted her judgemental stance as a thesis for some reflection, trying to observe whether there was ‘hyper awareness of risk’, or a ’laissez-faire attitude’. Different phrases, same connotations, it just sounds better. And indeed, I noticed that there were two camps. The one camp that the media loved to condemn. The youngsters partying, the Dutch people with a migration background (not a made-up term) whom seem to spike the stats, the Corona sceptics who see the disease as a means for the government to gain power.
The other camp houses those that wear facemasks without being forced, whom keep a 1,5-meter distance- and if possible two to be on the safe side you know, just in case- who choose to see their parents rather than their friends. You could call them obsessive, hypochondriac, creators of elephants. Or careful, subdued, better-safe-than-sorry. I certainly thought I belonged to the second group.
Oh, how I worried in the plane when the lady in front of us coughed without wearing a facemask. I whispered to my partner, “should we, you know, tell her off?” Imagine getting Covid-19 on the airplane after doing two tests. Aiiii. I mean, I washed my hands, what, twenty times a day? Felt guilty for seeing my friends, for taking the train, for going to a dance class. It was like I apologised for existing. Because how would I feel if I became the source. That person that knowingly, despite all warnings, moved around and infected people? That may have, indirectly directly caused the death of a grandparent at the other side of the country?
But then, as always, I came to Sierra Leone, and everything changed.
Before I continue, I must explain that I am both Dutch and Sierra Leonean. I hold two passports, two sim cards, two phones, live in two houses, and have two sets of friends and family. It is what makes me both a bridge that spans two continents, and a fractured bone waiting to scatter.
“Terms such as ‘prevention’, ‘safety’ and ‘well-being’ can take on such different meanings.”
And again, before I continue, let me get it straight: it is easy to speak of differences, to compare two places to find some kind of truth, but that is not my intention with this piece. What I hope to showcase is the merging of two realities which, as tends to happen, confuses rather than illuminates. Shows co-existing paradoxes rather than neatly aligned interpretations. That when I move from one side of the globe to the other, terms such as ‘prevention’, ‘safety’ and ‘well-being’ can take on such different meanings.
Thus, I arrived in Sierra Leone.
Sat in a keke, my friend Mariama asked the driver why he didn’t mask up.
He sucked his teeth.
“We not get Corona.”
Bemused by his stance, she asked him why he thought there wasn’t any Corona in Sierra Leone.
“Because black man no get corona.”
Oh? She urged him on.
“I tell you, Salone black no get Corona.”
Aha, so the blackness of the Sierra Leonean does not allow for contracting Corona. Interesting. I dismissed him for being one of those Corona sceptics I’ve heard of in the Netherlands as well. But as I spent more time navigating Freetown, I had to recall my initial dismissal and treat his attitude as a proper statement:
“What if most Sierra Leoneans do not believe Covid-19 exists?”
I hang out with a bunch of different people. I talk to okada drivers, to keke drivers. I hang with the creatives, the cookry women dishing out from steaming pots of plasas, with my family and some westerners that live in Freetown. Curious as I am, I ask questions, pick up pieces from conversations as I sit in poda-poda’s. Things such as:
- Oh yeah, we got a bunch of money for Corona, then they bought these fancy cars. The Corona Cars.
- The government uses Corona to get rich, they are enjoying themselves.
- I do not know anyone who knows anyone who got Corona. With Ebola, we saw it, we knew people. But this? Well … let’s not say any more.
- We are straining, in this country, ah, it’s not easy right now.
- Here, we die young. Before we die of Corona, we probably die of other diseases.
Words are words. Like the ones printed on posters and banners, painted on street walls. Covid-19 sensitization. Call 117 if you have these symptoms. Wash your hands. #Maskup.
Yeah, mask up. Like when there was an invasion of okada and we had to wear helmets provided by the drivers and they only gave them to you when you neared a police checkpoint because it was actually a construction helmet and it messed with your hair.
Upon arrival in Freetown, I did not even know you had to wear a facemask because I saw no one wear them. Over their face, that is. Excluding the odd one, most drivers hang it somewhere easy for grabs (in case of police). And most people on the street pull down their mask so it hangs under their chin.
Confused, I asked a friend to explain.
“You have to wear it, but no one does. Just have it on you and when you see police you put it on. If they catch you idle you pay a fine.”
Aha. I mean, a face mask is a pain. It is hot enough in Sierra Leone already, why increase the moisture with my own breath?
They are excuses, says careful me. Better safe than sorry, right? Just wear it at all times, you never know what you may carry.
“If you earn about three dollars a day, imagine only earning two?”
Coughing up financial worries
Then I saw the dire economic situation of the country. Businesses have closed. Taxi’s and keke’s have to limit the number of passengers they take on board. It means a quarter or a third less income per ride. If you earn about three dollars a day, imagine only earning two?
At times, keke drivers ignore the rules. They take three passengers anyway. A (bigger) risk, because there is maybe a one-centimetre distance between you and the other instead of, say, 20 centimetres. Tired of waiting for transport to get home after a long day of work, you jump in. Despite the fact that it is not allowed, that it increases the risk of spreading the infection.
I jumped in.
I did it.
I am a Corona defector.
Back to the beginning. On my way to see my grandfather I felt guilty. I felt guilty for moving around, for putting I before Us. But as I came there, I realised that I had put Us far before myself. It was so contrary to what I had felt before. Those two camps, the ‘laissez-faire’ and the ‘hyper aware of risk’, I should erase those terms.
Because in Sierra Leone, the question whether Corona exists is not an intellectual one, but a matter of life and death. Of restrictions causing bankruptcies that cut off the food supplies to many, many families. That visibly causes strain with workers of the country. It is a question of survival, of unapologetically trying to make ends meet. If I (hypothetical Sierra Leonean) accept the premise, I lose a third or a quarter of my income, maybe my job, and see the corruption in this country flourish like hibiscus. If I refuse the premise, I get on with my life, which is hard enough already because I cannot make ends meet.
Remember how this was not a comparative commentary, but a reflexive confusion? As my partner and I sat next to my grandfather on a kongosabench (a low squat gossip bench) keeping a safe distance, some of the children whom had gathered around us discussed something in the local language. As we do not speak it, the only thing we could catch was ‘Corona 19’.
Surprised, we asked them, ‘what, Corona-19?’
They looked at us and smiled, pointing their fingers at us. ‘Corona-19!’
Affirmative. Corona 19. We, the people from abroad, we, the people with lighter skin. Corona 19. I smiled back at them, not feeling the urge to correct them at all.
This piece is a creative one, based on my personal observations during a trip to Sierra Leone. Upon letting my Sierra Leonean friends read the draft, I was advised not to try and get this published.
“This looks like government critique. You have to be careful.”
“Just remove all details that could relate it back to you.”
“I mean, you have a second passport, but what if they go after your family. Make things hard for them.”
My shoulders slumped. I did not understand. It’s a funny piece, right? It’s got some sharp observations, but it’s harmless, right? My voice became weaker.
My friends know I’m stubborn, so they came with more.
“The thing is, it looks as if you’re arguing that Covid-19 doesn’t exist here.”
“No, that’s wrong,” I protested. “It’s to show that there is a general conception that it doesn’t exist here. Which I find fascinating and understandable considering the hardships here.”
“But the thing is, here, the party in power says that it exists. And some opponents say it doesn’t. It’s a political thing.”
Hmm. In politics I do not mix, ever. Press freedom, however, I hold dearly.
So as usual, I take an in-between approach. The two-sim-dual-nationality-both-worlds-combined approach. I do not publish it anonymously, but remove all details that can link back to my friend and family, something I have never done before. Not because I am scared of my own safety, but I am scared of that of my family and friends. Because when I return to the Covid-19 infested, yet free western Europe, I may leave behind trouble for those I care about in the almost-no-Covid-19, yet increasingly militaristic Sierra Leone.
Published by ZAM Magazine: https://www.zammagazine.com/perspectives/blog/1069-what-if-most-sierra-leoneans-do-not-believe-covid-19-exists