Susie and I peered through the closed glass windows of the library.
Light filtered in from windows on the sunny side of the building. A fine layer of dust covered everything inside. Shelves full of books. A dictionary on a book stand opened to a page near the middle. A row of desks, chairs tucked tidily beneath them, just below our eyes on the other side of the wall. A pile of papers on one table, a pencil next to it.
It was a tiny space in an enormous world where one day the people were using the library in the teacher’s college as normal….and the next, they simply disappeared.
We moved further down the long bank of windows, cupping our hands around our eyes to cut the glare.
“‘Great Authors of South Africa’,” I read aloud, from a barely-visible spine on a shelf.
“I have a stack of VHS tapes here, but no labels on the boxes,” she said.
“’Silence Shall Be Observed In The Library,’” I said, reading the painted sign above the interior door. “Also, look at the poster next to the door.”
She moved next to me, and looked again.
An informational poster from early in the epidemic, when scare and terror tactics drove the sick back into the villages and into hiding, only to explode into the cities as village after village fell dead.
“Look, there in the stacks,” Susie said suddenly. “What the hell are those doing there?”
A spray tank, the kind we use in the treatment centers for decontamination. A reusable face shield, neon yellow, bulky, heavy. A pair of gumboots, some gloves, a surgical gown. All tucked in between the bookshelves, all covered in the inescapable dust that the wind carries endlessly across Sierra Leone.
“Someone’s stash?” I said quietly.
“Someone who hasn’t returned,” she replied.
~ ~ ~
The doctor and I stepped off the footpath and walked through the spiny shrubs towards the pavilion. Sporadic cotton and mango trees dotted the area; there was no escaping the brutal mid-afternoon sun. It was easily 39 or 40 degrees Celsius, and there was no wind to move the air.
Stepping into the shade from the sun is a moment of palpable, physical relief. Even with sunglasses, you squint to protect your eyes from the glare. My eyes relaxed in the relative darkness of the covered pavilion.
“‘Bangladesh – Sierra Leone Armed Forces Friendship Group,’” read the doctor from the painted sign above our heads. He raised an eyebrow. “You wonder what kind of dire straits a country finds itself in when you need the Bangladeshi army to come and help you out.” He peered alongside the covered area, to the two long wings of rooms extending out on either side. “What is this place?”
I wandered over to a painted plaque on the wall, skimmed the words. “It’s a school,” I said, surprised.
Again, I found myself peering through a window with a coworker. There was no glass this time, just open air through the decorative brick. The dust here was thick, dense, weighing down the broken limbs of cobwebs, blanketing the piles of rough-hewn brown school benches jumbled together in the center of the little rooms.
Posters covered the back wall, drawn in marker with a childish hand. “Letter B. Bread, boy, basket, box,” he read out loud.
“Count by tens: one ten, two tens, three tens,” I read, following simple pictures of rapidly multiplying trees.
“Body health: wash hands, bath, comb hair, brush teeth,” he replied, as we moved to another set of windows further down the building.
“Let’s learn date and time: What is the date today?” I started. We paused for a moment, staring.
“December 19th, 2011,” I finished quietly.
We left and walked home, leaving the abandoned school yet again to its long slumber of quiet neglect.
~ ~ ~
The team leader of the southern CCCs walked from the holding center to the nearby clinic. At the front she encountered the “ambulance,” a trailer from the 1950s attached to a repurposed, debilitated tiller. The bloodstained foams piled on the top of the trailer hinted at closed chapters of eerie stories.
Inside, the CHO showed her empty exam rooms, an empty waiting room. “We are open, but we cannot get the medications and vaccines we need. No one comes here anymore.”
“Where do they go for care?” she asked, her eyes wandering over hand-drawn posters of health demographics for the community.
He shrugged. “There is none.”
Her eyes rested on a chart of routine vaccinations delivered at the clinic. Babies vaccinated on schedule in 2014: January, harmattan, February, the dry season starts, March, April, the rains begin, May, rainy season full force, June —
and then Ebola.
And the rest of the chart is empty.
~ ~ ~
On the road to the Masa holding center, there is a football field off to the right. The goal posts are two tall sticks, dirty and bleached in the sun, driven upright into the ground. The tiny shrubs and plants that inexorably grow into jungle, the same ones that are swept away from the front of homes every morning with a small twig handbroom, have started to overtake the pitch. Public gatherings are forbidden. In a country mad for football, no one plays anymore.
When Ebola struck Masa, the primary health care clinic was overrun by patients. The government appropriated a small school nearby and built a holding center around it. Each of the three classrooms became a ward with a dozen beds; the bathrooms for schoolchildren became the toilets for those whose illness had not yet robbed them of the strength to walk. The patient register from that first operational week in November reads like a horror novel.
- 22-November. 9 admitted, one child. 5 dead within three days.
- 23-November. 10 admitted, two children. 4 died.
- 24-November. 6 admitted, no children. 3 died.
- 25-November. 5 admitted, one child. 1 died.
- 26-November. 6 admitted, three children. All died.
On the 23rd of November, I was boarding a plane in Boston to head to West Africa.
How very late we all were.
A few weeks ago I stood inside the Masa holding center, planning for its eventual deconstruction and decontamination. Sweating inside my PPE, I wandered from ward to ward, reading the chalkboards.
Ten times one is ten. Ten times two is twenty.
The letter E: Egg, eagle, electricity.
Let’s practice greetings: Good afternoon, how are you? My name is ___. I am eleven years old.
What do I want to be when I grow up?
I want to be a teacher.
I want to be a storekeeper.
I want to be a nurse.
I want to be……