Let Them Be Safe

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It’s true, I pray. I believe in intentions, how they echo out into the universe, how despite the vastness, the vacuous light-years of nothing, or the hidden mass of dark energy, they reach, intersect, touch something. I also believe in entanglement.

Fataba, my Sierra Leone friend, finding my two-week-old email, responds, “Sorry” for the delay. I’m stunned by her need to apologize. She tells me of food shortages, price escalations, and being confined to her home, the entire city of Freetown locked down. Reading her words, I hear her Krio-tinged voice. I think, At least up country, people still have their farms, but you, you might starve in that city before Ebola and the rest of the world reach you.

“Please continue to pray for us this is so scary,” she writes. And so I do.

Physics is clear about entanglement: When two particles have interacted, they are forever entangled, no matter the distance that spreads out between them. What affects one, affects the other. People are particles and space, too. I laughed with Fataba. I hugged her. Look, here she is in a photo, smiling. Moments later we were soaked in rain, feet caked in red mud. I tried to teach her how to look through binoculars, to find the Crimson seedcracker, a startling red and black bird, finch-like, that flashed in foliage along a swollen, brown creek.

fataba in Gola

In Kundalini yoga, in sessions I join on certain evenings, the leader, Joan, finishes with the pounding of a gong. Lying on the floor, in what is called in English “corpse pose,” you feel the sound, the waves pressing into the soles of your feet, flooding around your body, swelling over you like water. You float in it, and it floats in you. You spread out like spilt fire, uncontained. No thought, the body is a wordless prayer.

This morning it translates as, Let them be safe.

Arriving in Liberia

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A year ago today, a little after 5 p.m., your plane glides down through clouds, landing soft as a slip of blank paper onto the runway in Monrovia, Liberia. Everything is new to you, for instance, how the rain glinting in warm pools at your feet smells different from your redwood rain, as you walk from the sleek Brussels aircraft to the disheveled airport.  You feel a beginning, but of what?

It’s just past sunset, the sky scraped orange and amber. Suddenly a swirling smudge, birds, hundreds of them, pour upward.  Starlings! you guessThey are a murmuration, a single body of wings flowing, banking, arching, spiraling, then splintering apart then, just as suddenly, gone. Sparks spent. The night feels dimmer than you’d like. No streetlights or porchlights. How many here own a lamp and have electricity? Your regular life, what you now think of cleverly as the lamp of luxury, doesn’t exist here.

Only a few white faces among the many black–you can’t help being struck by this fact. The white faces smile awkwardly at you—you’d never have noticed each other in a crowd of white faces. You’re an introvert, and to be obvious is generally uncomfortable, but you see a benefit. I can’t get lost here, you think. Wherever I go, there will be people to say, “Yes, I saw her heading that way.”

Petite, you realize how many people are your size, and wonder, Is it tribal traits or poverty that keeps us at eye level?  Waiting to pass through customs, which is little more than two long folding tables, you open and close your suitcase for one man in uniform while another compares your passport photo to you. The duffel bag takes longer, as you explain that the  two dozen odd bronzy pouches are smoked salmon, gifts for the paramount chiefs you’ll visit when you move on to Sierra Leone. “Do you know salmon, a type of fish?” you ask. The men in uniforms whisper to each, serious and questioning,  until a third, older, uniformed man appears, asking, “Sall-mone, Madame, Sall-mone?” He swims his hand and arm through air, apparently the universal emblem for a fish in water. “Yes,” I say, and he smiles, telling the others, in a wise and knowing way, “Sall-mone, Sall-mone. It’s okay.”

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A year later you scan your notes of your few days in Monrovia. You’ve scribbled observations about several crowded “neighborhoods,” pure squatter encampments dating back ten years to the end of two consecutive, bloody civil wars lasting more than two decades. Local people have created their own community schools, and charities are building wells and training teachers. It’s true, before the wells, children could spend a stifling day in school with nothing to drink. The teachers work for food and housing, essentially volunteering to teach, because the government doesn’t have enough money to pay all teachers real wages. Mostly they are men who want the children to have a better life, but like all things human, there are abusers, and sometimes the children, girls especially though also boys, pay their wages in the form of sexual favors. What would anyone do to get an education, to find a path out of those makeshift hovels?

You read the names of people you came to know. Jonathan, who greeted you at the airport with your name on a sign, drove you through Monrovia’s wild, honking streets and asked you if you’d met Barack Obama. He explained how Liberians feel connected to the US. “Freedom unites us,” he said. “One day I want to go to America, I want to see if it is real what I have read.”

Shannoh, the program director at ChildFund Liberia, worked in England for years before returning to his native Liberia.  Jostling for hours together in a land rover, he explained how an entire generation has grown up on war and how children who witness severe violence have trouble finding peace in themselves.

Henrietta, with her masters in social work and years helping families in the US, was passionate about rebuilding her culture, her families here. A modern woman with traditional values, she told you she’d been ‘cut’ as a girl, circumcised, and how female ‘cutting’ is part of a long, secret society of women that strengthens the fabric of communities. You listened and agreed to consider her view, her personal sense of honor, in what others call ‘genital mutilation.’

There are notes about Pied crows and yellow weaver birds and dazzling, rainbow-colored lizards, technically Agamas, scrambling over garbage, far more garbage strewn wherever we went, than lizards. Here is the a passage about the mama-cat who lived near the hotel kitchen. You tossed bits of chicken to her, which she caught, quick and ravenous, before stretching out in a bush to nurse three kittens and, surprise, one ‘teen cat’ likely from an earlier litter.

One of the Lebanese owners, sitting at another table reading a newspaper, called you kind and foolish. Remember how he unsettled you, speaking so plainly, that you wrote down what he said? “Better to help your little cat friend. She has no mind to know better than to breed. But you humanitarian workers do more harm than good. It would be best for these people to turn their children over to others to raise or to let them die, but you people don’t see that. You people only make the suffering worse for these children whose parents can give them nothing.”

What about love? you’d thought in response, knowing it matters yet isn’t enough, finishing your chicken-less rice, watching the kittens roll and play.

Hummingbird Feet & A Village Girl Near Binkolo

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A colleague steps into my office. “I’ve been thinking about how you are doing? You were in West Africa last year, weren’t you?” I look up and nod. She continues, “I bet you’re glad you weren’t infected by that e-boli.”

For an instant, I think two thoughts at once. Have you ever done that?

One mind remembers how my mother thought hummingbirds have no feet because she’d never seen a hummingbird perch, and how in flight, the delicate feet and legs tuck up like landing gear. A simple mistake.

Ebola and e-coli, begets e-boli. I sense myself smiling, which must be confusing from across the room.

Another mind remembers a teenage girl in a village near Binkolo in northern Sierra Leone. She was wears a ripped white shirt, partially exposing one bobbing breast, a dark nipple peeking and hiding, peeking and hiding as she runs toward me, speaking fast in Temne (the local language), arms flailing, smiling hugely, all the little children around her, laughing. The elder says in his limited English that she is infected in the mind. She wants to touch my skin, feel my hair, and reaches to hold my hand, which she first turns up palm up, then palm down, comparing to her own.

Do I share this story that flashes across my synapses faster than my colleague brushing lint from her trousers? Who say’s I’m not infected, and in the mind, too?

“Yes,” I say. “Thank you for asking.”

The Luxury of Looking

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Evening, and I’m sitting on a bench my husband made from a 5’ chunk of driftwood, Douglass fir, hauled up with the help of our friend Dwayne from nearby Clam Beach. Most of the day in dense fog, it’s clear now, a blue over our redwoods. I’m trying to remember why angled sunlight is always cooler than overhead rays, when I notice a mangled mass of Himalayan blackberry canes, an invasive we’ve been trying to contain, trembling.

A chipmunk is climbing, one well-thought-out step after another, up a prickly shoot, balancing to reach up to a higher shoot and pluck then munch blackberries, some almost as large as her head.  The thorns are treacherous, especially in proportion to her body. I’m humbled by her determination, risking pain to take in the sweetness.  She stands up, wiggles a berry loose, then sits on a leaf-covered shoot, the berry in her hands like a purplish-black soccer ball, disappearing bit by bit into her mouth, cheeks puffed out as she takes in more than she can chew.

I realize how happy I feel watching her, not an oh-how-cute fleeting sort of pleasure, but a sublime happiness, the kind that comes with being fully in a moment, or letting the moment unfold fully into you.

Then I remember Fataba, my friend in Sierra Leone. We stood under leaves in a passing downpour waiting for our 4×4 to be repaired. I had my binoculars, and scanned the trees for rainforest birds. She was puzzled, “So do you look for birds in your life at home?” “Yes, I answered,” as fog collected on the eyepiece, softening the view. I lowered the binoculars, wiped the lenses with a saliva-dampened thumb, and offered Fataba a look, asking, “Do children learn about the birds, animals, trees, and the nature around them here?” She handled the binoculars awkwardly, trying to see through them, turning her body 360 degrees, then trying to focus down the red-mud road to where the vehicle was being coaxed out of a rut. “A little,” she answered, “but we are too busy working—it is a luxury this looking at birds and animals.”

What I Know About Ebola — Part I

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The days are closing in again. Compressing. Mornings muffled in fog, redwoods muted and drippy, migrant birds tacitly preparing to leave. I’ve been waking in a darker hour to a distant ululation that stops when I sit up. Quiet, except for the trickle of a stream thinned by drought. My first thought, something always goes on.

For weeks, I’ve followed the stories about Ebola, seen the images, the faces of Sierra Leone and Liberia. I was there less than a year ago, September, tail end of the rainy season. Let me tell you: The two children, teenagers now, whom I sponsor there, Alie and Thaimo, and their families, their roaming goats and petite chickens, are real.

Cursing the reporters who name only countries and not villages, towns, or regions—as if America could be the same, Yonkers to Missoula—I scour the Web to see where the virus has taken hold. I see Kailahun District and its major town Kenema, where I stayed in a guest house my first night in Sierra Leone. Almost alone (I was visited by a dazzling green beetle), I sampled my first cassava, potato-like, in a starkly simple room whose walls amplified voices speaking Krio (reminiscent of our Creole) and Mende (a tribal language). We arrived in the dark—Osman and Fataba (my Sierra Leone colleagues) and me—a true dark, lit only by cooking fires then generators as we approached the outskirts of Kenema. The meal of cassava and chicken was a gift from Fataba’s mother, welcoming me after driving from Liberia, away from the honking motor-bikes and human throngs of Monrovia, bumping along for hours on red-mud, rutted passageways (you can’t really call them roads) cut through rainforest.

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Yesterday, clicking through web pages, I read that Ebola has reached Freetown, the last stop on my trip, and now a last stop for Saudatu Koroma. Saudatu is the first person in Freetown to succumb to Ebola. She was only 32 and was training to be a hairdresser. She would have had a promising career and future. Hair, as I discovered, especially elaborate braiding, or plaiting as it’s called there, and trendy, often flamboyant, wigs are important to most women, even the poorest, in West Africa. Saudatu’s parents stole her away from the hospital where she was being treated, presumably out of fear of “the people dressed as devils,” the story says. She died on the floor of the local healer’s home. The healer’s own power against Ebola, what saved him, was his good fortune in not being at home when Saudatu arrived and collapsed on his floor. I’m guessing he may not return again for a while, as 4 days passed before anyone thought to give him a little bleach and instructions on Ebola prevention.

My final nights in Sierra Leone were spent at Freetown’s Family Kingdom Hotel. Not a hotel by American standards, it was a funky, has-been sort of place. Its security-guarded grounds included a giant, decades-old, plastic statue of King Kong gripping a peeling Ann Darrow. A pet duiker, a small speckled antelope with the personality of a golden retriever, visited me each morning for a scratch between her horns . Three nights in a row I tossed, sticky, under a bed net. The thick air pressed into me the way thousands of people, flooding the city’s unlit streets, pressed into our 4 x 4 land rover as Osman, reaching over to lock my door, inched us toward the hotel my first night. Women and children tapped on my window with a wave or a scowl, and a few ambitious guys yelled, “Hello, white girl, would you like a boyfriend?” Waiting for sleep my final night, I listened to Aljazeera in the next room reporting on a shooting at a mall in Nairobi, and in another room, the melodrama of a Nigerian soap opera, “No, woman, you cannot have my husband!” By 3 a.m., it was quiet enough to marvel at the Atlantic lapping sand and trash, sadly so much trash, across the street on a western coast, blissfully disorienting. At the same time, I was ready to return to my own craggy Pacific home, feeling, honestly, grateful that home was somewhere else.

Now I wonder, was Saudatu Koroma in any of those crowds we inched through, did our eyes meet for a passing moment? I’ll never know. We were there together in that sprawling city of Freetown, though locked in the trajectories of our separate lives.

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Clicking through webpage after webpage, I see the names of other places I’ve been. There’s Bo. Just out of that town, I ate boiled groundnuts—small, soggy peanuts—from a woman in a yellow-and-magenta-print dress with rivulets of sweat flowing along her temples and a toddler tied to her hip, along one of the few actual roads in the country. Further north and west, is Bombali, which I consider ‘my district,’ because Thaimo and Alie live there. The CDC map shows a blot of reddish-orange, color of dried blood, it occurs to me, for Bombali. Ebola lives there too now, if you decide a virus is a life form.

So lately I’ve been waking to this memory of the guest house in Makeni, largest town in Bombali District and third largest in Sierra Leone. There’s ululation and chanting, neighborhood women offering Islamic prayers, words a long, monotone exhalation with simultaneous breaks to inhale, some ecstatic trilling, and more droning. I’m looking out my second floor window to a muddy, littered courtyard between my building and two others. My view of the women and girls, I’m sure I hear young voices and older, is obscured by the thatched roof over their open room. My window is crooked, cracked, and doesn’t close, so it’s easy to listen to them, caught in the music of their devotions, accompanied by the occasional the bleating of a goat that wanders in and out of the scene.

One morning in dim dawn light, I see a little boy, maybe 3 years old, wobble out of another building into the courtyard, bottomless. He stands at the edge of a puddle from the prior night’s rain, reaches down with one hand, and begins to pee into the puddle, when a chicken jutting by captures his imagination. He toddles toward the chicken, trying to spray it, but the chicken is too fast and the stream too quickly spent. All the while the women and girls chant and ululate. The boy, perhaps getting the sensation that he’s being watched looks up and finds me in the window. He turns away and starts to wobble-run, then stops and peeks back up. I wave, and he lifts his arm, his hand waving wild as if on a broken hinge. I smile, and he stares seriously as if he’s just seen a friendly ghost.

The first thing I know about Ebola is that I don’t want it to enter that courtyard, to visit that boy, to silence the ululation and chanting.