by Ola Osaze
When I look at those images of black people looking diseased, emaciated, blood and gunk crusted around their eyes, nose and mouth, when I see the fear and hopelessness in their eyes, I can’t tell the difference. Is that me out there?
The fate of my black, queer and trans body is inexplicably intertwined with those Liberian, Sierra Leonean, and Nigerian bodies. I’m reminded of this every time a white man passes me on the street and whispers “nigger” under his breath or a store clerk trails me in a store, reading malevolent meanings into my black masculine appearance. Every time white women take one look at me and decide to sit elsewhere in the train or a white person who’s spent time in Nigeria wants to school me on political instability and just what my people are doing wrong, I’m faced with the full weight of black-phobia. It’s a debilitating weight; a destructive force that’s painting my African people as diseased and untouchable. While sick white care workers are immediately given life-saving experimental serum and flown to first-rate hospitals in North America or Europe, my people are scurried away to severely under-resourced clinics or quarantine locations where they are left to die, their children orphaned and unwanted.
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News programs (the ones that dare have conversations and commentaries about what’s happening in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria) go on about the quarantine facilities, how grossly inadequate they are, how they wouldn’t even be deemed habitable for farm animals. I listen to pundits, Ebola experts, UN representatives chase their tails in a useless exercise of deflecting blame, placing it square on the shoulders of those pesky African people who are too superstitious to follow sound western medical advice. The other day I read an article about people raiding a quarantine site. Was it in Liberia or Sierra Leone? Was it in my native land, Lagos, Nigeria where the corrupt government just fired a large percentage of doctors and medical professionals who dared decry the incredibly unreasonable and unsanitary conditions under which they must practice their life saving art? Or was the news story a missive from the future – Texas a few years from now – after hundreds have fallen ill after the state’s first recently diagnosed case? Perhaps then we’ll ask ourselves why nearly 4,000 of my people had to die, the disease migrating from Liberia to Sierra Leone to Guinea then Nigeria, before the international community thought to mount a substantial response beyond racist news stories and xenophobic policies.
I heard about the raided quarantine site and thought, reflected on, the desperation that could force hordes of people, in varying degrees of well and unwell, to storm a site that’s supposedly one of the homes of the biggest health epidemic to befall humans in decades, and steal contaminated mattresses, sheets, clothes and other items. I thought about what I was doing at that moment, how far away my body and life was from their experiences. I tried to put myself in the shoes of those driven by their desperate state of utter material lack, to roam the night in bands hoping to discover and take home a bounty of loot, regardless of what that loot harbors. Where was I when I read that story? Sitting in front of a desktop, clicking furiously at any URL link with the word “Ebola” in its title, feeling so many complex feelings and getting a deeper understanding of my class privilege.
My family’s upper middle class leanings landed me on the shores of the US, bought me the comfort of a fully paid-for undergraduate education, and the ease of full-time work with health benefits. Upward mobility is not a value I prioritize in my life, but it’s a reality I can actualize if I choose to. However, in the midst of these middle class comforts I’ve managed to acquire there lies one essential truth about being black: the west’s apathetic response to this Ebola nightmare is an indication of my perceived expendability and that of the millions of other black people who walk this earth.
If there’s anything the west does rather well in times of crisis it’s look the other way, unless its self-interests are threatened; Sierra Leone is not an oil-rich country like Iraq. The thing the west does second best is decimate. Hence my blood runs cold when I hear that the US is sending troops over there to protect the doctors and the nurses (many of them from the west) because those pesky Africans are mindlessly attacking them, are doing silly things like wanting to say farewell and bury their dead, rather than watch uncaring strangers mishandle and burn their bodies. I can’t help but think someone is trying to wipe my existence and that of people like me from the planet, from history.
Regardless of the international community’s apathy, my people are creating innovative strategies for survival. A story of hope: Last week I read about Fatu Kekula, a wonder of a woman. She cared for her parents, sibling, and cousin – all four buckling under the weight of Ebola – in her humble abode that was neither a clinic nor a hapless quarantine site. Fatu nursed them back to health and, remarkably, emerged Ebola-free, a feat unheard of given that over 300 care workers, working under the auspices of the World Health Organization and other international non-profits we all know so well, have contracted the disease in the last few months. How did she manage to save the lives of four people in such small quarters while keeping herself from contracting the disease?
From CNN: “Every day, several times a day for about two weeks, Fatu put trash bags over her socks and tied them in a knot over her calves. Then she put on a pair of rubber boots and then another set of trash bags over the boots.
She wrapped her hair in a pair of stockings and over that a trash bag. Next she donned a raincoat and four pairs of gloves on each hand, followed by a mask.
It was an arduous and time-consuming process, but Fatu was religious about it, never cutting corners.”
Now that the focus has started shifting to the cases in Texas and Saudi Arabia, and people are beginning to fear the possibility of an Ebola epidemic on US soil, it’ll fall on innovators like Fatu and visionaries like Dr. Joia Mukherjee of Boston-based Partners in Health, to fight this epidemic through the winning combo of deep love, ingenuity and resourcefulness.
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Ola Osaze is a Nigerian transfag feminist who has organized with the Audre Lorde Project, Queers for Economic Justice, Make the Road New York and Uhuru-Wazobia. His pieces have appeared in blogs like Black Public Media, the Trans Atlantic Times, and anthologies, such as Queer African Reader and Yellow Medicine Review.
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