Imagine with me.
Imagine you’ve invited your favorite person to lunch – your dad or you mom, perhaps – and you’ve invested a lot time into executing the endeavor. The reservations at the restaurant your mother has always dreamed of going to have been booked. You go to pick her up from her door and she takes your breath away. She’s standing there in a demure floral frock, a hint of color on her lips and the most beautiful smile on her face. Your mind transports you back to those sun filled afternoons when she would take you to the park or for ice-cream and you realize she’s still the center of your world.
You arrive at the restaurant and are seated by the maître d’. She’d like to start with some hot tea. He pours it and walks away. Suddenly, you realize there is no sugar on the table, so you ask the gentleman at the table next to yours if you could borrow his. He studies the pair of you briefly.
“Is this your mother?” he asks.
“Yes,” you reply, beaming with pride.
Without another word the man strides over to your table, clenches his fist, and punches your mom dead in her face.
There. You see that face you just made? That’s how I feel when I’m engaging certain people on the topic of Ebola. These people tend to be American – whom the world ridicules to scorn for their general ignorance – but Africans can’t escape this one either. Some of you are just as guilty.
My friend Sangima posted this meme on Facebook about a week ago and gave permission for me to share it with the MOM Squad. I’m sure you have seen other similar images on social media. The first one I saw was of a very statuesque woman draped in black. She was holding a sign that said “I am a Liberian, not a virus.” It is poetic and melancholy that Sangima and so many people feel compelled to make such a prosaic statement. Of course you’re “not a virus”. We can plainly see that you are bipedal and warm blooded like the rest of us…but are you like the rest of us?
The unique thing about the African experience on this earth is that it is indeed unique. As diverse as the continent is, with thousands of languages and innumerable ways of living, we somehow all get lumped as “African” once one travels/resides outside of the continent. In the best of times, like during the World Cup for example, we gleefully participate in this charade. The World Cup is the only time we are “One Africa”. Calamity compels us to do the same in the worst of times as well. Ebola, like HIV/AIDS did in the 80s, makes it necessary for us to force the world to see us as human; not a cause, not a disease…just human.
When you consider that all the most effective western fundraising campaigns of the last century or more have used some image of “Africa” to promote their causes, it’s not difficult to understand why an American slurping their spaghetti over dinner would fail to identify with an African’s humanity.
Pick a global campaign and compare the images you find online. Nearly 100% of the time, the face of hunger is Black. The face of abject poverty is Black. The face of disease is also Black, all set against a backdrop of dust, flies and rubbish. No many how many glossy images we put of a Rising Africa out there is going to change that for far too many people, which is how and why I found myself embroiled in two very unique conversations surrounding Ebola in the last seven days.
The first involved Douche Bag, who can always be counted on to say something completely imbecilic.
Nadjah came home from her weekend visitation and flounced on my bed. She had a very concerned look on her face.
“Mommy? Douche Bag says that if we move to South Africa, I’m going to catch a disease.”
I put down my magazine and inspected her more closely. There was no melodrama, only sincere alarm.
“What disease did he say?”
“I don’t know. E—e—“
“Ebola?” I finished.
She nodded and I blew out a breath. Marshall was in bed with me and rolled his eyes. Enraged, I explained that her father was an idiot. (I shouldn’t have said that, but the words tumbled out.) I then set out to draw a picture of the world, demonstrating the distance between the countries where the Ebola scourge is most rampant to South Africa and their distance to America.
“You would have to travel 7-8 hours at a speed of 500-600/mph to catch Ebola,” I explained. “And if he brings up the topic again, let him know that he has a better chance of catching Ebola down there in Dekalb County and so close to the CDC and Emory Hospital. At a speed of 60/mph and a time of 30 minutes, he could be exposed to the virus!”
I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. Of all the preposterous things to say to a child!
In the midst of this, the scientists at Fox News and some other choice outlets had been proposing that we stop all flights out of that country until the “virus was contained”. How do you stop a virus that is transmitted from animals to humans by stopping flights? There are 104 things wrong with that suggestion, but I was content to chalk it up to the drivel of well-paid talking heads until a GOOD friend of my proposed the same.
The kids had been invited to the park by my Somali friend Ameera* (the one I told you jumped in the pool with her hijab and overcoat to save her daughter) and our mutual friend April* had met us there with her daughter. When Ameera got up to walk her toddler around on the other side of the park, April turned to me excitedly. Her eyes were wild.
“So how’s your dad with all this thing – this sickness – that’s going on?”
My dad wasn’t sick. What was she talking about? “What sickness?” I asked.
She was exasperated. “Ugh! Ebola! He’s in Africa ain’t he?”
“Yes,” I laughed, “but he’s in Ghana. Hundreds of miles away from the nearest Ebola case.”
Her mood turned pensive. “What about Ameera? Where did she say she’s from?”
“She near Ebola?”
Now I was beginning to get vexed. This woman had a bachelor’s degree and had traveled. That was supposed to mean something. I pointed out that Somalia was even further away than Liberia and Sierra Leon…and irrespective of that, Ameera lives here in Alpharetta like April did.
I could not believe that this woman, my friend, had just equated this woman’s nationality to a disease. I didn’t have much time to ponder it further, because she was still going on about how she didn’t understand why the world couldn’t end flights out of Africa until Ebola was contained. Surely I misheard her.
“Are you saying ALL flights out of ALL African countries should be stopped?”
“Yes,” she confirmed. Ebola should stay in Africa.
Well, yeah. Because Africa is a country.
I explained that unless she was planning on kissing, screwing or swapping fluid waste with anyone in or from Africa, she was in no danger. And then I told her she sounded like a Republican. You would have thought I’d called her sainted mother a whore.
The danger of what happens when the world Africanizes a disease or catastrophe has already been experienced by two boys in the Bronx this past weekend. Two brothers aged 11 and 13 who just returned to America from Sierra Leon were brutally attacked by their classmates as they chanted “Ebola, Ebola” under a hail of punches and kicks. It would not surprise me if the perpetrators were Black themselves, since the only time I or any other African has been called an “African booty scratcher” or other derogatory names stemming from my African heritage has been from Black American children. Because really, what those bullies did to those two little boys with their fists is no different from what April did to Ameera.
Africans don’t do ourselves any favors by feeding into the stigma and fear. According to a recent report my own president, John Mahama refused to shake hands with the heads of state of the three Ebola-stricken nations he visited on Monday September 15, over fear of contracting the deadly Ebola virus.
How are we going to expect common cordiality from the rest of the world when we treat ourselves in this manner? How can we collectively demand to be treated with dignity when heads of state like Mahama – who are paid to know and do better – behave in this manner?