Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ebola and the 'Temporary Removal' of Volunteers from Guinea

On the evening of July 29, all 340 Volunteers between the countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea simultaneously received a text message from their country's respective administration, directing them to check their email for information about the temporary removal of Volunteers and Trainees from the region. Each of us reacted to the news differently, but how my friend and I at the Conakry house reacted is a good paradigm for many of us: shock and denial. Sitting on the roof of the house, finishing up dinner, my friend relayed the message to me, as my phone was unavailable. Despite the very clear language of the message, which I can no longer recall, we agreed that it had to be a mistake, a miscommunication or some other such reality-defying error.

 After about 15 minutes had passed, I went downstairs to get my phone and casually called another friend to confirm that this was indeed a mistake. When he answered with “Are you reading this?”, I immediately knew that it was I who had been mistaken. We hurriedly moved from the house over to the room called 'the IRC,' where we have three computers for Volunteer use. Sure enough, the email was there for each of us, and provided us with the core details of the 'temporary removal' of Volunteers from the three countries. Shocked, confused, and upset, having the company of other Volunteers at that time was an invaluable comfort.

We received the message on Tuesday evening, and Volunteers began leaving Guinea on Friday. We departed in waves, with the final group leaving on Monday. Most of us had very little time to say confusing and tearful goodbyes to our communities. There was no opportunity to have closure, for most of us, no way of knowing whether we definitely would need it, and not enough time to know how or what to pack. Aside from our personal difficulties and having to abruptly say goodbye to one another, I think that most would agree that by far the most difficult part was having to tell our communities that we must leave because their country is not safe enough for us. For these people, our friends, neighbors, families, students, colleagues, this is home; they don't have the option of picking up and leaving when disaster strikes. We do, and the ugly juxtaposition that this reality forced us to confront is unpleasant to the point of being nearly unbearable. None of us wanted to leave, but as with so many things in Guinea, it was out of our hands.

 One can find various descriptions of the current state of the outbreak in all three countries through numerous news outlets. Some of them are sensational; others are not. I can speak best of course only to the situation in my village and to a lesser extent, Conakry. (It's worth mentioning that the Fouta Djallon, where my village is located, has been fortunate to remain relatively unscathed thus far during the outbreak, with the notable exception of cases in Télimélé.) The situation in Tougué was, and is, according to my good friend Thiako, not at all an emergency. This is probably the case for much of Guinea, but the fact is that in some areas the outbreak is clearly very dangerous, and as such Peace Corps made the only decision it could to ensure the health and safety of its Volunteers.

We are all deeply saddened, each of us in our own way, to have to be removed from our communities while Guineans stay there battling the Ebola outbreak. It's not just, it's not fair, it's not right, but it's what happened. The people of Guinea will survive; they'll continue to be some of the toughest people in the world; and they'll continue to display their incredible generosity to friends and strangers alike. If we're lucky, we will have the privilege to return to Guinea within the coming weeks, so that we can continue to learn, teach, and work alongside them.