How Ebola Became The Oldest Story About Africa by Wayétu Moore

It was December 2001. Senior year at Spring High School—the nucleus of a small town called Spring, Texas, two dozen miles north of Houston. Sixteen years old and like other restless suburbanites, I was over-committed to extracurricular activities, spent an unreasonable amount of time with my friends, and my only real concern was how far I could stretch the $1/gallon gas on my middle-grade car.

On my way to work a part-time sales job at the local Sears, it came on. A smooth sample of Tom Brock’s “There’s Nothing In This World That Can Stop Me From Loving You” over a honeyed beat—the cadence of a classic. It was Jay Z’s “Girls, Girls, Girls” and within the first 30 seconds, I knew I’d hear it at every party for the rest of the school year.

Too young and impressionable then to be convicted by the song’s early misogyny, it wasn’t until halfway through listening that the lyrics arrested me:

I got this African chick with Eddie Murphy on her skull
She like, “Jigga Man, why you treat me like animal?”
I’m like excuse me Ms. Fufu, but when I met your ass
you was dead broke and naked, and now you want half

The lyrics were referencing Eddie Murphy’s 1980’s comedy album, “Raw,” in which he marries an African woman named “Umfufu” that he can control. The bit functioned on the stereotype of African women as submissive, African men as aggressive and abusive, and indigenous African people as uncivilized. The African woman in Jay Z’s song was presented as poor, uncivilized, and therefore deserving of mistreatment and abuse.

The lyrics made me numb.

I was born in Liberia, West Africa. My family immigrated to the United States in 1991 when I was 5 years old. Since I spent my formative years in America, had only American friends and could not visit Liberia during my childhood because of ongoing political conflict, I considered myself the same as my peers. I was conscious of my difference and my culture—my parents listened to African music regularly, we spent every summer visiting Liberian relatives in Minnesota or Memphis and our dining room table was never short of the deliciously sweet greens of Liberian cuisine—but that difference was tempered by a seamless assimilation into American adolescence and teenage culture by way of athletic departments and my deluge of extracurricular activities.

Still, instances like that afternoon in high school would serve as reminders of my difference, awakening the fact that being from a foreign culture in America meant that at any second you can be pulled out of the journey toward the dream, stripped naked and marked as Other. This space, for some, is psychological warfare—a battle between the truth of a lived experience and the torrent of dehumanizing words and images that affirm misguided and incomplete representations of one’s culture.

The Stereotypes

To be clear, this is not an indictment of Jay Z, Eddie Murphy, or hip-hop. The negative African archetype has been widely packaged and recycled by media over time. In fact, the original contributors to hip-hop’s birth were exposed to various movements that glorified Africa as a key tenet to black identity. Afrika Bambaataa, for instance, used hip-hop to deter gang membership by forming the Universal Zulu Nation in 1977 after a trip to South Africa and early exposure to the Black Liberation Movement.

Murphy made “Raw” in his early 20s, before he ever visited any of Africa’s 54 countries. The image he paints, then, can only stem from century-old media stereotypes of the African (usually with no delineation of country) as a wild and uncivilized savage.

In 1985, Patrick Brantlinger wrote an article titled, “Victorians and Africans: The Genealogy of the Myth of the Dark Continent.” Therein, he explored the beliefs of Richard Burton and other 19th century British imperialists that the African “savage” must be “civilized” to have worth, and since the African way was essentially “unimprovable,” the African would remain primitive and in need of masters to govern him. This racist myth of the African as inherently less intelligent and inferior was the backbone of colonialism and its many detailed consequences. Brantlinger examined the role social Darwinist theory played in the early understanding of African culture, and how that understanding, rife with flaws that credited learning ability to the shape of one’s skull, was packaged and distributed throughout the West for analysis. More than 100 years later, that packaging remains intact.

Before Ebola, news out of West Africa was the uncertain democratic electoral coverage, the tragedy of Nigeria’s kidnapped schoolgirls by Boko Haram, or the acknowledgement of the region’s rapidly growing economies. An April article in The Economist stated, “Moving up ten notches to become the world’s 26th largest economy, Nigeria has joined the burgeoning club of middle-income countries. The size of the economy is now […] 89% larger than previously stated for last year.” The subtext of the African as inferior was present, with some coverage quick to mention political conflicts, corrupt leaders, inept governments and poverty. Most African countries, however, were deemed safe to travel to and from, and though a slow process, most were progressing toward stable democratic governments.

In late July, that changed. Two missionaries working on the ground in Liberia through an American-based charity, Samaritan’s Purse, contracted Ebola hemorrhagic fever while treating victims of the ongoing outbreak. Doctor Kent Brantly and nurse Nancy Writebol were eventually flown to Georgia where they were treated and eventually survived the disease. The news that two Americans had contracted what was considered an “African disease” dramatically shifted the intensity and frequency of media coverage. All of a sudden, those jarring images and soundbites with historical underpinnings—Africans as diseased and careless; Africa as a still-uncivilized frontier—aggressively resurfaced.

Liberia is a beautiful country with stunning beaches, abundant natural resources, and people so full of joy and laughter that it is hard not to fall in love with it. I visited earlier this year and would have stayed, had it not been for my job and other obligations back in New York. But with news of the outbreak, Liberia was transformed from the breathtaking country I knew to an unforgiving slum where wild monkeys are a part of everyone’s diet and little girls are abandoned to fend for themselves in pools of diseased waste. To a Liberian, not only has coverage of the epidemic in Liberia been overwhelmingly offensive, but the stories have lacked dimension, context and, most importantly, consideration and respect for Ebola victims.

An August Newsweek cover featured an image of a chimpanzee and the words, “A Back Door for Ebola: Smuggled Bushmeat Could Spark a U.S. Epidemic.” Bushmeat—which refers to all non-domesticated animals, including deer—is common in the West African regions most affected by Ebola; however, those who contracted Ebola from bushmeat are likely in the minority.

The bushmeat hypothesis, which various publications ran with, stemmed from Guinea’s patient zero. It was last December in the village of Meliandou in Guinea that the first patient in the outbreak contracted the Ebola virus, from what is assumed to have been an infected fruit bat. Meliandou’s forests were annihilated by Australian and Chinese mining companies and, as this happened, more harmful species of forest animals made their homes in hunters’ territory. Yet, the role mining companies have played in the initial outbreak are usually left out of Ebola’s throughline.

Additionally, a team of aid workers arrived in the Kailahun district of eastern Sierra Leone at the height of the outbreak and were chased away. The subsequent headlines blasted Sierra Leoneans for threatening and refusing help from aid workers. Yet there remains no mention of the historical context surrounding West African interactions with foreign visitors during the Atlantic slave trade or colonialism’s symbolic role in that encounter.

Such coverage perpetuates fear and only results in racism and xenophobia. Most importantly, it dehumanizes and criminalizes the victims. Dialogue then shifts to: If West Africans had not been so uncivilized— eating monkeys, chasing away help—they would not have gotten sick.

The Saviors

Coverage of the epidemic has not been shy about the role of the West in the Ebola relief effort. Help by way of international organizations is accepted with gratitude. There are, however, several local organizations and individuals with limited resources or no contract to incentive them that are contributing to the fight against Ebola without recognition.

In late October, the Daily Beast featured an article about Liberian girls in the Monrovian slum of West Point. The girls, ages 16 to 19, raised awareness about Ebola in their community to curb contamination. “The story of this teenage mission to spread awareness about Ebola began two years ago, when UNICEF launched an educational group for girls in West Point,” wrote Abby Haglage.

This is not the full story. UNICEF had funded the project, but the mobilization of the young girls and the initiation and coordination of the effort were the work of local organizations that have been present in Liberia for years. There was not a single mention of any local organizations in the Daily Beast article. I have worked with nonprofits for five years. Here in the United States, when an organization is awarded a grant, the funding foundation is not given credit for the organization’s work. Yet in the case of reporting on countries in Africa during crisis, the saviors and heroes we see are usually never African.

Author Chimamanda Ngozi Ndichie writes about this phenomena as it relates to Nigeria’s recent Ebola-free declaration on her Americanah Blog. To begin, she references a Washington Post article:

According to WHO, the success of Nigeria—Africa’s most populous nation—was attributable to ample funding, quick action and assistance from the WHO, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the non-profit Doctors Without Borders.

“This is a lie,” Ndichie writes. The Nigerian response to the outbreak was aided by the rapid utilization of a national public institution (NCDC), and the establishment of an Emergency Operations Centre. WHO is clear that while foreign help was essential, Nigeria’s success in stopping the disease was a result of Nigerians. In this and other instances, the African as his own competent and self-sufficient savior was ignored, completely left out of the narrative.

“This is the kind of journalism,” Ndichie continues, “that is not about informing the reader but about making sure that the readers’ real and imagined petty prejudices remain undisturbed.”

The Others

Within the Liberian diaspora, contributing in any way possible—sending money, organizing fundraisers for supplies, mobilizing to promote awareness—has been the only respite from the anxiety and guilt that stems from widespread one-dimensional coverage of a beloved country in crisis. Ebola has re-introduced America to false conceptions of Africa and Africans by affirming age-old narratives of poverty, barbarism, and disease.

Rather than telling well-rounded stories rooted in truth, rather than being the sole agent of objectivity and understanding, news outlets oftentimes use world events as a weapon to promote the self-interests and worldviews of their organizations. This tendency nurtures a habitual lack of context, while also passively and carelessly promoting xenophobic violence toward descendants of the countries affected by the disease.

People in Liberia and other countries throughout West Africa are dying, and those of Liberian and West African descent throughout the world are suffering stigmatization.

“We apologize but due to Ebola virus we are not accepting Africans at the moment,” said an August sign in a South Korean pub that was photographed and went viral. Just weeks ago, after a 22-hour flight, nine Nigerian students were barred from starting medical school in the Caribbean and sent back to Nigeria. Some nationals currently living in America are being asked to stay home from work and school.

In mid-October at I.S. 318 in the Tremont neighborhood of the Bronx, two young boys, 11 and 13 years old, were brutally beaten after weeks of being taunted and called “Ebola.” The young Senegalese immigrants moved to the United States one month ago. Since the beating they’ve been featured on various local New York news outlets with their father, Ousame Drame, unmistakably afraid and traumatized by the incident. The stigma is real and it is a direct result of a careless narrative that has emerged since the onset of the outbreak.

I imagine this is how the American Muslim feels when stopped at an airport or mocked for being a terrorist simply because of his or her culture, or how the Asian-American cringes at the sound of the word “chink,” or how a Latino experiences being stopped at an Arizona checkpoint and asked for identification after being wrongly perceived as an illegal immigrant. Perhaps they too want nothing more in those moments than to emerge from the shadows of an untold heritage, and shout it from the top of their lungs.

A draft of this article was originally published in Gawker.Artwork by Kula Moore