When I was ten years old I attended a sleepaway camp outside of Nacogdoches, Texas, where I told a few hundred people, with great pleasure, that my name was Bernice, not Wayétu. My family had only emigrated from Liberia five years prior, and for two weeks I basked in the glorious trope of American normalcy; a name like Bernice was proper, distinct, pronounceable.
When I arrived home my father probed about my time away. After some banter he asked me: “What is your name?” I was caught. When he was finally content with my repetitions, he said “You must always be proud of who you are. Be proud of Africa.”
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I hadn’t thought about the racial underbelly of Ebola airport surveillance until I experienced it for myself this week.
It all started at Heathrow Airport, where a “trainee” airline official asked me three times what I was doing in the UK even though I mentioned five times that I was a student, pointing emphatically to my very valid visa in a passport emblazoned with “Republic of Liberia” on the cover in gold letters.
His boss, a no-nonsense looking woman with dark hair and soft brown eyes, wanted proof of residence in the UK, something I had never been asked to show before. When I looked at her, visibly annoyed, she tried a different line of questioning.
“Do you have other proof that you are studying here?”
When I whipped out my school ID, she seemed momentarily appeased but not quite satisfied.
Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female president has led for nearly a decade now, but it took the Ebola virus epidemic to reveal how fragile, how unprepared, and how vulnerable her leadership has left the Liberian people. In all of those years, there has been no adequate health services, no serious educational system, no adequate roads in most parts of the country, no electricity or water to most of Monrovia, and all of this despite international aid, foreign investment and new trade contracts. Without adequate schools, hospitals, roads, electricity or water to metropolitan Monrovia, how can Liberia protect its citizens, monitor infected persons, quarantine suspected cases or even educate the people about the catastrophic dangers of the virus? If the lack of these necessary resources were the only problem, then many could have been spared.