I thought I’d become immune to the indignities of travelling with an African passport, but an encounter last month proved me wrong.
After a series of meetings in Dakar, I travelled back to London via Madrid on a red-eye Iberia Airlines flight. Disembarking from the plane in Madrid in the early morning hours, I got separated from my white male European colleagues—an Austrian and Brit—and was directed by a stern-looking Spanish security agent to the ‘RSU’ section of the airport to await a connecting flight to the UK. The flashing information screens designated ‘HJK’ as the lounge area for my departure, however, so I resolved to go there.
Late last week, I was informed that I would not be able to travel to Dubai for an important meeting scheduled months ago.
Like other countries across the globe, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) halted travel for those with Guinean, Liberian, and Sierra Leonean passports during the height of the Ebola outbreak. It has not lifted these restrictions.
The miniature red suitcase I had packed lay abandoned on my wooden floor. I caressed my dark green Liberian passport as if to reassure this inanimate marker of identity that my citizenship was not on trial here.
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.”
Released on Nov. 18 to fanfare in the United States, the ProPublica/Frontline investigative documentary ‘Firestone and the Warlord’ is nevertheless steeped in stereotypes, overly hyped and unappealing. Having intently studied and written about Firestone’s exploits in Liberia, I believe the film’s producers simply did not dig deep enough.
Although there are some merits to the documentary—particularly revelations from declassified court documents, US State Department cables, Firestone corporate records, correspondences, and video footage—it conceals more than it reveals the true nature of Firestone’s asymmetrical relationship with Liberia.
Liberia has become the bio-terrorist of the new modern age, a sort of North Korea with personalized, microscopic nukes. And this state of mind, which holds that Liberians are proliferators of deadly agents, is far more destructive than the EBOLA virus which has lamentably claimed 5,000 lives in three countries. Coupled with our own ignorance and fear in Liberia and the continuing loss of our compatriots, the internationalized STIGMA of our people and country has far reaching and deleterious effects in every sphere of our society and economy. The loathing, suspicion and mistreatment of Liberians gallop into a surreal career of its own, creating a brand, a “STIGMA” which nobody wants.
All that we have known and practiced are being questioned, challenged as part of prevention measures. How can you attempt to change decades, centuries of cultural practices in a few days or weeks? How can you change an entire society’s way of life? Understandably so, we resist some of these changes. In as much as we understand the reasons for the change, we find it hard to embrace it even at the risk of our lives and that of our loved ones.
A few days ago, I participated in a workshop in the Netherlands that focused on the perspectives that emerge around a crisis and how to deal with them as an outsider. The crisis in this case is Ebola in Liberia. The perspectives are the myths or narratives that have crowded around Ebola since the disease broke out in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. One of the first narratives was the denial of the existence of the disease. It was believed it was a form of Malaria, or that it was a story concocted by the government to divert people’s attention from real issues. These narratives were soon replaced by other myths about Ebola being invented in a lab in Sierra Leone with the single goal of reducing the black population.