Closed fists of Ebola, by Diana Szántó

The arrival is always a shock. When the door of the aeroplane opens, there is a sudden rush of heat, of odours and colours. It does not take too long to get used to it. When I am outside of the airport, it is as if I had never been gone. The last time I was here was before the Ebola. I remember, one of my friends called me one week after my return, speaking of an Ebola case in Kailahun. Since then the country had had more than 12 000 cases and have counted more than 3000 deaths. These are the official numbers, although I have always found these statistics strange, knowing that Ebola kills with a 50% probability, as health experts affirm. The numbers suggest that or too many people got identified who finally were not sick, or Salone has a secret method of treating Ebola with a better success rate than all the others. Also, the epidemics drew a special curb here compared to the two other countries affected. While in the beginning Liberia seemed to be the most vulnerable of the three, Sierra Leone soon caught up and experienced a sharp increase of cases in the middle of the year, when elsewhere the disease seemed already to be withdrawing. It would be interesting to find out what factors shaped the statistical curbs in the three countries in this particular way and what accounts for the difference in the development and the soothing of the epidemics. Today Sierra Leone is Ebola-free, and the whole country is counting down to the 7th of November when the 2 times 21 days with no new case will be reached – as everybody hopes. Now new cases are reported only from neighbouring Guinea and people pray that the virus does not cross the border.

Ebola is not visible anymore in the streets. Everything seems normal. It is only on Sunday I realise what Freetown must have looked like under the emergency state. All the shops are closed, even the small stalls at the market. The city looks deserted – and sad. The “Sunday lock” reminds me of my own country where it was introduced about a year ago – although we did not have the excuse of Ebola. Interestingly, imposing a non-commercial day on the population also evokes my childhood memories in socialist Hungary, and inversely the fact of depriving people of the right to do what they would like to do if there was not a ban imposed on them seems to me an arbitrary but rather efficient way to remind citizens that their individual and collective freedom is in the hands of governments and it can be taken back as easily as at times it is generously distributed.

Ebola is also present at checkpoints. These have been restored on national highways. From time to time vehicles are stopped and passengers are asked to get off, walk to a water tank to wash hands and their temperature is taken before they can walk on to the other side of the barrier to join their vehicles waiting for them. The exact practice varies from checkpoint to checkpoint. Sometimes it is enough to talk nicely to the soldiers doing the checking and they will not bother you, or they would come with the thermometer to the car. I notice that the fact of sitting in a UNDP financed car and the fact of being white helps in these small negotiations. Without rigour in the implementation, the whole ritual looks to me rather as a way of conjuring the sickness rather than an efficient prevention method, but I realise that we are at the end of the epidemics and soldiers are as tired as the passengers of the whole procedure.

I get used to not shaking hand also. It is strange at first, especially that there is no regularity here either. I often find myself in a ridiculous situation when a man shows his closed fist as a response to my open hand and when I realise what he is demanding and close my fist on my turn to bang it against his (in the way teenagers greet each other in Western suburbs), he shamefully opens up his fingers for a handshake. I realise I am better off if I universally practice a kind of improvised greeting, closing my fingers in front of my chest as if for a prayer and bowing slightly, remaining notwithstanding alert, and accepting the other hand if it is given, as sometimes is the case against all odds. Lost in translation – everyday gestures have become complicated. I have to re-learn the country.

Diana Szántó did long term anthropological fieldwork amongst the polio-disabled communities of Freetown between 2008 and 2012. The research fed into her doctoral dissertation: „Where parallel worlds meet: civil society and civic agency. Politicising polio in Sierra Leone”, defended in June 2015. Her current work is part of a project funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation with the aim of brining the research results „back to the field”. She arrived on the 23th October, 10 days before Sierra Leone was officially declared Ebola-free. This text first appeared on Diana’s blog

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