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Living Under The Cloud of Ebola Virus

Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Hanover — Even though Liberian activist Patrice Juah has never contracted Ebola, her nationality — and her skin color — have marked her for prejudice.

A few days ago, at an African arts conference in Morocco, Juah ventured into an outdoor market for supplies. Shoppers glimpsed her face and shouted, “Ebola, Ebola!”

She thought to herself, “Is Ebola a new race, and is that race black?”

Since her first visit to the Upper Valley this summer, Juah has witnessed the devastation brought to her country by Ebola and has even endured personal loss. Yet, instead of focusing on the horrors of the disease, her work with West African nonprofits celebrates its survivors and aims to correct misconceptions surrounding the world’s worst Ebola outbreak.

Monday night, Juah began a lecture to students at Dartmouth College by reading a letter from American health authorities, issued just a few days earlier, that declared her free of the virus that has killed more than 2,800 people in her homeland and 5,000 total in West Africa.

“So don’t be afraid. I don’t have Ebola,” she told them, laughing.

This summer, Juah was one of 25 Africans under the age of 35 invited to Dartmouth as part of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative, a development program that placed 500 fellows in universities across the country.

After the program ended in late July, Juah returned to Liberia, where the Ebola outbreak had worsened during her month-and-a-half-long absence. The country’s health care system had been overwhelmed, to the extent that some hospitals treating other illnesses had shut down for fear of spreading the Ebola virus. The economy — already weak after civil wars that lasted more than a decade — had plummeted, and unrest had broken out in poor neighborhoods quarantined by the government. Buckets of chlorine solution for hand-washing sat at most shop entrances, and family members and old friends were afraid to shake hands or embrace upon meeting.

“I just had my first handshake a few days ago and it felt really strange,” she told students at Monday night’s lecture.

As the outbreak developed over the summer, Juah and her fellows in the Young African Leaders program were skeptical of the news from West Africa, she said, and wondered whether sensational media coverage was inflating the story.

The extent of the health crisis became all too real upon her return, when Juah, a former Miss Liberia, lost a close friend from the pageant to the disease.

“I was really depressed,” Juah said. “When she died I was really broken.”

The friend’s family refused to accept that the young woman had died of Ebola, and as authorities delayed her cremation, family members fell ill one by one, Juah said. Eventually, the entire family was gone.

Juah said that she became aware of a gap in education on Ebola prevention when a little girl in Liberia tried to embrace her, despite the risk of transmission through contact. The child, whose school had closed, was selling oranges in the street, and Juah realized that there was no one to tell her how to protect herself from the disease.

Now, through her own group, the Martha Juah Education Foundation, Juah helps teach children who have no access to schools because of the outbreak. And to counteract the stigma surrounding West Africans, Juah works with Arterial Network, a nonprofit promoting the creative arts across the continent, in its “Ebola Is Not My Identity” campaign, which aims to highlight the resiliency of the region through art.

Juah this week returned to the United States as a Washington fellow in the Young African Leaders program, and will spend a week promoting her causes at Dartmouth before returning to the capital.

Friday at 3 p.m., Juah will reconnect with her “host mother” from this summer, clothing designer Joan Ecker, at an event at Ecker’s Fat Hat Clothing Company outlet in Quechee.

Amy Newcomb, of Dartmouth’s Dickey Center for International Understanding, said that the college plans to host a fresh class of fellows next summer. The college has also instituted programs that allow students and fellows to collaborate, she said.

At the lecture, a student from Mali, which borders Ebola-stricken Guinea, asked how neighboring countries could send help to the epicenter of the outbreak without endangering themselves.

Sending medical professionals was the best answer, Juah said, since protective gear and information on preventing infection are now more readily available.

Another student asked why Liberia had lacked the medical resources to stop the virus.

The country was still recovering from civil war, and its resources were spread thin from rebuilding all areas of its infrastructure, from roads to airports to hospitals and medical schools, Juah told her.

Before closing the lecture with a poem she wrote about the paranoia surrounding the crisis, Juah urged the students assembled to donate to Ebola relief and to consider the wider effects of the outbreak.

“With Ebola’s emergence on American shores, it shows that it is not only a West African thing,” she said. “It is a global problem.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.




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