Sami Yenigun, an education producer at NPR, has dreamed of reporting overseas.
This month, his dream came true. But it wasn’t exactly the way he’d imagined. NPR asked him to travel to Liberia to work with correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, covering the Ebola outbreak. He spoke to us on Tuesday, after a week in the West African nation that has suffered the most from the virus.
What was your first reaction to the assignment?
My heart leapt up into my chest. That excitement lasted for about three or four seconds, then I had a moment where this sinking feeling came in. I thought about whether it would be a traumatic experience, that I was going into a country where there was a lot of tragedy and some danger.
It takes awhile to get there.
I left my house in Washington, D.C., on Sunday at 1 in the afternoon and made it to Monrovia, Tuesday, Sept. 2, just after midnight.
Your first reaction to being in Liberia?
I loved the ocean, the lush green foliage everywhere. And Liberians are so friendly and welcoming. But I also felt a bit like a fish out of water: Coming into an area you’ve never been before, everything is very intense, you’re hyper-alert, paying attention to everything. Plus there’s this added level of where is this disease?
What was your coping strategy?
I went into this thinking, OK, Ofeibea has been covering this region for decades. I am really just gonna follow her lead. And right from the outset, it was pouring rain and Ofeibea had work to do and needed me to go run out to the U.N. to grab some forms to get on a flight, so I needed to go out on my own in Monrovia. And it all worked very smoothly. I remember getting back to the hotel and exhaling. It wasn’t a hard job, but it was just like, “I can absolutely do this, I’m comfortable enough I can manage whatever is thrown at me.” And it helps to have a really good driver, Mohamed A. Trawallah, and a local journalist, Siatta Scott-Johnson, working alongside, smoothing the way.
How did the capital city, Monrovia, strike you? Busy? Subdued because of Ebola?
Definitely busy. But from what I’ve heard it’s usually way livelier. And don’t forget — there’s a curfew. I think Ebola has put the country in the doldrums. But it is certainly busy, it’s a bit chaotic, traffic is a little crazy — nothing like New Jersey, where I’m from.
But the Jersey turnpike can be a bit crazy.
There are lanes in New Jersey, no lanes here!
Was the mood really grim?
The first day we went to the West Point slum, and it was tight and cramped. It was clear our fixer, Siatta Scott-Johnson, was a bit nervous, keeping all the windows up, doors locked, as we were driving through tiny streets in the pouring rain with people everywhere. Then we came up to this truck and saw some activity. We were like, “Get out of the car, we’ve got to check it out.” It was this Ebola awareness group singing this beautiful song about Ebola being real and the need for Liberia to come together.
So that colored my first impressions of Monrovia. Despite the grim circumstances, there are pockets of joy and positivity throughout the city.
Yet you can’t reach out and touch anyone — literally — because of the fear of Ebola transmission.
It’s weird, I haven’t touched anybody in a week. I haven’t given anybody a handshake, a fist bump, a high-five, much less a hug or a kiss. Your body starts craving human contact. I’ve never gone for such a long period of time without having touched in any way another person. You’ve got this force field around you.
Are Liberians the same way?
Liberians say they’re huge huggers and kissers, and I’m told they have this really cool handshake — at the end you snap thumbs and third fingers before your remove your hand. But all that’s on hold for now. The new Liberian handshake is this little elbow tap thing. People smile and raise and lightly bump their elbows.
So it’s definitely not life as usual.
Everyone we’ve spoken to says this is having a huge impact, children aren’t going to school — all these things that represent normalcy have come to a complete, screeching halt.
That said, we visited this town, Barkedu, in Lofa County in the north, this village of 8,000 people. And almost everybody has lost members of their family. But there was a group of kids laughing and playing soccer, people cooking and cleaning, girls playing a version of patty-cake called nafo, there was singing going on. Within this bizarre, sad time right now, there are flashes of, oh yeah, this is how life is supposed to be.
What’s your impression of the Liberians you’ve met?
I’ve never seen the strength of the human spirit like I’ve seen it on this trip. For all of the brutality of Ebola, I’ve seen people being strong and amazing: doctors on the front lines, health workers cleaning up after sick patients, people adopting orphans who’ve lost their parents, people persisting in the face of having lost their entire family. I’ve seen people coping in ways I can’t even really imagine doing myself.
What advice would you have for NPR’s next Ebola team?
A lot of what I was reading before I came to Liberia put this picture in my head that I might be walking into some kind of zombie movie. That’s a dangerous way to think about it. Though this virus is very dangerous, it is also very easy to control. If you are washing your hands and not touching people and following a few rules, you are at a very low risk of contracting the disease. Easier said than done sometimes, because some practices are deeply embedded in the local culture — like the way you show your love by bathing a dead person before you bury them. But that can be deadly.
Just don’t let fear dictate your actions. Be smart about what you’re doing and be vigilant. I’ve been washing my hands and sanitizing them and everything else constantly.
Yet it is very scary.
This one thing I can’t get out of my head is the fear that I did see from people. I went into this clinic. Doctors were interviewing patients to see if they had Ebola. There was this young teenage boy sitting outside, waiting for his consultation. He looked so sick and so scared. I have not been able to get it out of my head.