For Healthy Liberians, Life Continues — With Some Adjustments

Oct 21, 2014
Originally published on October 22, 2014 7:01 am

Ebola has killed more than 1,300 people in Liberia's capital of Monrovia. But for the million-plus residents who aren't sick, life goes on even as their city is reshaped by death.

On market day, the downtown is teeming with shoppers and merchants and people just hanging out. It almost looks like commerce as usual until you notice all the "Ebola buckets," elevated plastic containers with spigots that deliver a chlorine solution for hand-washing.

One of those buckets is next to the hair salon where Angie Gardea does braiding and weaving. Her afternoon is going very slowly. "Business [is] not too fine since the Ebola," she says. "The customers [are] afraid of us."

That's true of many businesses. And in a city where today's earnings are tomorrow's groceries, it means people like Gardea sometimes go hungry.

A block from the hair salon is a street where you can buy just about anything — from cassava to clothing to outdated cassette tapes. A man in a faded Monty Python T-shirt is pushing a wheelbarrow full of plastic toys and slippers. Since the outbreak, he says, he's been living on a dollar a day.

Things aren't much better along the winding alley on Mamba Point, where local artists sell carved wooden crocodiles and paintings of tropical scenes. Foreign missionaries used to visit the wooden stalls and buy art, says Suah Kollie, who runs S.K. African Arts Shop. Now they are afraid to come near him, he says.

Even the loan shark business is hurting these days. Late on a Saturday afternoon, Diggs Monger, who calls himself a "money changer," sits beneath a brightly covered umbrella outside the Monrovia Sports Bar. He has no customers. "I got to get my food money before I go home," Monger says.

Inside the sports bar is Antonio Francis Tuan, a man who doesn't need a loan. He's a lawyer who's come to watch his favorite English football club, Arsenal.

When Ebola first appeared, Tuan and his friends stayed at home. Now they're back at the sports bar, though Tuan positions himself near the open door and keeps a distance from other patrons. "We come here and relax a little bit, have fun and go back home," he says. "It relieve the stress from your mind."

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Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In the capital of Liberia alone, Ebola has killed more than 1,300 people. But most of Monrovia's one million residents remain healthy. NPR's Jon Hamilton is in Monrovia, and, as he found, the challenge for the healthy is to maintain their lives in a city reshaped by those deaths.

JON HAMILTON, BYLINE: It's market day, and downtown Monrovia is teeming with shoppers and merchants and people just hanging out. It looks like commerce as usual until you notice all the Ebola buckets, elevated plastic containers with spigots that deliver a chlorine solution for hand washing. One of those buckets is next to the hair salon where Angie Gardea does braiding and weaving. She says her afternoon is going very slowly.

ANGIE GARDEA: Business - not too fine. Since the Ebola, it has not been well with us. Even the customers afraid of us, and we are ourselves afraid of customers. So for that reason, no customer.

HAMILTON: And no customers means no food money.

GARDEA: Nowhere to find food for tomorrow. No food.

HAMILTON: A block away is a street where you can buy just about anything from cassava to clothing to outdated cassette tapes. A man in a faded Monty Python t-shirt is pushing a wheelbarrow full of plastic toys and slippers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes, I can be hungry because where I live, a dollar a day.

HAMILTON: Since Ebola, he says, he's been living on a dollar a day. Not far away on Mamba Point, there's a winding alley lined with wooden stalls. Local artists come here to sell carved wooden crocodiles and paintings of tropical scenes. Suah Kollie runs S.K. African Arts Shop. He describes one of the paintings.

SUAH KOLLIE: These are people along the creek. This is a river. These are people buying fish along the beach.

HAMILTON: Kollie says he used to sell a lot of art to missionaries. Now they're too frightened to come inside his store.

KOLLIE: Yeah, I walk to town sometimes. I walk back in the evening. I will just come to clean the shop and go back.

HAMILTON: A two hour walk just to clean the shop. Kollie says on some days he doesn't sell a single painting, but he continues to hand out his business card and he hasn't let go of his dream.

KOLLIE: I want to extend my education, but the money's very slow.

HAMILTON: On a busy sidewalk outside the Monrovia Sports Bar, a loan shark sits beneath a brightly colored umbrella, waiting for customers.

DIGGS MONGER: I'm Diggs Monger - D-I-G-G-S, M-O-N-G-E-R. I'm a money exchanger.

HAMILTON: Monger offers short term loans in Liberian dollars at 25 percent interest.

MONGER: I loan 1,000 - 2,000. It come with interest - 25 percent interest.

HAMILTON: Food money. A lot of people here go home without it since Ebola arrived. Monger says many of his customers have lost their jobs and can't repay their loans, so he started requiring collateral. Inside the bar is Antonio Francis Tuan, a man who doesn't need a loan.

ANTONIO FRANCIS TUAN: I'm a lawyer by profession. I go to a private institution.

HAMILTON: He's here to watch his favorite English football club, Arsenal. Tuan says when Ebola first arrived, he and his friends stayed home.

TUAN: Yeah, when it started, we stopped coming for some time. But now - Ebola crisis, we have many economic problems - it's not everybody working. So you don't have people coming like as before.

HAMILTON: So the bar is about half full. Tuan sits near the door and not too close to other patrons. He says the Ebola bucket outside gives him some confidence that it's safe here.

TUAN: Since there was some measure put in place that you got to wash your hands constantly, we can come here at least - come here and relax a little bit, have fun and go back home - remove the stress from your mind.

HAMILTON: Having fun, relieving stress - people here say those are some of the hardest things to do in the time of Ebola. Jon Hamilton, NPR News, Monrovia, Liberia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.