Life Goes On, Even With The Specter Of Ebola

Originally published on January 2, 2015 5:18 pm

In another locale, the beach might be lined with "smart hotels and people sipping cocktails out front," says British photographer Tommy Trenchard. He's talking about West Point, a neighborhood in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. It's a densely populated slum of some 70,000, situated on a spit of land with a river on one side and the Atlantic ocean on the other.

This week, West Point made headlines. Angry residents raided an Ebola holding facility, for people suspected of being infected. They were mad that the government hadn't provided information about the place, and they resented the fact that people from outside their neighborhood were being brought in.

Wednesday morning brought news of a government-imposed quarantine and curfew to contain Ebola, since the patients in the holding center had fled into West Point. Soldiers came in. The residents rioted. Razor wire and patrol boats are now part of the land-and seascape.

Trenchard made pictures of West Point before these troubles. He captured its natural beauty and the joy its residents take in simple pleasures, from flying a kite to kicking a soccer ball on the sand.

"I've been covering Ebola for three months now," says Trenchard, who is based in Freetown, Sierra Leone. "It's an immensely gloomy topic. It's nice to be able to show those little moments of normality that are still going on, even in a place like West Point."

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. Arun Rath is away. I'm Tess Vigeland. West Africa continues to deal with the Ebola epidemic that has so far claimed almost 1,500 lives. Today, Ivory Coast closed its land borders with the affected countries of Liberia and Guinea in an attempt to contain the outbreak. The strain of the epidemic is showing. Last week, Liberian soldiers opened fire when a riot broke out in the quarantined neighborhood of West Point. Photographer and reporter Tommy Trenchard was there. One of his photos is of a young man, Shakie Kamara, lying in the street with his leg badly wounded. Tommy Trenchard joins me now from the Liberian capital of Monrovia. Hi, Tommy.


VIGELAND: I want to talk about that photo of Shakie Kamara. You were with him shortly after he was shot. Tell us about who he was and what happened to him.

TRENCHARD: Well, Shakie was a 15-year-old resident of West Point. Little else is known about him, though, his mother called into a local radio station to say that he had just been sent out to buy some tea and bread. He was shot in the legs by the Liberian security forces, and for almost half an hour, he was lying there in the road between the police and the protesters. People just didn't seem to know how to get him an ambulance, which really underscores the problems Liberia's health service has had - and even before this Ebola outbreak. And he later died in Redemption Hospital.

VIGELAND: So he died of a gunshot wound to the leg?

TRENCHARD: Yes, well, the hospital director is being coy about the specific cause of death. But it seems very unlikely that anything else could have caused an injury of that nature. We have also heard President Sirleaf has said there should be no more lethal force used by the security forces here. So that is seen as a some sign of progress.

VIGELAND: Tommy, this neighborhood, West Point, is home to more than 50,000 people, and it is still under quarantine, meaning no one can leave or enter. How are people there getting by?

TRENCHARD: Well, I think they've been hit hard by this quarantine. I mean, it was imposed overnight with no warning. A lot of people simply lost their livelihoods overnight. A lot of them were traders and taxi drivers who used to work in other parts of Monrovia. I think the residents are angry at the situation. A lot of them deny that they - there is even Ebola in West Point. And they feel this is an embarrassment to them and their community.

VIGELAND: You mentioned the president has ordered government forces no longer to fire on citizens. But aside from that, since the riot, how has the community been interacting with the government - with forces there? Has there been anymore unrest?

TRENCHARD: Well, some community leaders we hear have actually requested an increased police presence, though that may not reflect the views of many residents there. The community was already disenfranchised within Monrovia. I think this latest incident will simply have exacerbated that.

VIGELAND: Tommy Trenchard is a photographer and reporter traveling with the NPR team in Monrovia, Liberia. You can see his photos at our website, Tommy, thank you and stay safe.

TRENCHARD: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.