Friday, July 15, 2022
Upline Nadalyn Gwendolyn Ismatu Bangura The Bus I. The hotel night guard asks where you’re going and is surprised when you say Bo. You’re learning life in Town means it’s common to advise Family who go up- line to take extra care for thieves. There must be good reason for you to want to leave, so they will ask. They will implore you to be quick and careful. You will feel adulterous for liking Bo, away from Hot showers, the Internet and Oreos and fine clothes; there are no bits of American wealth waiting for you upline. There is only red dirt Salone. Sierra Leone’s Krio has a word called “upline.” If you were to go, you’d see the old skeleton train tracks that run through Sierra Leone. You can tell who the railroads were for by the way they connected diamond mines to the ports and never towns to towns, people to people. II. Uncle Desmond’s car smells like wood shavings from his carpentry shop. He drives you away from the hotel at what feels like an ungodly hour, but you are right on time. He’s an unusually punctual man. You look out the passenger window, thinking that there are many walls in Freetown, and you’ve never noticed them until now. Night-night, that time when you do not know whether to greet the door people with “evening” or “morning.” The watchman, whom you saw earlier when you left with a suitcase in hand, called off the dogs and pried open the gates for you. He sleepily grumbled about where you could be going at this time of night-night. It had just begun to rain. When it pours like this, the buildings grumble, too. In daylight, they reverberate to one another among the drumming flip-flops in streets. Walls of tin and stone stand pushed up against expensive brick and mortar, the structures singing over one another in the bright rainfall. “Push o, duya mek rum fɔ mi o, la’ah pas, lɔdamasi ɔlman de tinap na di ren, di ren, di ren.” The night echoes differently. The lights are off, the people gone, the walls indistinguishable from one another. A rumbling chant, glistening, simpler: “No vacancy. No vacancy. No vacancy.” Scoot over, make room for me please, let me by, Lord have mercy everyone is standing in the rain. III. The station drips. Your carry-on suitcase sits in your place in line, full with cash leones, your instant-print camera, consent forms, and all the careful your family mandated you pack. It goes like this in Kenema, too. And in Bo, where you’re off to, and Conakry, Kabala way up north. Everyone leaves their lives in a box, then puts the box in line to mark their place while we wait for the ticket man. Weary, moving slowly, stacked against one another, makeshift people made of stone and tin roofs against expensive men of brick and mortar. We wait together, careful, in the rain. How to Say “Quarantine” in Krio I. Titus In Bo, I ask him, So, what all do you remember about the crisis? “Families. Like Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother. [Whole villages. Whole people.] Extinct. That was the devastation. I touched a disease that dissolved a person from inside out. Dissolved people’s contact and trust with one another. Dissolved vision. [It] left everyone blind— [eye]sight, the needs of those afflicted, the compassion from the witnesses. Gone. The way no one wants to come near them, you would think they [Survivors] might have rather dissolved too. My nearest family did not want to touch my body. They said ‘kɔmɔdɛ’ as if that was my name. My name.” II. Two Years after the Outbreak You are sitting outside your Uncle Desmond’s shop— smiling nicely so Desiree will give you a cup of her ginger beer— idly bouncing her baby on your hip, letting the boy who will learn to be your uncle’s messenger twirl your ring around your finger, and asking him gently not to put his sister’s candy in his mouth (even though you know it is harmless). You see the page boy reaching to pet a street dog and shout at him Kɔmɔdɛ! (verb), KOH-MOH-DEH, to get away from a place of danger. Direction to evade immediate and imminent threat. Always given in the command form. “Get away from that stray before he bites!” Now, with the children who work happily on the lollipops that your mother brought, you see how they learn slowly about the things that are never to be touched. The space between person and person is filled with only what’s small enough to fit, like sunlight, or sawdust. III. The Grape So then say it fast— Quarantine —see how it’s as vast as the dead air round the Lumley roundabouts? No matter how quietly you whisper, the space reverberates. Say the word again: quar·an·tine Note how similar it feels to mouthing necessity, remedy, kɔmɔdɛ, tragedy. Fold your lips slowly around each syllable as your mouth bends to hold the vowels like an unpopped grape. Chew on it while you pass Waterloo; swallow when you wonder who was buried without a tongue to curl around their name. You can see the letters q u a r a n t i n e floating through the dead air but you have to watch closely. Closely. They are small, but present in the way the mother says osh ya standing straight up instead of bending to wipe her child’s tears with her own hands. Titus was an army nurse at 34 Military Hospital. He saw the first village that succumbed to the Ebola virus in its entirety. Every person died. They could not dig the graves fast enough. Osh ya: expressing sympathy, commiseration. “If I could take this from you, I would.” Interviews in Kenema with Ebola Survivors “Ebola is a disease of social intimacy and a crisis for family-based care . . . The virus is spread through direct contact with blood, faeces, urine, sperm, vomit and sweat. The main infection routes are the care of the sick and the laying out of the dead. These tasks are carried out by close family because the patients trust them. When you are in crisis you go home to your family.” — Paul Richards, Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic (June 2016) Portrait of the Girl Who Lost Her Family at Thirteen Her knobby knees gently pressed together, bouncing under an embellished jean skirt and a zebra-print tank top. The straps of her shirt strain against her thin and shuddering shoulders. A slim, girly frame sitting mindfully tall against a white plaster wall. If you ever get the chance to take her picture, stand above her. Have her look up at the lens so you can see the way she stares back boldly, with her eyes kept wide so nothing spills out. Before you hit the shutter, pause, so she can still the quivering around her mouth. She wore dual-chrome snap-on barrettes, too many for me to count. Interviewer’s Notes Her interview name is Micah. I see her face everywhere. Interview eight is the only interview I ever paused twice. The first time because she did not have to reach far back to recall thirteen, when she nursed her parents until their deaths. I waited to see if she wanted to continue with the interview. The second time was because I had a revelation that brought me to a shuddering, dry-heaving stop: I had not known what I looked like when I cried until I saw her cry. Her hair was cornrowed up into a fountain on the top of her head, and she had maybe twenty different little barrettes in her hair, from the iridescent snap-on kind to bobbles to glittery bands. I don’t think I’ve worn my hair like that since I was six years old. Portrait of the Man with Thick Glasses He grinned at me from the beginning, and, as if posing for a picture, removed his glasses, wiped the lenses with the hem of his yellow collared shirt, then adjusted the frames on his face again, saying he found a need for them while he lay in his sickbed, among the dying, as the fumes from the cleaning chlorine slowly ate his eyes. Then, as if for a flashbulb, he smiled. Interviewer’s Notes His interview name is Sam. Other than his smile, his big and near comically thick glasses are the first thing you notice about his face. When he doesn’t have them on, he opens his eyes a little wider, like he’s perpetually seeing something he just cannot believe. I couldn’t tell that there was anything out of the ordinary; turns out, his left eye is nearly blind until he can get a surgery that he needs. Until he can get the money for the surgery that he needs. Until he can get the work to get the money to get the surgery that he needs to be able to see. Portrait of a Woman Who Moves through the Tenses of Mourning Just her eyes and forehead in frame, please, to capture the crinkling above her cheekbones and adorning tattoos outlining her brow, which furrows from the memory of the infection: recounting so closely how her hands spread to massage her dying man’s chest that I can see it reflected in her irises. Interviewer’s Note Her interview name is Kadiatu. Though she was from a different tribe, she spoke just like my mother. Sɔf mɔnt: mouth like linen. Words to swaddle you. She was from my father’s tribe, but did not recognize me because I don’t speak one word of Limba. The sounds of three languages melded on her tongue; she asked to leave a thumbprint on the consent forms, because she had never been able to learn to write. The last words of her interview were, “I have to tell Father God thank you with every day of my life.” Portrait of a Young Male Student I would like to see him painted, in bold and textured hues of electric blues and yellows, dreaming thrice his size to give rise the way he exclusively describes himself in his aspirations. He leans forward, humming with the possibilities on the horizon, dressed in clothes fine enough to be a school uniform, starched and ironed for faux regulations, sparkling clean despite his cleaning on his knees all day today, and tomorrow. Interviewer’s Note His interview name is Isaac. I almost have some trouble in my memory with him, because I keep thinking I met him at Northwestern, in general chemistry or physics, and not as a participant in the study. He was twenty-three on the date he sat with me. It took a couple of questions about his occupation for him to tell me that he worked as a janitor for the ESA offices of Freetown. He does it without pay. All the people advocating for Survivors, including the presidents and chairpeople, do it without pay. This is why he is not currently in a degree program, even though he is so bright, he is so hungry. Ambition drips off him like soapy water. I asked him how he copes: “It’s never really easy, my sister.” Portrait of a Working Man Steady hands, placed one on the table and one in his lap. A flash for the picture I would take: himself and his two children, and a long shadow to his right, the capture of dust recently loosened, as if someone had just left the room. His eyes flick to the door now and again, and again, as if he’s expecting someone to walk in at any moment. He still wears his wedding band. Interviewer’s Notes His interview name is Muhammed. At seven minutes and twenty seconds, he paused the interview to show me his Survivor’s certificates, like the documents of a rebirth. His name, his birthday, his admittance to his expected death, then the date he defied the mass grave, displayed on creamy paper with golden embellishments, accenting the absence of a death certificate he never received for his wife. I wonder if he ever looked for her while on the road near Waterloo, eyes searching through the bodies that lay stacked on top of one another while the pit was dug. Or maybe he averted his gaze driving by. He spins his band around his finger absentmindedly. I wonder if he always considers himself lucky to be alive. Portrait of a Woman in a Loose-tied Skirt Slouching, nearly against the wall, hands folded in her lap, head nodded to the front and angled to her side so her glasses don’t slide from the bridge of her nose; the image in my mind’s eye captured in this way because she was showing me the posture her daughter asked for the night she slipped away: “Mom, please, sit me upright, Mom, please, place my hands in my lap, cross my ankles, move me to be against the wall. Mom, please, I want to be comfortable, please, please.” This was the second week in a row the nurses were scared to touch them; the third night in a row the nurses did not come; the night which took her with a sudden peace, with her eyes still partly open as if she had almost fallen asleep. Interviewer’s Note Her interview name is Sesay, and she is the chairwoman of the Sierra Leone Association of Ebola Survivors in Kenema. She and her daughter were infected so early, before the three-day lockdown, before the government cared to address the severity of the disease, before health professionals were equipped with proper PPE [personal protective equipment]. Nurses were so afraid to touch them that they often had to stand to retrieve their own food, water, medicine; if you could not stand and walk to get those things, and your nurse refused to bring them to you, then you died. So she and her daughter were in their beds, in the afternoon. I know I said the night, but I want to get this right—it was, I believe, daylight when she passed. I couldn’t bring myself to take notes during this part of her interview because I had to lean so close to hear her. She spoke just below a whisper, mouthing to me her daughter’s departing words, recounting to me how the first time the nurses had placed their hands on her for weeks was to pry her away from cradling her daughter’s vacant, contagious body. Portrait of One in One Hundred Forty-six The only person happy to see her homecoming was her baby girl; it takes the faith of a child to wait expectantly for her mother’s return. I am in this photo, too, but my back is to the camera. What’s pictured is her face, almost smiling, gazing. Her discharge certificate lies on the table, facing me, because she needed me to read the summary of the way she lived. She carries it like a driver’s license, or proof of identity. An embellished, laminated record of survival accompanies her outings. One must be certifiably alive. Even her breathing body standing before her neighbors will certainly not be enough evidence to prove her innocent of death. Interview Notes Her interview name is Marianne. I wonder if she carried her daughter when she admitted them both to the Ebola Treatment Center. I wonder if she had the strength. She was one in 146 of her community admitted to treatment. She was one of 47 who survived. The document said boldly, in script embossed along the top: “He/she does not pose any risk to the community. He/she has been adequately counseled and is fit to return to his/her home.” Portrait of a Night Nurse Kneeling next to the bed pallet of a dying man, next to another of the dead that will not be pronounced and collected until morning. Before drip IVs come, she holds his head in her hands, because that’s all that can be done. Her profile backlit by the moon, her face turned up to the heavens, and her closed eyes; she worked blind until the lanterns came, then worked blind after the chlorine fumes eroded her sight, too. Interviewer’s Notes Her interview name is Martha. She told me she worked until she fell feverish, worked through her diagnosis with Ebola, worked until she fell into a coma, worked until her husband, whom she never disclosed her illness to for fear he would make her stop working, carried her body from the scene. She worked until the dawn sighed, even in times when night nurses were terrified of the risk of infection, even when they avoided the desolation that hit Ebola Treatment Centers after sundown. I asked how she continued. “Well, tel Gɔd tɛnke. Tumarah, e go cam bɛttɛ.” Thank God, tomorrow is always better than the last day. Portrait of a Living Martyr All thirty-two years of him leaning in with his lithe frame and slightly sallow cheeks and his haunting whisper, as if someone was listening just outside the metal door for us, as if he was confessing the ongoing sin of survival, leaning in, he asked to be called Affected as his pseudonym. Reminding me of his terror, when all he heard was, “Ebola has no cure.” Leaving me to imagine what has to happen to you to not want a name at all. Interviewer’s Notes What are you if you begin your death march in your regular work clothes, toting your child about your back, walking slow due to fever and disease, walking slower since you are coming out of hiding. If you begin your death march not from the force of a foreign hand but because the neighbors will report you if they continue to hear your agony. When you come out of your self-imposed quarantine to die in a hospital with your wife and child some feet away, rather than all wrapped together in someone’s blood and vomit as if your bodies are extensions of one another, what are you. Are you a martyr? Even if the people you went to die for perish instead? Are you a martyr, even while you lie next to their corpses, infected and still awake? Desperately afraid of the coming night? Portrait of a Mother in Blue I would pose her fifteen children around her in the photo, the two that are her own playing one on each side. They would all wear all blue, and be chubby-cheeked and alive with the mercies of fever-free childhood bodies, taking care not to hang too tight on the loose skirt of their mother, gripping it carefully, so it does not slip from her waning frame. They would gaze up at her, she who has eyes yellowing with midnight prayers, empty like her stew pots, who is stiff with chronic recovery, and carries joints that ache with the weight of being widowed. Motherhood is the first part of herself she held in her hands to show me. I don’t think she’s held herself in a while. Interviewer’s Notes Her interview name is Hannah. She told me that most of her children who live in her house are her brother’s, her sister’s, her neighbor’s. They all died; now the children are hers. I asked how she manages to get money for food; she says she prays. There is little work for widows or Ebola Survivors, never work for both. She’s starving, she says, from feeding her children. “This is not my body,” she said. At the end of the interview, when I asked her how she’s coping with every day of the rest of her life, she met my eyes and stated with conviction, “Ah gɛ fo tel Gɔd tɛnke.” I have to tell God thank you. She was my first interview of the study. This phrase was, in fact, how many of the interviews ended. Interview Eight My professor gave me wipes saturated with DEET bug spray. They wiped off anything I owned that smelled like life but shielded me from the mosquitoes—I imagined the malaria rolling off me like droplets of water. The day after the second round of interviews, I carried myself back to my room, gingerly, like a baby with a fever she fights to sleep off, lips pursed with the effort, a tight O. I peeled off my clothes, tried to imagine the will to shower, to wash the red dirt of upline roads off my soles, and I didn’t. I sprawled myself out, limp on thin bedsheets, naked, wondering why I couldn’t inhale. I saw her face in my slow and tired blinks that night; God she looked like me; she looked like me; I didn’t know how to cry until my mom called, and not only until she called but until she prayed for me, because then I was tasting my tears before I felt them and saying that she lost everyone, she watched her parents rot from the inside out with disease, her whole family walked into an Ebola Treatment Center and she came out, five years later she’s still young enough to wear barrettes in her hair, her lip quivers before she cries, she is in school she is knock-kneed oh God you look like me she looks like me she looks on while I do not sleep. Interview eight beads on my skin, runs itself under my toenails, onto my sheets. The upline dirt settles into my cracks. I turn red. I do not take a shower until after a bus ride back down to Freetown. The Bus (II) It was the rolling green and the lean, breathing chickens casually plopped into plastic bags, and the teeny fingers curled around my wrap skirt from a child I’d never met before who— skeptical ten minutes ago— now calls me auntie. It was the ride back down to town. No matter how early the bus leaves, it takes all day. It was another woman’s son on my lap and the melancholy knowledge that the person he calls “ma” is not his mother. So, maybe I am sweet enough to offer him part of my seat because he is a stranger in his own family, and with the English pigment on my own Krio, so am I. Epilogue I left my best pens in Sierra L eone. I left my body bar soap in the house of a Mende famil y I did not know until we ate cassava. I left small pieces of wellbeing in the observation al nature of the work, in the d istance it forces that we some times just ignored. I left some water in my uncle’s car, waiti ng for the boat. I left three we eks. Of decent sleep. It was ju st me and my backpack with my instant print camera and n o film left. My cousin’s brace let boxy on my wrist, the one she gave to me off her own h and because she wanted me t o remember her. Fabric, from Granda Salimum, long twists i n my hair, pages and pages of half done prayers in my no tes’ margins, plenty of red dirt in my soles.