A version of this article, “I Am A Liberian, Not a Virus” was originally published on Ebola Deeply.
By Kate Thomas
When Shoana Solomon’s 9-year-old daughter was insulted at school in the U.S. “for simply being a Liberian,” Solomon’s weapon of choice was the marker pen.
Solomon and three other women in Monrovia – NGO consultant Aisha Cooper Bruce, Comfort Martin Leeco, and Rev. Dr. Katurah Cooper —came up with the slogan, “I Am a Liberian, Not a Virus,” and Solomon, a TV presenter and marketing executive, wrote it in block capitals across a piece of paper. “I came up with the idea of using imagery to express our feelings,” she told Ebola Deeply. “I took a self-portrait with those words, and the rest is history.” Within hours that image went viral.
“This campaign was started by four women who were talking about how frustrating it is to be looked at as if they were walking viruses from Liberia, rather than as human beings who just happened to be Liberians,” Solomon said.
She spoke with us about the stigma and the resulting campaign.
“We didn’t start the virus or invent it. On the contrary, it discovered us.” Shoana Solomon, Monrovia.
ED: How has the campaign been received so far?
Solomon: We’ve had a great response. There are Liberians and non-Liberians all over the world taking pictures with their own homemade signs and posting them on social media sites. Only education and time will remove the stigma surrounding all this. The purpose of this movement is simply to make people aware that even though this virus exists in our country, we are not all infected by it. But there’s still a huge problem with stigmatization. Since we made the video, my daughter, who is in the U.S. school system, has been insulted two more times, as has my niece who has never even been to Liberia.
ED: How is this stigma affecting children in particular?
Solomon: We do not want our children to be stereotyped or discriminated against at school. Adults can better cope with the insults, but our children can be scarred for life. My 9-year-old has been insulted five times in three weeks for simply being a Liberian. Stigmatization really starts with parents. We need to be sensitive about what we say around our children. I understand that people are scared and trying to be cautious. We are scared and equally cautious. We do not intend to change anyone’s feelings of fear, nor minimize the severity of the crisis. We just want people to be sensitive. Liberians have suffered enough. First, it was the civil war, and as if that was not enough, we now have the Ebola virus. We didn’t start the virus or invent it. On the contrary, it discovered us.
“We are not breaking news, we are not ‘those Africans.’ We are not projections, we are not numbers.” Aisha Cooper Bruce, who lives in Monrovia, is one of the founders of the campaign.
ED: Social media campaigns reach many people. But how else can we tackle the stigma?
Solomon: Ebola is a global issue, not just Africa’s problem. Soon the public will stigmatize the American nurses stricken with Ebola. We pray for their full recovery and we hope that they and their families will not be socially ostracized and treated as Liberians are being treated.
“We will not be defined by this thing that creeps, trying to destroy the fabric of who we are. ‘After all they been through, now this?’ will not be our epitaph.” William V.S Tubman III, Monrovia.
Stigmatization is happening because of a lack of information. Many people I have talked to about Ebola think it’s an airborne virus and if someone sneezes, they could infect their entire community. If we spread the word about how people actually contract the virus, people might react differently. The likelihood of most Americans getting the virus is very slim. A system of containment exists here in Liberia, which does not exist in some other developing countries. Yes, you might see more cases here, but I don’t believe it will get completely out of control.
And on a day-to-day basis, if you don’t want to shake my hand because I am a Liberian, that’s fine, but my message to the world is, please don’t insult my children.
Kate Thomas is a British-American journalist, editor, researcher, and Managing Editor of Ebola Deeply.
[Photo courtesy of Ebola Deeply]