This article was previously published on Ebola Deeply.
By Samwar Fallah
At Bo Waterside on this busy market day, crowds gather around market stalls stocked with bulging bags of rice, fake soccer shirts, and fresh oranges. There’s little effort to minimize bodily contact: traders push past one another, and children squeeze through the throngs of people, selling peanuts, cellphone cards, and sachets of cold water.
Until three weeks ago, Bo Waterside was deserted. Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf announced the reopening of the border after an eight-month closure on February 22, just two months after a flare-up of cases in Grand Cape Mount, the western county that sits alongside the border. Sierra Leone was slower to open its doors, resulting in a temporarily confusing situation that allowed Liberians out of their country, but not into Sierra Leone. The issue was soon resolved, and many people say they are glad to be able to resume cross-border travel and trade.
Mary M. Juane, from Sierra Leone, is among those crossing the border from Liberia into her home country. She is 70 years old and, until Ebola hit, was still working as a primary school teacher in the Sierra Leonean town of Fairo.
“Bye bye, Liberia,” Juane cries out, as she flashes her identity card at the border post. “There is nowhere like home. I don’t care about Ebola anymore. I’m just happy to get back to Sierra Leone,” she says, with a big smile.
On July 20, 2014, Juane traveled to Monrovia by land to visit her children who live in the Liberian capital’s Slipway Community, where several cases of Ebola were recorded. Juane planned to stay for two weeks, but as the Ebola outbreak escalated, the resulting state of emergency lengthened her stay by eight months.
“When I was stuck in Liberia, I used to cry all the time,” she says. “My children would say, ‘Listen, they are burning people who die from Ebola. If you get sick, you will die and get burned, and even your soul will not go back home to Sierra Leone.'”
Edwin Pundoe is a 37-year-old petty trader from Liberia who is equally happy that the border has reopened. He is on his way to the Sierra Leonean town of Kenema, where he plans to sell sports goods.
“Now I can buy sneakers in Monrovia and take them to Sierra Leone to sell,” he says. “During the outbreak, I ate all the small money I had, and I struggled to get by. But now I am happy I can sell again. I don’t really fear Ebola, I only fear not making money.”
Confusion and Suspicion
Pundoe crosses the border without any problems from customs officers. But not far behind him is Mohammed Pussah, a trader from Tieni in Liberia’s Grand Cape Mount County. Drenched in sweat, he is pushing a yellow wheelbarrow—known locally as a "push-push"—stacked with bags of rice.
“Oh, I am so happy the border is open,” he says. “I push loads across every day; sometimes I make up to 20 trips in one day. When the border was closed, nobody gave me loads to carry, so I was really suffering.”
When he reaches the border post, officials ask Pussah to step away from his wheelbarrow and have his temperature taken. He refuses, worried that his push-push might not be there when he returns.
“People are refusing to wash their hands,” says Yassah Godoe, a registered nurse assigned to the medical checkpoint on the Liberian side of the border, where resources such as thermometers and bottles of hand sanitizer are provided by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). She says they have encountered much resistance to the new protocols designed to keep the spread of Ebola in check.
“Sometimes when someone has a high temperature reading, we ask them to stay in a room for a while, just in case,” Godoe says. “But there is often confusion. Children are also moving across without always getting checked, as are some older people. You ask them to stop, but they tell you they are just going to walk round [the checkpoint], and you cannot stop them.”
People suspected of having a fever are taken to the Sinje Ebola treatment center, about 25 minutes away, for tests.
“Two days ago, we had to transfer two suspected cases,” Godoe adds. “They tested positive for malaria, but we are waiting to do a second Ebola test for them both after three days.”
Godoe’s colleague Marthaline Doe says it can be a challenge to persuade people to take preventative measures before entering Sierra Leone.
“It is not easy here,” she says. “People don’t want to wash their hands and get their temperature taken. You have to talk and talk, and some people will still run away. On a market day like today, it is hell. People are behaving as if they don’t know what Ebola is. I have a headache.”
Collaboration, But Limited Support
On the Sierra Leonean side of the border, Hajie Sheriff is on duty. He is the supervisor for the border post's medical team. Although the post is run by the Sierra Leonean government, Sheriff says that it has not provided adequate resources.
“Our people don’t care for us; the Liberians are even helping us with gloves and other materials,” he says. “I have 15 volunteers here, but nobody cares about them. We can’t even get staples, and have to get them from our friends in Liberia. We really need support.”
Meanwhile, Boima Bango, a member of Sheriff’s team tasked with checking temperatures, is having a tough day. He’s complaining about motorbike riders crossing the border without stopping at the medical post.
“Sometimes they will forcibly pass through the checkpoint with their passengers,” Bango says. “Other people stop, but they push to be served first, and are fighting and touching each other, risking the spread of Ebola. People don’t care; they have no fear of Ebola.”
A security officer from the Liberian side of the border who spoke on condition of anonymity says it’s hard to control the movement of people. The security team only has two motorbikes, but the border has three different entry points, making it difficult to effectively patrol.
“When you tell them to get their temperature checked, they start to talk about you,” he said. “Then news spreads that you are preventing people from crossing the border. It’s hard.”
Everyone, it seems, is trying to do their jobs with as little hassle as possible, from the medical teams to the traders. But with logistical constraints combined with trust issues between traders and nurses, a risk of cross-border transmission of the virus clearly remains.
But, among the traders who use this border crossing daily, the most tangible feeling is that of relief. Williet Bangura, who sells Liberian goods in Sierra Leone, likens the reopening of the border to the abolition of slavery.
“Oh, I thank God they opened it,” she says. “[It] was so hard for me when the border was closed.”
Samwar Fallah is a contributor to Ebola Deeply.
[Photo courtesy of Ebola Deeply]