I am a news junkie, but I try to scale that addiction back when on vacation. I try not to read a newspaper, or watch television news. But sometimes a story is so big it intrudes on my holidays, like the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
I remember West Point, the Liberian ghetto almost no-one had heard of until Ebola began making headlines and West Point was quarantined in an attempt to prevent further spread of the disease. I doubt much has changed since I was there in 1989, except for an increase in population. West Point then was a spit of land in downtown Monrovia, the poorest district in one of the world’s poorest countries. One third by one half mile, one (unpaved) road in. No running water. No electricity. No sewers. Thirty-five thousand people. Reports now put the population at 75,000. What does it say about us that after 25 years things have gotten worse, not better, in such a place?
It was and apparently still is a place where poverty and desperation reign, a place where hell on earth can be seen rather than imagined. I was there to observe a free clinic run by Larry Tiedje, an American missionary dentist working with SIM (www.sim.org or www.sim.ca). The work was done outdoors, in the hot African sun. Dozens of people were lined up. Dr. Tiedje explained to me that his monthly visit to West Point was not really a clinic in a North American sense but rather hour after hour of pulling severely diseased teeth. He was the first dentist any of his patients had ever seen. Brushing and flossing were unknown to them. They came because the pain in their mouths was excruciating and there was no hope of preserving the tooth.
The clinic drew a crowd of curious onlookers. I noticed one man wearing a t-short that said “I shopped the West Edmonton Mall,” and was struck by the incongruity of a tribute to consumerism in such a place. Old t-shirts from North America are shipped in bulk to Africa and sold cheaply. They are bought as clothing, not to show identification with a team, a place, a cause.
I thought of Larry Tiedje and West Point as the Ebola story played out in the news this summer. And of the SIM missionaries I knew, and SIM’s ELWA Hospital, three doors down from the house where we lived in 1989. I knew from the outset that there would be Christian missionaries at the forefront of the battle against Ebola, serving the people despite the personal risk. And if you lived in Monrovia then you knew that care comes from ELWA, not from the government-run hospital. I suspect not much has changed.
Canadian singer-songwriter Carolyn Arends once told me there had been a problem with the lyrics of her song Seize The Day, which would become her first hit. The record company found the words objectionable, especially as a single. They wanted to remove a verse.
Well I know a doctor, a fine young physician
Left his six-figure job for a mission position
He’s healing the sick in an African clinic
He works in the dirt and writes home to the cynics
Can’t have that in pop music. It is sinful to suggest the dollar isn’t supreme, that there can be a higher calling to service. What were they afraid of? That the song might encourage people to help others?
The news of the Ebola outbreak has brought back memories of time spent in Liberia, of doctors and nurses (and dentists) who wanted to make a difference rather than make a dollar. Twenty-five years later, as I watch the news, it is good to know that there are still medical professionals who are answering the call to seize the day.