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world wide wednesdays :: where does ebola come from?

if you've heard anything about the country of liberia lately, it's likely the thing that i've alluded to in the title: it has the dubious distinction of being the epicentre of the current outbreak of ebola hemorrhagic fever and the country where the death toll has been the greatest. the only other thing that westerners generally know about liberia is that it's one of the countries implicated in the sale of blood diamonds, but sadly, a lot of people probably don't even remember that much. and it's our loss, because liberia is a fascinating place with an incredibly unique, albeit somewhat horrifying history. and that's what i'm here to tell you about.

compared to other parts of the world, liberia appears to have been uninhabited until comparatively recent times. the area known in europe as the "pepper coast" was originally settled between the 12th and 16th centuries as far as anyone can tell, by people who were pushed out of lands to the north and east by expanding empires and an expanding desert. the territory has since been home to a variety of tribes with different languages who existed in states ranging from cooperative tolerance to armed hostility. several of those groups traded with europeans who arrived there [but who never stayed]. unlike virtually every other acre of land in the known universe, european powers didn't seek to colonise this part of west africa. well, not at first.

although we generally associate the end of slavery in the united states with the civil war of the 1860s, there had long been debate about whether or not it was just the slightest bit wrong to own other human beings as if they were furniture or livestock and those who thought that god was likely to be pissed at them for doing so started ruminating about what would happen if all the blacks brought from africa and their descendents were suddenly freed and told they could just do whatever the hell they wanted from now on.

the melegueta pepper, plentiful along the liberian coast
many thinkers of the time believed that "whatever the hell they wanted" would probably involve hunting down whitey and splitting some skulls as payback for the whole kidnapping, enslavement, rape, torture and murder thing they'd been perpetrating. thomas jefferson was among the most outspoken in his beliefs that you couldn't just unlock the chains and wish the guys good luck, because asking blacks to let bygones be bygones at that stage was asking them to forgive something he didn't even think god could find it in himself to excuse. so in order to avoid an all-out race war, jefferson and others hypothesized that it would be better to just pack all the former slaves up and send them back to africa. never mind the fact that most blacks in america at that point had been born there and didn't know the first thing about africa, or the fact that just throwing people who have spent their entire lives on farms and plantations into the middle of africa and letting them fend for themselves raises some pretty serious moral questions, or that africa wasn't just another county, but a whole continent with hundreds of ethnic groups, many of whom didn't get on so well; jefferson and his ilk figured that if they didn't make arrangements to ship everyone back, it was lights out for whitey. [side note: lest you think that jefferson was a product of his time, he wasn't really. his views on the necessity of repatriation and the impossibility of a country where whites and blacks lived together in peace were pretty out there even for the late eighteenth century.]

so in 1820, a group called the american colonization society really did start packing former slaves onto boats and sending them back where they came from. more accurately, they sent the freed men back to where the white folk thought they came from, but really just sent them to a place on the west african coast that hadn't been claimed by anyone else. the initial efforts at establishing a colony went about as well as you would expect: neither the freed slaves nor the handful of whites assigned to get the american colony up and running [you didn't think that the americans were going to just hand over a whole country to people they'd previously owned, did you?] had immune systems that couldn't deal with tropical diseases and the first settlers [those who had survived the journey overseas] died pretty quickly of yellow fever.

however, white america's dream of having a place for all the freed slaves that was as far away from them as humanly possible would not die with them. the colonization society pushed on and kept shipping former slaves back to the place that they christened liberia, named for freedom itself. [side note: this wasn't even an original american idea. the british had established a similar colonial project in neighbouring sierra leone after the american revolutionary war. during the war, the brits had promised black slaves that they would be given their freedom if they took up weapons for the king and killed some of their american oppressors, which had to sound like the ultimate win-win situation for someone living in slavery at the time. when the war was over, king george discovered he had one less colony, but a lot of former slaves looking to him to keep up his side of the bargain. he did, in a way, by telling them that they were welcome to make what they could of sierra leone, which probably wasn't what the men had had in mind when they agreed to put their lives at risk for him.]

now this is all well and good, you might say, but weren't there people already living in liberia, exactly like there were in north america when the europeans arrived? why yes, all those people who had gradually filled up the coastline hundreds of years before were still there and, as it turns out, no one had ever asked them what they thought of having a few thousand americans shipped to their country to live in freedom. of course, if they'd been asked, it's possible that the indigenous people would have shrugged and said that there was lots of space and it's not like they were being sent back to rule over them as an elite minority with no knowledge of or respect for their cultures... right?

well, as it turns out, when america said they wanted a colony, they meant it. they wanted a colony that they could control in case it turned out that the land had stuff with actual value and the best way to maintain control was to make sure that the people they were sending there were the ones with the power. they were confident the freed blacks would be well-disposed towards america for having liberated them and would surely forget about the whole slavery thing once they'd started enjoying life in this tropical paradise, which one assumes would be once they stopped dying of its tropical diseases. the americans knew how this sort of system worked, after all, it was what had gotten them where they were. so the citizens of the country who had just fought a war against their empirical overlords and started freeing their slaves sent those slaves to another part of the world to subjugate people who were supposed to be like them in the name of their american empirical overlords. somewhere, hypocrisy implodes on itself like a dying star.

modern day monrovia
perhaps the saddest aspect of this whole story is that the "repatriated" americo-liberians learned the lessons of minority dominance really well. their language [english] and religion [protestant christianity] were established as the hallmarks of the upper class and, while they believed in some level of social mobility [through conversion to christianity], they practiced racial and cultural segregation between themselves and the indigenous liberians. education was reserved for the americo-liberian minority, as were voting rights. there were also steps taken to ensure that the capital, monrovia and other major cities remained safely in the hands of the americo-liberians, while the indigenous people were left in the poorer countryside. [side note: monorovia was named after american president james monroe and was purchased by emissaries of the american colonization society from a local leader when they made him an offer he couldn't refuse. and i do mean that in the don vito corleone sense, although i wish i didn't. the emissaries literally pointed a gun at the chieftain's head and told him that he should seriously consider selling them his city and getting the hell out.]

it wasn't until a wave of immigrants from the rural areas arrived in monrovia desperately seeking work after world war two that the voting franchise was extended to those who were not of american descent. although they never amounted to more than 5% of the population, the americo-liberians retained control of the country until 1980, when things reached the first of several boiling points and the government was overthrown in a military coup lead.

a government soldier during the second civil war
the eighties were a time of severe repression and paranoia [typical of most military dictatorships] and in 1989, the first of two civil wars broke out. the leader of the insurrectionist army was a man named charles taylor. i don't really have the time to get into his biography, but it is a grimly fascinating story. it's easy to dismiss him as a brutal mercenary and one of the politicians most responsible for bringing the term "blood diamond" into the vernacular, but at one point, taylor was a rebel against an authoritarian regime, a force for political change. in 1997 he was elected president following the end to the civil war, but the war flared up again almost immediately and raged until 2003, when he was finally deposed. it took until 2005 for the first truly fair, universal and free elections to come to the land named for freedom.

there were two principal candidates for the presidency: former world bank economist ellen johnson sirleaf, who had served in the cabinet of the last americo-liberian president, and george weah, a football/ soccer superstar who had grown up in the slums of monrovia. in the end, liberians decided to go with experience and education and made sirleaf the first female head of state in africa. [side note: although her actual genealogy is more complicated, sirleaf is generally identified as an americo-liberian because she is culturally closer to the former ruling class and was part of their government. weah, on the other hand, was from the indigenous kru ethnic group, one of the very first to settle liberia centuries ago.]

so there you have my truncated, overly simplified, terribly inadequate history of liberia. when you hear about it in conjunction with ebola and wonder why things seem to be out of control there, you might want to consider that it's pretty difficult for a nation to build up any health infrastructure- or any kind of infrastructure- during a decade and a half of civil war that's resulted from over a century of repressed cultural tensions. because that's why things are really messed up in liberia now and why the country seems so unable to deal with its own medical needs.

viewed from a historical perspective, we have a serious ebola outbreak in africa right now because white americans don't like or trust black americans.

p.s. :: you might want to check out the story behind the final picture i've used above. it's sort of famous. 

p.p.s. :: and no, in case you're wondering, george weah was never an arsenal player, so not every footballer i mention on this blog is a gunner. of course, it could be noted that weah achieved his idol status when he was plucked from the african leagues and brought to europe by a.s. monaco manager arsène wenger, who just last week celebrated eighteen years managing arsenal, but i swear that's just a coincidence.

p.p.p.s. :: charles taylor was eventually brought to trial for war crimes committed during the liberian civil wars. in his defense, he claimed that his use of detention and torture was necessary in the interests of national security, just as it had been for george w. bush when he'd employed the same tactics. the defense didn't fly, however and in 2013, taylor started serving a fifty year sentence in a british prison.

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