By Leta A. Seletzky
I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Ebola. When I mentioned this to my mom, she laughed. I laughed, too. It’s a dramatic statement, but that doesn’t make it untrue.
Ensconced in my vacation home near Lake Tahoe in summer 2014, I followed the news reports about a Liberian man who arrived by air at Lagos, Nigeria’s Murtala Muhammed International Airport and collapsed. He was surrounded by people, some of whom tried to render aid. Shortly thereafter, the man died of the Ebola virus, but not before infecting other people in Lagos—he was Nigeria’s index case. The virus, which had previously gained a foothold in other parts of West Africa, went on to claim over 7,000 lives in the region by the year’s end. My children and I were Lagos residents, but we were fortunate to be “stranded” in our vacation home during the crisis.
Have you ever watched a calamity unfold with such grim assurance of the worst possible outcome that you drew perilously close to siding against hope? It’s not the same thing as explicitly wishing for the worst to happen. Rather, it’s believing that to have hope is foolish—and maybe even counterproductive.
Last summer, I was beginning to feel that hope in Nigeria was counterproductive. I had moved to Lagos, the country’s economic capitol, in April 2013 with my husband and our two young sons. My husband was working for an oil company. I was raising our boys, playing tennis, and planning vacations as my framed law degree sat in a cardboard box in our townhome’s attic. We had a driver, a gardener, a stewardess (the local term for a nanny or housekeeper; in our case, she was both), and a steward (the male version of a stewardess; in our case, he came to our house twice a week to chop vegetables).
I had arrived in the country with great hopes for a meaningful and joyous experience. Having spent the previous two years in southwestern Kazakhstan, with its somber apartment blocs and merciless winters, lush Nigeria looked like paradise for the first couple of months of living there. Strangers on the street in Nigeria actually smiled and spoke to me instead of shooting me a surly stare. The standard greeting is a hearty “You are welcome!” Fat ripe fruits hung from the branches of trees I couldn’t identify alongside teeming urban streets. The first time I saw a Traveler’s Palm, I imagined Adam and Eve walking amidst its luxuriant, fan-like fronds.
I knew I was in a honeymoon period, and I didn’t care. As if enraptured by a thrilling new boyfriend, I paid little mind to dissonant peeks at another reality: armed transport to and from the airport, security walls festooned with generous swirls of razor wire, and the bitter daily anti-malarial pills that many people (including my four-year-old son) complained caused nightmares as a side-effect.
During one of my first trips to the grocery store with my husband and children, I saw a man beating another man with a long cane by the side of the highway next to a parked bus crammed with passengers. I was relieved that my boys hadn’t noticed. Later, I mentioned it to my driver.
“Yes, Ma. He probably tried to steal something on the bus,” he explained.
After several months of being asked for bribes by customs officials at the airport, needing a security detail every time I wanted to go out after dark, and wondering whether every mosquito bite harbored a dread disease, the honeymoon was over. As with a not-so new boyfriend, I saw—and in many cases probably exaggerated—the country’s flaws.
By the time the rainy season arrived in late spring 2014, I had given up worrying about whether I appeared to be an Ugly American. I hardly bothered to leave our secured compound at all, except to participate in activities at my children’s school and attend obligatory dinners. In February, I had obtained a power of attorney from my husband, flown to Lake Tahoe (where we had spent the holidays), looked at about a dozen homes, and entered into a contract to purchase one. The first week of June, I joked with my husband that we were leaving for Tahoe the second school was out—even if we had to travel by dirigible to get there.
When I read that the Ebola virus had reached Lagos, a city of over 25 million inhabitants (most of them impoverished), I braced myself for news of unimaginable human suffering in Nigeria. With its corruption, economic inequality, weak infrastructure, and burgeoning terrorism, I didn’t see much cause for hope. After oil, hope seemed to be the country’s most abundant commodity. I wondered if hope weren’t part of the problem—hope without reform and practical actions to address social, economic, and political problems, that is. And I wondered if people like me—privileged and comfortable armchair critics looking in from the outside—weren’t part of the problem as well.
In late 2014, the World Health Organization announced that Nigeria, through its prompt and effective handling of the Ebola crisis, had eradicated the incidence of the virus within its borders. Meanwhile, the US was dealing with its own Ebola crisis. Even as the US Centers for Disease Control seemed to have bungled its Ebola response, Nigeria appeared to put this virulent genie back in its bottle. I had felt strangely safe in my pessimism about Nigeria, but once in a while, it feels good to be wrong.
Leta A. Seletzky is a former litigator who lived in Kazakhstan and Nigeria before settling in Incline Village, Nevada. She can be found on Twitter as @LaSeletzky.