Why I am Afraid of the African Disease of Ebola

Wherever I turn, there is Ebola. In the newspapers and magazines, on television and radio, and across the ubiquitous social media. Ebola. I sweat, shake, and cringe in mortal fear. Such an ugly word, fearsome in its primal sound, so African, so dark, so black. Since Africa is one country, beware of going to Africa, the media screams. Never mind those who occasionally mention the disease is currently confined to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, three out of Africa’s 54 countries. But what do they know about world geography, Africa is Africa. That’s the problem with political correctness, denial of inconvenient truths. This is an African disease. It afflicts Africa, that benighted land of biblical agonies, of inexplicable scourges, of unimaginable suffering, of epidemics and pandemics, of AIDS.

I am afraid of Ebola because I am an African. I am not one of the nearly 1.1 billion Africans actually living on the continent. What difference does it make that all of western and eastern Europe, China, India, and the United States would fit into Africa; it is one sorry place home to all those hapless people living in trepidation of Ebola. I am part of Africa’s large global diaspora numbering in the tens of millions. But I remain an African, so I am scared of my susceptibility to the disease that is so African. I live in the United States, and I am terrified because, as of today, months after the panic started Ebola has already killed one person, an African who had travelled to Africa, and infected one health care worker.

I wonder how many people have since died of other diseases—heart disease, malignant cancers, lung disease, brain disease, accidents or unintentional injuries, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, kidney disease, and suicide, the ten leading causes of death in the United States, responsible for nearly 1.86 million deaths in 2011, three-quarters of all deaths in the country. Where is the panic on all these deaths, some of which were surely preventable and premature. But that is beside the point. These are normal deaths. Ebola is terrifying in its monstrosity. It is a disease out of Africa.

I am afraid of Ebola because I, too, come from Africa. I watch the gory images of deaths from Ebola in Africa. I listen to the pundits pontificating about the millions it will kill in Africa, the need to close US borders from Africa. I shudder at seeing President Obama whose father came from Africa (or is it Kenya) being called President Ebola. I am stunned when a student refuses to go on a study abroad trip to Spain because it is close to Africa. Hasn’t one Ebola case already been diagnosed there? I am speechless when well meaning colleagues wonder why I’m going to Africa; they never hear the names of the actual countries I am going to.

I am afraid of Ebola because it is robbing me of my African authenticity when I fail to give special insights into the nature of the disease from inquiring colleagues or the media. About the culinary delights of eating monkey meat that apparently sparked Ebola and the strange primeval customs that helped spread it like wildfire. The fact that I am not a medical doctor, or from the three affected countries doesn’t matter. I am an African. Or have I become too Americanized to understand my African disease heritage? Maybe I am not Americanized enough to speak authoritatively about things I know little about, not even when it comes to that simple place with a single story called Africa.

I  am afraid of Ebola for bringing back to the center stage the Afro-pessimists with their perennial death wishes for the continent. In recent years they had lost some traction to the narratives of a ‘rising’ Africa. I am afraid of Ebola because it has quarantined me in the denigrated Africa of the western imagination, in the diseased blackness of my body. Ebola has robbed the American public of Africa’s multiple stories, of the continent’s splendid diversities, complexities, contradictions, and contemporary transformations. Ebola is indeed a deadly panic. It threatens civilization as we know it.

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Or are my fears about Ebola misplaced? Is it about something else deep in the western psyche I can’t understand, perhaps going back the Black Death of the 14th century that decimated nearly one-third of Europe, the influenza pandemic of 1918 that killed tens of millions of people, or the genocide of native peoples in the Americas brought about by European diseases? But questions offer little solace in the avalanche of grim stories about the African plague of the year, Ebola. As someone who earns a living as an educator, I am afraid of Ebola because it is an enemy of critical and balanced thinking about Africa, about disease, about our common humanity.

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza

Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, born in Malawi, is vice chancellor of United States International University – Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. He is a past president of the U.S.-based African Studies Association.

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©Africa is a Country, 2016