On July 23, gravely ill Liberian-American diplomat Patrick Sawyer flew into Murtala Mohammed Airport. He died at a Lagos hospital four days later, after exposing scores of airline passengers and medical personnel to the Ebola virus.
Ebola had arrived in Nigeria. It has since spread to other areas of the country.
I live in Lagos but on the day Patrick Sawyer delivered his terrible gift, I was an ocean away. My three children and I were on vacation at my parents’ house in suburban Massachusetts.
It was disconcerting to be far from Lagos when it was in crisis. I read articles about Ebola in the newspaper, watched reports on CNN, and tried to ignore the panicked emails from expat women I know.
My parents urged us not to return to Nigeria. They suggested I enroll the kids in the elementary school down the road, which I attended as a child.
It was tempting. The children could walk to school along the same forest path I had used. My mother would cook delicious Indian meals and my father’s wine cellar would allow me to remain in a continuous state of inebriation. At 41, I would have no responsibilities and could spend my days in the basement hula hooping and taking naps.
My children, however, were sick of America. They missed their father, their friends, and their toys. They were desperate to return. My husband, John, assured us we would stay safe in Lagos, that Ebola in Nigeria could be contained. But it is very unnatural to willingly travel into danger. It takes courage, which I lack.
I couldn’t decide whether to stay or go. And then one day my husband phoned me from Lagos to complain about our housekeeper. He had broached the subject of Ebola with Marie and was annoyed by her response.
“What do you know of Ebola?” John had asked her, intending to discuss precautions to prevent the spread of disease.
“I don’t know him,” Marie replied. “Is he Yoruba?”
“Can you imagine,” John told me, “she thought E. Bola was a man’s name! Has she been living under a rock?”
And that was how I decided it would be safe for us to return to Lagos. If Marie—my barometer for all matters West African—had never heard of Ebola, it must not be a big deal.
The kids and I arrived in Nigeria in mid-August. As we taxied to the gate, the newlyweds beside us slipped on latex gloves.
After deplaning, the passengers queued up in neat lines for body temperature scans. This was the first time I had ever seen thermometers used at an airport or anyone in Nigeria stand in a line without trying to cut to the front.
The ordinarily bustling terminal was silent. It was as unsettling as in the weeks following 9/11 when New Yorkers stopped honking their horns and giving each other the finger. I felt like a cold hand was squeezing my heart. This wasn’t the Lagos I remembered. Was coming back a mistake?
I noticed a number of people pulling out bottles of hand sanitizer and squirting their palms as we cleared customs. Suddenly every surface seemed to be writhing with toxic germs. I wished there was a giant barrel of sanitizer I could dip my children into by the ankles, Achilles-style.
We exited the airport, dropped the suitcases at home then drove around looking for a place to eat. It was 10:00 p.m. on a Saturday night and Lagos was dead. We tried three restaurants but they were all closed.
We ended up at The Radisson, a shiny hotel perched on the lagoon.
I took a seat by the water and waited for my family to join me outside. From my table I had a view of the lobby. I saw a man near the bar lurching back and forth, vomiting. Then his face tipped up and I saw white discharge covering his mouth. At that moment, John and the kids walked by him.
John was stoic. As I saw my husband and children become infected with the Ebola virus, my eyes filled with tears. We had just become a cautionary tale.
My 4 decades on the planet, my 22 year romance with my husband, and my 3 beautiful children were about to be reduced to a handful of hysterical Facebook posts and a few mistakenly pressed thumbs ups.
Then the man straightened and I saw a shiny vacuum in his hand. His back was bucking because he was cleaning. What I had thought was white vomit was a surgical mask over his mouth.
John and the kids joined me at the table. They appeared to be Ebola-free.
Our first week back in Lagos was tense. I considered offering Marie an immediate early retirement because she coughed twice in an afternoon.
Despite my anxiety, we settled back into Nigerian life. My daughter got her hair twisted at the salon. I went grocery shopping. The children spent a happy day at the pool splashing with friends.
My fear began to dissipate. The number of Ebola cases in Nigeria, meanwhile, began dropping.
Aside from the strategically placed dispensers of hand sanitizer that had materialized around Lagos, it was business as usual.
I had no way to know how severely the Ebola virus would impact our lives when we returned. My decision was a bit impulsive, perhaps, but was borne from a desire to reunite my husband with his children. And I am certain I made the right choice. This is home.
It is in moments of adversity that we see the true worth of a people. Against all odds it seems that this awful virus has been contained here. Nigeria has been tested and I’m proud to say that she has come through with flying colors.
In the end, all I suffered was anxiety, nightmares and sleepless nights. Compared to thousands of our fellow Africans, we got off easy.