My alarm used to go off at 4.50am every morning. I would get up, hurriedly wash and dress and with barely enough time left to prepare breakfast, race out on to the tarmac.
No matter how early I left, there were usually already 50 people waiting by the roadside, looking out in the direction of the oncoming traffic, their breath steaming in the morning air. Schoolkids as young as four or five, older children in secondary school and university students, men and women on their way to work, and women on their way to trade their wares in the market. I had to walk about 30 minutes from my home, but others would have journeyed for an hour.
Two transport buses would arrive. Shoving and pushing one another, we’d crowd on board. Soon the seats were full; some people stood, others sat in the laps of anyone willing to accommodate them.
The buses headed to central Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city. The journey should have taken no more than 15 minutes, but the two-lane road is littered with potholes and so narrow that cars nearly scrape against each other. Heavy traffic sends opportunistic drivers completely off the road and creates a third lane in the dirt path beside it. Most days we sat in traffic for 40 minutes, our clothes smelling of exhaust fumes by the time we arrived.
That was all before the Ebola epidemic. The spread of the disease would eventually lead to the closure of schools and businesses and further destabilise Liberia’s small and vulnerable economy. The epidemic would prove what we know but the world was yet to see: that even more fragile than the economy was Liberia’s health sector. We had virtually no ambulances; clinics and hospitals were poorly stocked; nurses and doctors lacked training and experience. Add to that the fact that Liberians knew almost nothing about the disease – at its height, we all thought we would die, and in a matter of months.
Ebola put an end to the scramble for the bus. As the disease was spread through human contact we refused to shake hands, share public toilets or touch objects belonging to other people. When walking in a crowd was unavoidable, as it was in the marketplaces, you felt as though death were following you around like a shadow. And you trembled. So instead the early risers got to sleep in and our roads, normally crowded with people awaiting transport, were eerily quiet.
Today Ebola has been all but eradicated. The six new cases reported in July have resulted in no deaths and so my attention slowly turns again to my bugbear: our woeful transportation system. I can think again of the hard days the market people have to face as they travel to and from the interior, carrying food and other basic commodities.
As schools reopen, the fatigue of students and workers will return as they jostle to get on to buses to get to school and work on time. I will again start to gather with my friends to bemoan government priorities. Top of our list will be the news that the Republic of China has donated 12 sedans and four buses, valued at over $1m, to our government. A welcome gift, except the vehicles are “to be used for protocol purposes”. It’s the way Liberia’s elite cater only to their own needs that frustrates us most. As one stranded market woman said in Kreyol, our vernacular English: “They bluffin round with their big, big cars, but people can’t get one rotting bus to go home sef.”
Saah Millimono is a freelance fiction writer and the author of the award-winning novel, Boy, Interrupted. This article was originally published in The Guardian online: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/07/ebola-buses-epidemic-commute