I had just dropped my wife downtown on Buchanan Street and was heading back to work in Sinkor – 19th Street. At the car washing area on Buchanan Street between Carey and Benson streets, I slowed to let a “brahbee” (street peddler/petty hustler) cross the road and he shouted out “Shekie (big boss man), they say weed can cure Ebola!” He repeated it twice and with an unusual level of conviction. My natural reaction would have been to dismissively respond “you stupid, ehn!”, but unsure of how he may respond and realizing I was outnumbered as the area teems with listless youth like him, I kept silent. I instantly accepted that I was actually stunned by his statement, paused by both disbelief and despair. I was shocked because coming from him I would normally consider this statement as foolish and silly. On reflection however, I was impressed that at least he was thinking about Ebola and how he could relate to it. It appeared to me that ”brahbee” was concerned about his high, right, wrong or indifferent, but all the same, that was his level of concern. At the same time, he was looking for a solution that was familiar to him. The despair came when I thought that these “brahbees” are our most vulnerable, the ones living on the edge of existence. Most of the young people cannot afford basic necessities for Ebola prevention such as bleach and clean water. Where is the support for the most vulnerable in our society? How do we get it to them quickly? Do we just sit and wait for a national government response? As the common adage goes, “They are living by the grace of God”, but lest we forget, you and I constitute government with responsibilities and duties to our society and the State.
Sitting and waiting for ‘the government’ which we believe has more responsibility than ourselves comes with a risk; a deadly alternative. What happens when ‘brahbee dem’ get it? We can be honest, many of these ‘brahbees’, both men and women are at the lowest rungs of our society, often considered a social nuisance, sometimes escalating to a menace. We may not pay much attention to them, but they are all over our inner city, opening our cars doors, holding your bag, loading taxi and passengers, washing cars, helping you park or just annoyingly brushing pass you. This means they interact with cab drivers, with the ‘pem-pem’ boys and our domestic employees in their daily commute to and from work. They are possibly the largest group of moving potential carriers and they interact with us across all levels of society. They don’t likely have an organized means of communication and are most-often illiterate, drug-dazed and very mobile. Getting to them is a big challenge. Do we want to deal with that? I think (or certainly hope) NOT.
Let’s go back one step and explain exactly how the “brahbee dem” relate to the all of us in the Ebola contracting cycle. ‘Brahbee –dem’ refers to the low-lifers, most of who are drug users, petty criminals, pickpockets, car-loaders, the homeless, and our darling street boys. They will say anything to you to put a smile on your face for that 20 LD, but are likely also looking for you to let your guard down to steal your phone, car hubcaps, headlights or battery. For whatever time you were in Liberia, you may have heard them referred to as the “yana boys”, “grona boys”, “Don Bosco pekin dem”, “FBI them” or more officially, ‘brahbee.” Honestly speaking, they are the rejects of our society, living in its under-belly, impacted by our civil war in unknown ways and used and abused by our failed systems. They have no access to health care, yet, they are Liberians and registered voters, like myself, who elected a government that promised peace and a better life.
Monrovia and its surroundings currently host an estimated 1.5 million people or more, although it was built for 400,000. While we don’t have statistics on what percentage makes up the ‘brahbee dem’ and likely have not invested much to formally document their numbers or conditions, needless to say, basic observation can prove that they are numerous, and increasing. One thing we know for sure is that we have all seen them, interacted with them, possibly know one or two who have fallen into this group through drug use, and can accept that our interaction is only the tip of the iceberg.
Given what we now know of Ebola, even this merely casual interaction with them presents an elevated risk. No matter the route, they are a constantly moving demographic. Remember Ebola does not require advanced levels of intimacy or significant amounts of contact which we would normally have because of our social strata. Just a touch! We interact in this very small society, in an even smaller city and ‘Brahbee dem’ are among us, beside us and around us.
According the WHO, it is clear that the Ebola virus is less prevalent in less populated and more remote cities like Barclayville or Cestos. It was acquired through one of our major food trading points, Lofa. It could have started from the small pepper trader. Today, however, we are now discussing lives lost of Liberian and foreign doctors, health care workers, senior government employees like Patrick Sawyer and all the nameless victims we read about in Ebola statistics in our newspapers. It has impacted all levels of society. Ebola stands a chance to wipe out our entire society if we don’t prevent it from the level of the society which represents over 70% of Liberia’s economic value. I am speaking from the perspective that the Liberian people are its most valuable asset.
Long winded perhaps, but my point to anyone is that this is an EVERYBODY fight. A nation and its people. This is one where running away is not a solution. Certainly if you leave and the ones that are left here die, how will the remaining 10% constitute a nation? Today, we have to stand up to the challenge and get behind one common cause to fight this face on. This will show to the world that, as a nation, we still have some strength in us. This is the unity that we need to save our people and rebuild Liberia to the 2030 vision – moving to a middle income country.
I am not saying that we don’t care about the ‘Shekies’ like you and I with cell phones, cars and internet access. I am just saying that the ‘Shekies’ have better options than ‘Brahbees dem.’ Today, I want us to think about the less fortunate and join whatever cause you can to support and let’s fight Ebola as a nation. Let’s avoid the blame game and get to work.
So, can weed kill Ebola? I don’t know. I wish it could and the decriminalization discussion is possibly one for another day. It was clear that the ‘brahbee’ association of weed to Ebola was the high we both needed to get somebody thinking about the true epidemic at hand. We act or lose the liberty that brought and keeps us here. Hehn, nahn fun O!