PHOTO CAPTION: Betty Sebbeh, right, in Providence on Saturday, mourns the death of her stepdaughter, Cecelia Mahm, a victim of Liberia’s Ebola outbreak. Sitting on the floor is a Liberian custom for mourning. By Tom Mooney / Journal Staff Writer – firstname.lastname@example.org
PROVIDENCE — The women’s wailing spilled from a small apartment off Harford Avenue Saturday morning — the grieving begun for Cecelia Mahm, 39, now dead from Ebola 4,500 miles away in Liberia, her four children presumed pariahs on the hungry streets of Monrovia.
“No one is going to take care of them because they’re so scared,” Mahm’s cousin, Christopher Togbasi, said as he stood outside the apartment with other family mourners. “No one will get close to them.”
The worst outbreak of Ebola ever recorded is, for many Americans, little more than a segment on the evening news. But for Rhode Island’s roughly 15,000 Liberians, the West African scourge has become a nightmare of infuriating frustration and mounting fear.
News arrives daily in overseas phone calls of the latest casualties, and, Togbasi says, of the latest governmental bungling of an out-of-control disaster that has plunged the county into turmoil.
“People are dying of hunger because the government has told everyone to stay inside,” he said. “No one is getting food. People are dying in the streets, and the situation is getting worse every day.”
PROVIDENCE JOURNAL VIDEO BY KATHY BORCHERS
News of Cecelia Mahm’s death reached her brother Brooks Sayue, of Weylan Road, at about 5 a.m. Saturday.
“I spoke to her just yesterday,” he said, his eyes rimmed with sadness. “She was at the hospital.”
Two weeks ago, her husband, who was a nurse, also died of Ebola. Cecelia went then for the first time to a hospital feeling ill. But the hospital told her to return home and wait 21 days, the incubation period for the disease, before returning.
But Cecelia knew her health was failing quickly. She had told her brother and other Providence relatives as much. She returned to the hospital “but died before she could be admitted,” Sayue said.
“She was a strong woman,” he said. Cecelia ran a restaurant in Gardnersville, the Monrovia suburb where she cared for four children ranging in ages from 8 to 16. “She had about 22 people who worked for her. But after the government told everyone to stay home, she told them all not to come [to work] because she didn’t want them to transmit the virus.”
As of Saturday, no one in Providence knew the whereabouts of Cecelia’s children, said Sayue.
He has five of his own children stuck in Monrovia with public transportation all but halted and few planes entering or leaving the country. The oldest is 22 and cares for her siblings. “I’m worried a lot. They call me every day. They don’t have any food.”
Another cousin of Ceceilia’s, Thomas Sawgaie, said he was in the same situation with children in Monrovia unable to leave: “If they die, what is the reason for me to be living?”
Sayue said the government should be going door-to-door distributing food and checking on the health of its citizens as the government is doing next door in Sierra Leone. Instead, the government has implemented a policy of self-quarantine, which has people dying as much from starvation as from Ebola.
In a culture that customarily has relatives bathe the body of the deceased, Cecelia’s Providence relatives were also left wondering Saturday what had happened to her corpse.
“All we know is Cecelia is not there” at the hospital, said Sawgaie. “We assume they wrapped her in plastic and put her in a mass grave. This is the situation in Liberia.”
The situation, Mahm’s relatives say, is desperate. They plan to reach out to Rhode Island’s congressional delegation this week asking them to urge President Obama to do more to help Liberia, a nation founded in the 1820s by African-Americans and a country that for a decade has been trying to rebound from a 14-year-old civil war.
Their appeal was echoed Friday by Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who implored Mr. Obama in a letter to provide at least 1,500 more hospital beds before the virus overwhelms her country.
Last week the World Health Organization warned that the number of Ebola cases in Liberia had been greatly underestimated.
Dr. Timothy Flanigan, an infectious disease specialist with Brown University, was quoted in The New York Times Saturday as saying a 25-bed military hospital the United States has provided was “hardly a drop in the bucket for the people of Liberia.”
A larger American response is expected to be announced later this week.
Other Rhode Island Liberians say that rumors and distrust of the Liberian government are making it difficult to get an accurate picture of what’s really happening on the ground.
William McBorrough, 63, of Providence, came to Rhode Island 23 years ago but has a sister, a brother, cousins and countless friends back in Monrovia. “It’s hard to fathom what’s going on in Liberia unless you are there,” he said last week. “This morning, I got an email from my sister that said an official from the government got infected by the Ebola virus in the foreign ministry.” But McBorrough hadn’t heard any news reports confirming that.
His relatives tell him some people are going around telling villagers there is no Ebola, that instead someone has poisoned the water system with chemicals and that’s why people are dying.
“That’s the kind of thing we’re hearing coming from back home,” said McBorrough. “Most of the time you get confused because one thing will have four or five different stories” attached to it. “It’s frightening. It’s frightening.
“I’m praying it won’t, but it could get worse before it gets better. “That’s what has everybody tired and worried.”
Back in Brooks Sayue’s Providence apartment, three women wail on the living room floor for Cecelia Mahm in a ceremony that will go for three days, as is Liberian custom.
Her cousin Togbasi translates their cries: “They are saying this disease is war, this disease has come to destroy our people. Where is our government? Why are people dying in the streets?”