- The Words Are MapsTwo years after an outbreak devastated Sierra Leone, an anthropologist returns to the country in search of a rumored Ebola museum
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“I think an Ebola survivor’s house collapsed this morning,” said Katie, a friend who works for an international NGO in Sierra Leone. She looked tired as she approached me, phone in hand. At the edge of the hotel lobby, a colleague waited for her at a café table. It was mid-August, and I was two days into my first visit to Freetown, the country’s capital, in almost 10 years. Outside the hotel lobby’s doors, the circular driveway was flooded, as it had been for days. One expects rain during the rainy season in one of the wettest places in the world, but this much was unusual. [End Page 76] The Western Area, where Freetown is located, had received more than four inches of rain that week, and triple the region’s seasonal average in the previous six weeks.
I waited in the restaurant off the lobby in the hopes that the storm would die down before I headed off to find a rumored Ebola museum some 140 miles outside Freetown. I first learned of the museum from a vaguely worded Sierra Leonean newspaper article back in 2015. Then I forgot about it until two years later, when I had an intriguing email exchange with another anthropologist who had worked in Sierra Leone during the West African Ebola outbreak. I told her about my plan to visit Ebola exhibits in London and Atlanta, and she asked me why I hadn’t also planned to visit the museum in Sierra Leone. During one of her post-outbreak field visits, she added, the museum had been the subject of bitter debate between planners, government officials, and foreign sponsors. But that was all she seemed to know about it. Though Katie had been working with Ebola survivors for a couple of years, she hadn’t heard of the museum, and neither had many of her local co-workers. Scant information about the museum could be found online, and I had failed to reach any of its founders or planners by phone or email. All I knew was that it was somewhere on Njala University’s main campus, which is in the southeast, a few miles outside of Bo Town, Sierra Leone’s second city. I hired a car and a driver, Idrissa, and set out to find it.
It wasn’t a stretch to suppose that a national museum was in the works but hadn’t yet made enough progress to warrant local attention. That seemed to be the case for a lot of ambitious projects proposed here. Sierra Leone is a beautiful and resource-rich country, but even for the elite, it is not an easy place to live. It has the dubious distinction of being near or at the bottom of most global development rankings and of having some of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world. The civil war, which left a million people displaced and between 20,000 and 50,000 dead, contributed to the decline of health systems, but longtime Sierra Leone observers know that the root of the country’s woes took hold well before the Revolutionary United Front marched into Sierra Leone from Liberia in 1991. Extractive industries like diamond mining and cash-crop agriculture—and even the trans-Atlantic slave trade—have, to varying degrees, done their share of environmental, economic, political, and psychic damage to generations of Sierra Leoneans. Fiscal policies like structural adjustment, which capped wages for health workers, reduced civil-service jobs in the health sector, and led to steady declines in health financing, also took their toll.
Then, in May 2014, Sierra Leone was struck by Ebola, a viral hemorrhagic fever with the potential to kill its host within a matter of days. It led to the largest recorded outbreak since the disease was identified in 1976. When it...