Yesterday I made one of the toughest decisions of my life. As you will all be aware, the Ebola virus has been causing devastation throughout West Africa since March this year, leaving a trail of fatalities in its wake. It’s an unthinkable tragedy and I have watched on with huge sadness as these events unfolded.
However, my plans to return to Uganda remained unchanged. This was an epidemic taking place over 5,000 kilometers away on the other side of a continent. People so often speak of ‘Africa’ as one place, a single country rather than a landmass covering 30 million square kilometers, triple the size of Europe, with 54 counties, home to over a billion people. I sometimes wondered if there was an Ebola outbreak in Ukraine it would stop people travelling to Paris. I highly doubt it and yet it’s half the distance between Uganda and West Africa.
Last Sunday the Ugandan Ministry of Health notified the World Health Organisation (WHO) that there had been a fatality in Kampala from Marburg, a virus from the same family as Ebola with similar symptoms and fatality rates. I began to do some research into this disease and learned that there had been small outbreaks of both Marburg and Ebola in Uganda in 2011, 2012, and 2013. These ‘outbreaks’ were all regionalised, all quickly contained and shut down. The tragedy for the West African nations where the Ebola virus is currently running wild is that the outbreak comes after a decade of civil war which has left infrastructure in tatters and confidence in governments low.
In Uganda, people have been educated to be much more open about illnesses since the government’s widespread HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in the 1980s and confidence in public services is far higher than their West African counterparts. Uganda has been widely praised for its response to the 2012 Ebola outbreak that killed 17 people. Together with the WHO, Uganda’s health authorities worked to quickly and effectively quell the outbreak with public announcements by President Museveni on radio and TV urging Ugandans to take precautions against the disease.
The current situation in Uganda is that there has been a single case of confirmed Marburg which has killed one health worker. Five people remain in isolation and there is every expectation that the virus will end there. I have been in touch with my friends in Uganda and a fellow Kiwi living Uganda in since 2009 has assured me that life in Kampala continues 100% as normal.
I was due to fly out tomorrow and my boyfriend’s younger brother, Beau, was meeting me the following week in Kampala. I’d spoken with the boys’ parents and their dad had asked if they should be concerned about Ebola and their mum had smiled and said Emma wouldn’t be going if it wasn’t safe. They trust me to ensure that Beau will be safe, and while he is old enough to make his own decisions, he was coming with me based on the fact that I deem Uganda safe – as it always has been on my four previous trips.
If it were up to me alone, I would proceed with the trip as planned as I truly believe we would be safe and that the chance of either of us coming into contact with either Marburg or Ebola is minuscule. But over the past few days I have come to realise that this is not a decision that affects only me and I cannot ignore the fact that my going to Uganda has widespread ramifications for those close to me. For the very first time in my life of spontaneous, out-of-the-ordinary adventures, my parents have stepped in and asked me not to go. This morning I had a heartfelt conversation with Rose who, ever wise, told me of a Ugandan proverb:
‘The elders sometimes do not see so well but still, they understand some things.’
So I am going to have to abide by this proverb and it is with huge sadness and disappointment that I let you know I have postponed my trip to Uganda. I will most certainly return – hopefully sooner rather than later – but for now I need to be selfless and make a decision for those around me rather than for myself. I don’t want to put my family through that worry as I can’t assure them that everything will be alright because I simply don’t know. I have every confidence that Ebola will not reach Uganda but who am I to say? Just a Kiwi girl who left her heart in Uganda.
It particularly hurts to know that this is a luxury I have – to choose to go now or not – but that is the point my parents have raised. There is no reason I must go now – the school, the village, all those I know and love will still be there in a few weeks, a few months and there is no pressing reason I must leave tomorrow. Rose reminds me that they will be looking forward to my arrival any day and says ‘for our love for you and your family, we will respect you.’ I hope with all my heart that this devastating disease is soon stamped out across the entire African continent to let innocent people return to their lives – and so that I can return to my Ugandan home.
Thank you to all those who have supported and encouraged me in the lead-up to this trip. Tomorrow afternoon will be a difficult moment as that plane leaves without me but one thing I know for certain is that this is not a cancellation but a postponement. I will be back soon.