Facebook reminded me that streets have names: a dispatch from Freetown

When I was in Bo on August 15, 2017, I received a reminder on Facebook that I had a appeared on Democracy Now three years ago, with Laurie Garrett and Lawrence Gostin, to talk about the then escalating Ebola crisis in West Africa. During her epic screed — it nearly left me speechless, that’s how epic and screed-y it was — Garrett emphasized that if the disease hit a “chaotic” megacity like Lagos, it would be a disaster of epic proportions.

Because there are no street maps. (Trust her: she’s been there. And oh, yes, Boko Haram.)

She might have been right about the disaster a generalized Ebola outbreak in a megacity would have caused (there’s a reason that Contagion starts in Hong Kong, no?), but where she was wrong: there ARE maps and the streets DO have names. (Yes, U2 is on tour and I plan to milk the shit out of the Joshua Tree album when it’s all said and done).

Anyway, this idea that there is a place where the streets have no name, and that is a threat to disease control efforts: That’s both beside the point and constitutive of it.

Garrett was correctly suggesting that one tends to understand dynamics of disease transmission, and therefore, of disease control, in relation to person, place and time. That’s epidemiology 101. Her mistake was in suggesting that people cannot be properly assessed in relation to their place, simply because she finds a place to be disordered, or ‘chaotic’ (to use her words). But make no mistake: somebody knows that place’s name and how to get there. And some of that knowledge is, indeed, on maps. Mental and cognitive maps, formal paper maps, and yes, GPS enabled mobile phones. (Lagosians, they’re just like us!)

This seems like a rather literal, practical and basic point, but I was so mad when she said that, that I nearly punched something. (The camera man confided to me afterwards that he was also angry and annoyed by her remarks, and he had much less invested in this whole thing, as far as I could tell). I was mad because she foregrounded her own discomfort with spaces she found illegible, and therefore, ungovernable, and projected it on to what was ultimately a successful campaign to suppress the transmission of Ebola to others in Lagos. (There are many opinions on why it was successful, but I am not here to talk about that. Let’s just imagine that it only had a little to do with the (non)failure of street maps).

So back to Bo, Sierra Leone’s second city, and capital of a district that witnessed many Ebola cases. Driving or walking around and asking people if they ‘sabi’ (know) a place is generally my way of navigating in cities and towns of Sierra Leone. This is because I am terrible with street names that don’t fall along a major public transport route, and because it’s a good way to know wetin olman sabi — what things ‘everyone knows.’ It is also a good way to practice my language, because let’s face it, if you can follow directions to “streets that have no names,” you are improving your language skills.

After visiting the district hospitals in Bo and Kenema during this woefully short trip, I realized that I still hadn’t found what I was looking for. I wanted to see what became of ETUs. I am 100% sure I missed several places, but I wanted to see how easy it would be to find them without lots of planning or asking around beforehand. I asked folks for directions to community health centers. I found two and likely would’ve found several more if I had had the time. I googled ETU locations and found a WHO spreadsheet with GPS coordinates. I followed one set of coordinates to the wrong place, those ‘coordinates’ being the name of the place itself. And then, using the GPS on my phone, I followed the coordinates to a neighborhood where residents were pretty sure there had been no ETU. (The coordinates led to very small parcel of land beside a hotel). But when I talked to staff at the health centers, they would point in the direction of a place and name its location, explaining their place’s relationship to that place.

What does any of this mean, and why does it matter? For me, this trip to Sierra Leone was about wayfinding and orientation; there was no plight (as Auntie Mary, an in-charge at one of health centers called it) or mission, besides finding “there” — which seemed to change every few hours each day — and hearing what people had to say once I got there. Perhaps a fancier way to put it is that I am processing the ways I am reading landscapes in relation to others’ own readings, and the ways that landscapes are subject(ed) to “local” memories. How does this stuff matter for people in the everyday?


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