When the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus burst into public view and public discourse, millions of dollars were invested in West Africa to treat the virus and prevent it from spreading. Of course the spread of the virus had already been wreaking havoc and destruction in West Africa for months before anyone in Europe or the US knew anything about it, but then people from outside West Africa were infected, and it became the biggest story of the news cycle. It was evident that fear played a large role in keeping Ebola in the news cycle and in shaping the public discourse around it.
Even in Niger, where no known cases of Ebola were discovered, huge investments were made to prevent the spread of the virus and to help educate the population about it. There were spots on the radio, huge billboards and a concerted effort made by the Ministry of Public Health to involve all the actors in the health sector in the campaign against the virus. This was all good and important, and probably did help prevent the spread of Ebola in Niger.
But recently, another epidemic has ravaged the population of Niger, and barely anyone outside of the country has heard anything about it. A Meningitis outbreak has caused hundreds of deaths in Niger, many of them occurring in Niamey, the capital. Fear has gripped the population, as a shortage of vaccines has put peace of mind out of reach for most, and because of the shortage, price-gouging has kept it out of reach for all but the wealthiest. The authorities even closed the schools for a week to try and slow the spread of the sickness.
It seems as though the situation has improved recently, however over the past few weeks, the sound of ambulances have been heard day and night, bringing more cases to the treatment/quarantine center, which is located just around the corner from the CURE hospital. This outbreak has been going on since January, and although it has received some coverage, for the most part it has barely registered as a blip on the radar of most major news outlets.
So for anyone keeping score, here is the breakdown:
Ebola in Niger – 0 cases and 0 deaths.
Meningitis in Niger – more than 6,000 cases and more than 400 deaths.
Even though the pace of the spread of the Meningitis seems to have slowed, it is still a threat. Everyone you talk to here in Niger is convinced that once the first rains fall, the Meningitis will be washed away. They could be right for all I know, and unfortunately, the people of Niger have plenty of experience with this kind of thing – Niger is right in the middle of the “Meningitis belt”). I don’t know about the science of this theory, but it does serve as a potent symbol for hope and healing, especially since we are suffering through the hot season, when rain is close at hand, but still so far away.
This imagery is common in the Bible as well. A dry land represents a land of death, where there is no growth or life, only heat and dust.
“You, God, are my God,
earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
where there is no water.”
(Ps. 63:1 NIV)
To thirst for water is to thirst for life, and rain brings that life. In Niger people understand this very well. Even when not faced with an epidemic, they know that death is never very far away. They wait for the rain, and pray for the rain to fall abundantly, because when it does they know they can expect a bountiful harvest, and that is the difference between life and death. A good rainy season means death has been put off and pushed away, at least for a while. At least for a season, the danger has past. They know that they depend on the rain, and ultimately on God, who sends the rain. They depend on God and they wait on God because they have faith in God.
“On my bed I remember you;
I think of you through the watches of the night.
Because you are my help,
I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
your right hand upholds me.”
(Ps. 63:6-8 NIV)
This dependence is totally foreign to people in the western world. For most of us, if we think about rain at all, we see it as something annoying. It is something that keeps us inside and prevents us from doing what we have planned. We don’t see rain as a blessing, and we certainly don’t pray for it. The idea that our survival is dependent on rain (or God, or anything) is so outdated that it borders on the absurd. It is childish. The current zeitgeist of our culture is one of self-sufficiency. We have built a whole civilization on the principle that we can figure out any problems that come our way because we are so clever. Ignorance and superstition are the only things holding us back. The destiny of the human race is progress, and technology is our salvation.
But this confidence crumples when it is confronted with real setbacks and hardship. Solidarity often dissolves into selfishness in the face of danger and people are seized with fear. This was clear in the reaction to the Ebola outbreak in the United States. People were actually upset with healthcare workers who dared to go to the center of the epidemic in order to treat the victims. They were labelled irresponsible since they risked exposure to the virus, and risked bringing Ebola from “over there” to “here.” The foolishness (to say nothing of the small-minded cruelty) of this type of thinking is so evident in our day and age of globalization, communication and intercontinental interconnectivity that it could only be the result of fear. An irrational fear that somehow tries to draw a line between “here” and “there” when no such line exists. It is the same fear that tries to draw a line between “us” and “them.”
“Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.” (1 John 4:20-21 NIV)
When we live by our own strength, we are filled with fear when we see that strength failing. We scramble for safety, and if we have to step on a few people to get there, so be it. But faith is like love, it casts out all fear, because it does not depend on a strength that is temporal and will fail. It is dependent on a God who is all-powerful. A God who is able to hide us in the shadow of his wings. Through faith we are happy to admit that we are not self-sufficient. We are able to say, like a child, “I cling to you,” but also, “I cling to my brothers and sisters because through them I see you.”