My friend Oretha knows everyone and everything about Cuttington University. So one day last February I invited her to visit and, over pepper soup, my heart spoke. “Do you know any good tailors?” I asked. “I want to learn to sew.” The next morning she returned with Mistress Yekeh and a bright light entered my life.
The same age as my mother, Mistress Yekeh taught tailoring at a vocational school before the war and travelled with her trusty Butterfly machine throughout the conflict. Trying to make a new start, she had gotten a job at the Cuttington library and was working toward a degree in education. She no longer sewed professionally but was willing to help me so she could earn money to finish plastering her house.
She quickly became one of my best friends.
I bought my own machine and she came over on the weekends to teach me the secrets of Liberian tailors. She’d give me an assignment and the next week I’d have to present it for inspection. Without fail she would drop her head and try unsuccessfully to hold back the laughter. Pulling herself together she’d straighten up and tell me, “It’s good for a learner. You tried. You actually tried.” Then she’d throw it back in my lap. “Now tear the seams. That’s the only way you will learn to do it right.”
Some weeks I’d protest, “But it’s on the inside! I’m the only one wearing it!” She always had the same response, “If you let yourself do bad work that’s all you’ll ever do. Try to be perfect. Then you’ll feel proud.” So I tore all my seams and, gradually, stopped repeating my mistakes.
As school restarted and the semester got busy we had fewer lessons, but I still saw her almost every day. She’d leave the library to walk to her village about the time I struggled to haul my bags up the hill in my tight lappa skirt. “Heeeeey, African woman!” she’d yell, “Did you finish your assignment yet?” I would shake my head and laugh, she would shake her head and laugh, and we’d both continue home.
In May I had a birthday party at Oretha’s bar and Mistress Yekeh was one of the first people I invited. She made a beautiful speech and we all danced until the rain came. It was one of the last times we spent together. Finals came and along with it graduation. I traveled to Sanniquellie and Yekepa and spent long days at my office. There was just no time for sewing.
Photo courtesy Rebekah Schultz: “In May I threw a joint birthday party with my son. My sewing teacher and dear friend Mistress Yekeh, pictured in the yellow skirt suit, danced with us for hours.”
Then at the end of July I left for a short vacation and Ebola shut down Liberia. Campus closed and Mistress Yekeh went back to Monrovia to stay with her daughter and her elderly mother.
A few weeks ago they all died of Ebola.
The news just reached me this week through the friend of a friend. I’ve been calling friends in Monrovia weekly but I hadn’t kept in touch with her because I thought she was still on campus, safe from the worst of the out break. So sure was I of her safety that I’d already packed a gift for her upon my inevitable return.
Like most Liberian women, Mistress Yekeh was a force. At fifty-seven she had seen the worst side of humanity and the hardest side of life… and survived to laugh about it. But the difference between violence and viruses is everyone knows how to run from bullets: grab your family and go.
But Ebola comes quietly and kills painfully. With not enough treatment centers families are asked to literally watch their loved ones die before their eyes. I know when Mistress Yekeh’s mother or daughter fell ill the last thing she was thinking was to run. In Liberia family is everything and the tragedy of Ebola is that the tighter that bond, the more people love and care for each other, the more deadly the disease becomes.
Ebola isn’t ravaging West Africa because people are dirty or uneducated: it’s precisely because people care and love on a level we, as Americans, have lost touch with.
Through a twist of coincidence the news of Mistress Yekeh’s death reached me around the same time an Ebola case was reported in Texas. The vitriol I saw in the news and read in Facebook feeds. The fear. The running I could feel in people’s hearts. What I want people in America to understand is that Ebola is not a threat to them because America has hospitals. It has doctors. Americans aren’t asked to take their sick loved ones back to the rented room they share with five other people. They have more than plastic shopping bags to protect their hands from contamination.
When will we, as an international community, realize we can do better? Liberia spent fourteen years tearing seams and now, just as things were starting to come back together, they’re tearing again. I pray we can get it right this time. There’s just too much at stake.
Rebekah Schulz has been a teacher in Liberia since 2011, when she first traveled there as a Peace Corps Volunteer. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and a native of Columbia, Missouri she blogs at lifemagnanimous.com, where this post was first published.