Every other time Dominic Murer had flown into Freetown, the plane had been close to full. Even though Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in Africa, there are plenty of outsiders interested in its diamond industry and thriving cacao farms.
But this time — in late July of this year — the plane was only half-full, and most of the passengers were connected with the nongovernmental organizations that do extensive health-related work in the country still struggling to overcome the effects of a long civil war. Dominic, who had graduated from the University of North Texas in May, was one of them. The tall young man with light brown hair had gotten a job with Caritas, an organization of the Catholic church that does development work worldwide.
The reason for the empty seats was clear: An outbreak of the disease called Ebola had begun, though it was still confined to a couple of outlying districts.
“You could tell it was going to be bad,” Dominic later wrote to one of his professors.
A month later, the virus had spread so rapidly that the government issued a strongly worded advisory against all non-essential travel there. The health system, never strong, was already breaking down. The U.S. embassy ordered the families of its workers home. A week or so later, Caritas also sent its foreign employees home.
But Dominic stayed. He has more than a career to worry about. He has Matta, the “beautiful, brilliant, strong, amazing” Sierra Leonean woman he married.
He has indelible memories of falling in love and getting to know Matta over the last two years. He also has scenes seared into his psyche that he’d rather forget, of writhing children, hospital wards, and bodies left in the streets. And he’s come to know — briefly — the fear that he himself might have contracted the deadly virus.
“I was not about to leave my wife here with this Ebola epidemic spreading like wildfire while I get to sit at home in the United States,” he said.
Because Dominic has a college education, has learned some of the local language, and is married to a Sierra Leonean, he has become a person whom many people in his adopted community trust and turn to for help.
At the request of a local imam, he teaches children in his neighborhood English and math. In this time of Ebola, when the deadly disease could be spread simply by sweat, he has also taught them a new greeting.
Now, he and the children bow to one another.