The outbreak of Ebola virus disease in West Africa is hardly an ideal time for residents in the region to embark on foreign travel. As it turns out, the Americans, many millions of miles away from the action point, are even more paranoid.
The decision to fly two infected Americans home from Liberia while treating them with experimental drugs is met with varied reactions; from the heartwarming “O yeah, bring them home” to the heartbreaking, “O no, keep them away!” On the morning of my arrival, a colleague’s mother had asked her with deep concern running through her voice, “Do you have any of your colleagues going to or coming from Africa?” Surprise, surprise, surprise, Efo is coming, she told her! And with that one innocuous question, Africa, a continent of some 50+ countries, simultaneously morphed into that one famous village that anyone could simply saunter across from one end to the other.
In the office, some warm hugs attracted looks of mock horror.
“Aren’t you scared you’re gonna catch Ebola or something?” Ebola, of course, is transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person with fever, muscle aches, red eyes, diarrhea, vomiting and bleeding as symptoms.
Clearly, what none can ignore is the deadly nature of the disease with a high case fatality rate of 50-90%. Over a relatively short period, the outbreak has killed an estimated 930 people out of 1711 cases in Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. At the airport, I entered into a banter with the Immigration official who was curious to know what the major diseases killing children under five in Ghana were. On mentioning the usual suspects, correctly omitting Ebola, he simply could not resist the question, “No Ebola in Ghana yet?”
With this first immigration hurdle cleared, I was soon reminded that I had a second, less ominous one – that of passing declared food through agricultural security checks. Not ever having done this before, nervousness took hold of me. As it turned out, Dele, my Nigerian colleague had been adamant – wanting his fair share of my much vaunted high grade crisp and fresh gari from Ghana’s Volta region. Not to be left out were some local Ghanaian spices that I had not earlier realized had achieved international acclaim. Directed to see another official, the fate of Dele’s gastronomic contraband at once assumed precarious uncertainty.
“What kind of food do you have?” asked the Immigration official? Not knowing what answer will spark an uproar, I hesitated for a minute. Will announcing the head of a grass cutter for example prove more inflammatory than kpakpo shito? If I said “gari”, will sheer unfamiliarity lead to its premature confiscation? Feeling somewhat cornered, I decided that a little inventiveness might serve me well.
“I have some cereal with me” I declared with a straight face. The official was shocked, if not amused.
“Wha’ kind of cereal?” he retorted. I fell silent for a full minute and tried again.
“You know cassava? This cereal is cassava that has been processed into flakes. Yes, my cereal is cassava flakes!” Officer also returned my full minute look, obviously not knowing what to make of my answer.
“Alright, you can keep those. Wha’ else you got?”
“Well, I have some spices”
“Okay, do you have any meat or fish, fresh or dried? Do you have any vegetables or leaves?” After a resounding no to each, he asked for my bags to be passed through the machine after which, surprisingly, the officer came around grinning from ear to ear.
“You have Maggi cubes!” he declared triumphantly, asking to take a closer look at them. I was surprised and amused. How could this Blofonyo actually take such a direct strike at Dele’s Maggi cubes? I cannot hold myself. I ask him for the secret. How could he specifically tell the contraband was actually Maggi cubes?
“We get lots of those! Maybe it is because it is different from some of the ones we got here.” As he inspected them, he explained the policy broadly— no meat products, including poultry, especially from Africa. After verifying that this particular Maggi cube was but chicken flavored only, he merrily passed those as well.
“You can keep those too. You are all set, my friend!”