Bay Area Africans feel, and fight, Ebola stigma | KALW

Bay Area Africans feel, and fight, Ebola stigma

Dec 16, 2014

Racial and religious stereotyping are sadly a reality we still have to live with in the United States. You hear that discussed nowadays in light of police shootings of young African American men, or in African immigrant communities around the country that are dealing with another form of discrimination: harassment based on Ebola stigma. Over the weekend, Bay Area African leaders and activists gathered in Oakland to discuss what should be done about it. 

"Africa is more than Ebola" event at Priority Africa Network
Credit Hana Baba

On Saturday afternoon, around 70 people packed the offices of Priority Africa Network, a community networking organization for Bay Area Africans. African art and fabrics adorned the walls.

The message was clear in the title of the event: “Africa is more than Ebola”. One of the speakers, Chief Joseph Musa of the Tegloma Sierra Leone Community, outlined how Africans everywhere are being stigmatized. He says that in his home country, “Nurses have been ejected from homes, doctors are being thrown out, because of fear from Ebola.”

Here in the US, this stigma is illustrated by what happened to Dr. Thomas Muyunga. He's a Ugandan who lives in San Francisco, and was forced to leave his job last month, he says, because of Ebola. Muyunga doesn't have Ebola, nor is he from West Africa, where the current outbreak is centered; Uganda is 2,800 miles away from that outbreak. And what’s more, he hasn't been back to Uganda in two years. Still, he says, the stigma related to Ebola has touched him personally, in an “intrusive, embarrassing, and isolating” way.

Muyunga is a medical doctor by profession and comes from a long line of traditional healers, particularly bone menders. That’s the task his clan has had for more than 1,500 years.

Dr. Thomas Muyunga sharing his story last week at KALW
Credit Thomas Muyunga

He came from Uganda nearly three years ago, and ended up working in San Francisco as a home care worker, while planning to get into residency. He cared for bed-bound patients, and says his clients liked him because he didn’t want them to succumb to being bedridden.

“There's this understanding that they can’t get out of bed but I know they can”, he says. “And I used to work with some of the Certified Nursing Assistants and taught them skills of getting some of these people out of bed, so they could have independence.”

Things were going well for Muyunga and his clients, for about a month. Then, news broke of the first Ebola case in the US.

“So when this Ebola thing came on the TV”, he says, “one of my clients told me he is going to call the police because we Africans are giving Americans Ebola!”

Muyunga was shocked at what his client said. But he kept his cool, and thought maybe he could turn this into a learning opportunity.

“Being who I am, I thought I would talk to him on how Africans are actually more than a disease, they’re human beings like any other human beings. And that Africa -- it’s not a country, it's a continent of more than 50 countries. And I told him about how really, what he was saying, if it was heard by other Africans it would be very demeaning. “

The reasoning didn’t work. The client became agitated and threatened to call the police if Muyunga did not leave his house.

And it didn’t stop there. This client called Muyunga’s next client. When he knocked on the door of that client’s house for his daily check-up, “[The client] said, ‘Oh no! Don’t come into my house -- you are bringing Ebola! You Africans are bringing Ebola!”

Muyunga was hurt, but continued talking to him through the door.  “I’m like, I’ve been with you for a month and have managed to get you to a certain point of independence. How is it that I’ve now turned out be the one who’s bringing Ebola to you? I told him, ‘Remember the first time we met? I even lent you money because you hadn’t got money and you hadn’t got food! I trusted you enough I bought you food. How come now you’ve changed?’”

Muyunga says he felt dejected, rejected, and lost. No clients wanted him in their homes. So, he says, he was forced to leave the job. A couple weeks later, he had another encounter, this time at a restaurant. A group of young men grilled him on whether he was African.

“And I said yes. And they pinned me down, and asked, ‘Which part of Africa?’ I said, ‘I like to say I’m from Africa.’ They said, ‘No. We want you to tell us!’ They became belligerent and aggressive.”

Muyunga says he didn’t understand the lack of empathy. And he didn’t expect Americans, of all people, to treat him like this.

“This is a country that is ‘First World’, where people are supposed to be well-read. So we expect them to understand, especially when something like Ebola comes up. They should’ve gone to their computers or libraries to read about Ebola and see what it means. Or look at a map!”

Muyunga says he’s heard stories of discrimination from other Africans he knows.

“A lady who ran a very successful hair braiding  salon -- from five clients a day, now she saw a client in a week. She was told, ‘People fear your place because of Ebola.’ And the parents who had children who were going to various schools ... these children would come back home and tell parents that, ‘We are laughed at. We go for sports, people shun us, they don’t want to play with us.’”

At this point, Muyunga says, he knew something needed to be done. And that this wasn’t just about Ebola. It was deeper, about American perceptions of Africa and Africans.

“Something in me said, ‘You know, maybe you need to go out there and be the face [of this issue].’ I come from a background that speaks out.”

So Muyunga has been speaking out -- telling his story to the media, and at San Francisco City Hall alongside local Black leaders and city government officials, including Supervisor David Campos.

Despite his experiences, Muyunga says he is optimistic. Not about finding work anytime soon -- if all goes well he wants to start his medical residency -- but about his and his fellow Africans’ future in an America that understands them better, and is willing to learn about them.

“We come to America with love, we come to America with skills. We love this country. We're going to do so much, and we already are doing so much to add to what the American dream is and the ideal and idea of America.”

He says he’s not angry at America. He laughs, “No, I can’t be angry to my grandchildren! When I was coming here, my friend was telling me, ‘You're going to your grandchildren, because all of us came from Africa.’ All the world came from Africa. And we are the grandfathers, so no, I can’t be angry to my grandchildren.”

AfricanDefense.org has a hotline and webform to report Ebola stigma incidents.