Episode 582: Guarding The Secret Path : Planet Money There's a tiny town on the border between Ivory Coast and Liberia. On one side, Ebola is raging. On the other side, people are doing everything they can to make sure not a single case arrives.
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Episode 582: Guarding The Secret Path

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Episode 582: Guarding The Secret Path

Episode 582: Guarding The Secret Path

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In west Africa right now, there are really two kinds of countries. There are those that have Ebola and those that do not. Liberia, for instance, has more than 6,000 cases, almost 3,000 deaths and right next door, in the country of Ivory Coast, zero cases - zero. Ivory Coast would desperately like to stay in that zero category.


Even one case of Ebola in Ivory Coast is a terrifying prospect, and not just for the obvious public health reasons. Because as you've probably noticed in news reports, the first time anyone in a new country shows symptoms of the disease, that country gets labeled. You are now a country with Ebola. The headline - Ebola Found in Ivory Coast would destroy the place - destroy tourism, destroy trade. Ivory Coast is the largest provider of cocoa beans in the world, and they do not want anyone using the words Ebola and chocolate in the same sentence.

WARNER: And there's another reason that Ivory Coast wants to keep Ebola out of the country, which I got to see in person when I visited Ivory Coast recently. And I went out near the border of Liberia to see these isolation centers that have been set up to handle the first case of Ebola, if it ever comes.

BONI AMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: With me was a guy named Dr. Boni Aman. He's the regional health director, and he was showing me this isolation center that I'd read about in official government reports. There's no way to get around this. It was just a canvas tent. It said UNICEF on the outside.

AMAN: The isolation center is not ready. If, today, we have a case, we don't know how to manage it.

WARNER: Dr. Aman tells me there's so much that they still need. They need washing stations and gloves and masks and training on how to use all that protective gear and four-by-four ambulances because the roads here are not very good. And he doesn't even finish his wish list because it starts to rain.

I don't want to get the microphone too wet.

We dart inside the tent to protect my microphone. There's nothing inside. Robert, there's not even a working bed.

OK. Now we're in isolation together.

AMAN: (Laughter).

WARNER: When it starts to actually drip rain on us inside the tent, it's pretty clear Ivory Coast is not ready for an outbreak.

SMITH: The solution that Ivory Coast has come up with to stay Ebola free is pretty simple. Ivory Coast will shut down its border, stop trade with Liberia, stop commerce, stop people from coming in.

WARNER: On a map, a border is a straight forward thing. It's a clear thick line. But on the ground, it's anything but simple. On the ground in Ivory Coast, there are vast parts of this border with no signs, no guards and only a secret path through the forest. Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Gregory Warner, an NPR correspondent usually based in Nairobi.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith in New York. Today on the show, we go to a tiny, tiny town on the border between these two countries. On one side of the line, Ebola is raging.

WARNER: The other side is so far Ebola free. And we ask, how do you close a border and can you really?


CALVIN HARRIS FT. ELLIE GOULDING: (Singing) Look at what you've done. Stand still, falling away from me.

WARNER: It is only about 15 miles from that canvas tent to the border with Liberia, but the drive takes more than two hours and you need a Land Rover. You get the sense that this is a neglected frontier. The mud huts are unelectrified and the villages are small. They each have only a few hundred people.


WARNER: When I arrive with my interpreter at this village called Gahapleu, we can't say more than bonjour. My interpreter speaks French - it's Ivory Coast's official language - but most of these villagers only speak Yokuba. It's a local tongue spoken nowhere else except this border region and one other place just over the border on the Liberian side. So they can't speak with most of their countrymen, but they can speak across the border with each other.


WARNER: As soon as we arrive in this village, about 80 people emerge from their huts, chairs are produced and there's a kind of impromptu town hall meeting that all concerns one question - will I be able to see the secret path that takes you over to Liberia? There's some argument about this, but eventually the town votes to let me proceed.


WARNER: I should say that they don't refer to this path as a secret path. It's just a path. It's part of life at the border. Because every village around here has one, crossing it, at least before Ebola, was so common. You crossed it for a wedding, you crossed it for a funeral, you crossed it even to settle a dispute because there's a tribal king on one side of the border, and he'll answer questions on both sides. I sit down with three villagers, Kimbe Frances (ph), Thieu Patrice and Tan Benjamin.

WARNER: And they say, yeah, they used to go to Liberia to visit their younger sisters.

Wow, everybody's got their little sister in Liberia.


WARNER: Why did the women all leave?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: The reason turns out that in this culture, women live near their husband's family. But before Ebola, it didn't really matter which side you lived on. One of these guys, Tan Benjamin, is a carpenter. He makes furniture here on the Ivory Coast side, but most of his customers live on the Liberian side.

TAN BENJAMIN: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: The path to Liberia takes only seven minutes. Seven minutes and you're in a county where more than 40 people have died of Ebola. But despite the proximity of the virus, you don't find the kind of Ebola precautions being observed here that you find in other places in Ivory Coast. So in the capital, strangers do not touch. A cab driver takes my money and then squirts his hand with sanitizer gel.

But out here, people hug, people share the same water gourd, maybe 'cause they don't have TV, they don't have electricity, and so they aren't subjected to the same barrage of Ebola news. But Dr. Aman, the doctor I met down at the isolation tent, says this is a real problem because even after Ebola started spreading, even after the government warned people stop crossing, people in the village kept trading with their kinsmen on the other side.

AMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: "No," he says, "people were not afraid of taking Liberians or Guineans money before the closure of the border. You know, money is a big power so they were not afraid." Aman says that the first step the Ivory Coast government had to take was just to try to reduce the incentive that people had to sneak across and do business. And that meant in June, the government ordered that all the village markets would be shuttered.

I found a group of stalls near the village of Gahapleu, and if you imagine kind of tree branches nailed together in these little booths where it used to be, once a week, people would lay out their tomatoes, their produce, their meat, maybe their furniture to try to sell it to other villagers. But village chief Gueu Denis tells me now those markets are closed.

WARNER: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: Think for a minute about what this means. Not only does it reduce the incentive to trade, it made even basic provisions disappear from the region. I mean, no trade means, in some cases, no food. Just to get salt and other stuff, Gueu has to send his wife to walk the 15 miles to the nearest inland town. And then she - when she buys the stuff, she has to walk 15 miles back. Though as bad as it's going to get here, he knows that it's not as bad as it is in the devastated economy on the Liberian side. And that's what Dr. Aman, the guy at the regional health authority, says he's most worried about, that this family feeling is becoming a security risk.

AMAN: There no doubt there are relative suffering over there. So they are making attempts to cross the border to bring them food or they are making attempt to come in Ivory Coast to buy what they need. And as human being, you cannot see another human being suffering and do nothing.

WARNER: Closing the markets was not going to be enough. By August, the government announced it was going to have to close the border, the 800-mile border with Liberia and Guinea. And that also meant shutting down all the secret paths, paths which the government may not know where they are. So it has to enlist the help of the villagers.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: To see how this works, the men of the village took me there, to the path to the border.

OK, so here we are at just basically a little path off the road, and this path goes to Liberia. (Speaking French) Liberia?

This question in awful French is directed at Chief Denis. He and the carpenter Benjamin and a few others are walking these paths, days and nights, looking for any Liberians trying to walk into Ivory Coast. It's a kind of neighborhood watch committee organized by the government. And it's volunteer, so they're not paid, they're not armed. And yet they have to guard a border that Chief Denis tells me is as easy to cross as just stepping over a little river.

Wow, OK, can we see the river?



WARNER: One kilometer. OK, we're going to walk to Liberia now.

Whatever image comes to your mind about illegal border crossings, this hike is nothing like that. It's breezy, it's flat, my 3-year-old can manage it.

OK, so we're just basically walking down this really nice hiking path, there's great butterflies, beautiful palm trees.

As we're walking, Gueu Denis is telling me about some guy that he caught this morning who was sneaking down this path. The guy was not a Liberian but a citizen of Ivory Coast who just happened to be working at a company in Monrovia.

WARNER: His boss drove him in a truck all the way to this illegal border crossing. He tried to cross the stream, walked right into the path of Gueu Denis, who greeted him by saying, why didn't you stay in Monrovia, and then turned him over to the authorities. I couldn't find out what happened to that guy, but most all the people who try to cross the border in this way are sent back to Ebola country, even if they have a passport from Ivory Coast.

Oh, this is where the path stops.

We arrive at the end, at that river at the border of Liberia.

That's Liberia. That tree is in Liberia?


WARNER: That tree is not only in Liberia but in Nimba County, which has Ebola. Now, it turns out that crossing over is a little bit more than just jumping over a stream, as the village chief had said. It's more like crawling through grasses and then wading through a river - a river, though, that's been attempted by lots of desperate Liberians. And the farmers on the village watch tell me that guarding this crossing, especially at night, is dangerous work.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: They don't have flashlights, they don't have weapons. People cross. They're frightened, they're jumpy and they might be infected with Ebola. Are you scared that you might get Ebola from this work?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: Yes, they say, so I ask, if they're so scared of Ebola, why did they volunteer to guard the front lines of Ebola?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: And what they tell me, I wasn't ready for. They tell me that the provincial deputy authority, a guy called the sous-prefet, said that if one person in their village gets Ebola, he's going to burn the entire village - burn it down. And when they say this, I look around. There's actually one government official with us on this trip - a guy named Kouakou Koffi. He's the provincial nurse who serves these 15,000 villagers, and he sort of cuts in and says, well, yes, the sous-prefet did say this, but he didn't mean he'd actually burn down the village. He just was trying to create respect for the government prohibitions.

KOUAKOU KOFFI: (Through interpreter) This guy says that the sous-prefet meant just to make them afraid to - yeah, to put fear in their heart so that they don't let anyone enter the villages.

WARNER: But will he burn the village?

KOFFI: (Through interpreter) OK, in fact, the sous-prefet mean to put the villages or the village which would be infected in quarantine.

WARNER: And so all these villagers say that they have made the choice, they have made the calculation, that if somebody comes over this border from Liberia - be it someone they know, their customer, their relative - they are going to have to send them back over the border to face Ebola alone. And Tan Benjamin, the furniture maker, tells me he would do this to his own sister.

BENJAMIN: (Through interpreter) Because of the closure, the border, she can no more come here. Is very painful but as Ebola is a threat for everybody, what can you do?

WARNER: So are you afraid of the Ebola or are you afraid of the village being burnt or the village being quarantined?

BENJAMIN: (Foreign language spoken).

WARNER: "We are scared of Ebola," he says. But I'm not so sure that the local villagers didn't divine the implied threat 'cause this is a community that's long been left to their own devices. They've never gotten much help from the central government. And maybe the same thing that's made this frontier region so self-sufficient is what's making them follow the government line 'cause they know they can't rely on the government to save them if something happens. If Ebola crosses over, they all believe that they'll be quarantined, abandoned and left to die. Right now, they're lucky enough to live on the right side of the border, a border that they're in charge of enforcing because they know the government could just as easily draw a new border with them on the outside. And half a community may be better than none.


CALVIN HARRIS FT. ELLIE GOULDING: (Singing) I'll show you what it feels like. Now I'm on the outside. Oh, we did everything right. Now I'm on the outside.

SMITH: As always, we love to hear what you think of PLANET MONEY, so send us an email - planetmoney@npr.org. Or you can tweet us - we do read them - @planetmoney.

WARNER: And I'd like to thank Nurith Aizenman, my colleague at NPR.

SMITH: And we would like to thank NPR's international desk, Edith Chapin, one of the editors, and Didrik Schanche for lending us you, Gregory Warner, and allowing you to come on the program. Our producer today is Jess Jiang. And before you leave, we wanted to recommend that you check out Snap Judgment with Glynn Washington. It's an hour long show of stories that connect, captivate and invites you to listen. You can find it on iTunes under podcasts. I'm Robert Smith.

WARNER: And I'm Gregory Warner. Thanks for listening.


CALVIN HARRIS FT. ELLIE GOULDING: (Singing) So you give me no reason for me to stay close to you, tell me what lovers do. How are we still breathing? It's never for us to choose. I'll be the strength in you. Now I'm holding on. Yourself was never enough for me.

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