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First Impressions of West Africa

24/09/2014 14:20 BST | Updated 23/11/2014 10:59 GMT

"Liberia?" The taxi driver asks disbelievingly. His reaction is similar to those of most people in the past few days. Open mouths, rolling eyes, horrified amazement, warping of the cheek muscles, accompanied by a hissing sound. "Why don't you just go on holidays somewhere? To the sea, and relax a bit?"

I don't really have an answer for him, which could also just be due to the fact it is early. It's five o'clock in the morning and I am on my way to Vienna airport to take the pyjama jet, the earliest flight of the day to Geneva. From there I continue via Paris to "Ebola land," as the taxi driver called it.

I feel watched. Passengers and the crew constantly stare at the red bag in my hands, which has a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) logo. "Ebola ..., Guinea..., West Africa ..." I hear pieces of their conversation. The combination of the bag and my presence in front of the departure gate to Freetown / Conakry are a fairly obvious sign of why I am here and where I am heading to. The paranoia starts already and I have not even left Europe.

Interested, I read a pamphlet in Paris airport, which provides information on Ebola and how it is transmitted. Complete strangers come up to me and express their thanks for the work that MSF is doing in West Africa. I will pass it onto the teams with pleasure.

For months now Ebola has been haunting West Africa and is leaving a trail of horror. Much more than a ghost, Ebola actually resembles a scourge. It tears apart families, separates children from their parents, wives from their husbands and brothers from their sisters. Ebola eradicates entire villages, turns lively communities into ghost towns. Ebola spares no one and takes both young and old to the grave, farmers as well as doctors.

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Photo: Martin Zinggl/MSF

An amazing sunset settles over the team at MSF's Ebola CMC in Foya, Liberia

And Ebola is damn persistent. In this recent outbreak, it is very hard to curb. MSF staff are doing what they can, but have reached their limits. Isn't there anyone out there who would like to win a Nobel Prize?

Ironically you can also earn some money with Ebola, which some musicians in West Africa are currently proving, producing one hit after the other. Although the rhythms and lyrics are different, the content of these songs is always the same. "Ebola in town" by Shadow & D12 is currently all over Liberia. Music taste is a unique thing.

Surrounded by green hills, Foya, a small town is located in the northern highlands of Liberia. Here the medical staff of MSF care for Ebola patients in a Case Management Centre (CMC), a type of Ebola care clinic. The name "CMC" was introduced by Samaritan's Purse, an organisation that previously worked in Foya and is probably ​​mostly well-known in the West through the most famous Ebola victim. The whole world knows the images of Dr. Kent Brantly as he emerges from an ambulance in an astronaut suit, to go into a multiday isolation care. He is the doctor who became himself infected while fighting Ebola - and he survived. As a consequence, Samaritan's Purse left Liberia and MSF took over the work in Foya.

About two weeks ago, I landed in this part of Africa that is filling all the headlines of the world's news. It is struggling with the consequences of Ebola, a disease that is like a transparent veil attacking people quietly and killing them brutally. Many flights to West Africa have been cancelled; ships no longer dock in the ports of Monrovia, Conakry and Freetown. Import and export restrictions are a burden due to border closures not only for the economic situation of these countries, but they cause drastic food shortages. Whole villages and neighbourhoods, such as the densely populated West Point in Liberia's capital Monrovia are quarantined and controlled by the military. Above all of this is yet another aspect: fear. Is this fear justified or a mere response to the fear mongering of the media?

"We apologise for our slow service on board today," says the head of the cabin crew on the flight to Conakry. "Half of our team is on strike and did not come to work today." He does not mention the reason for the strike, but it is self-explanatory. The aircraft is almost full. A tense mood spreads throughout the plane, like the ice-cold air from the air conditioner. People try not to touch their seat neighbour. The front page of a newspaper reads: "Mob frees patients" - this is about the recent events in Monrovia, where several Ebola-infected patients were freed by force from an interim Ebola clinic.

After a short night in Conakry, the next morning I head to Kissidougou, in the Guinean highlands in a light World Food Program (WFP) plane. The regular small planes have withdrawn their services due to Ebola so the UN now flies across the former war-torn triangle region of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia. Before take-off, the crew distribute masks and gloves to the passengers "for security reasons." Paranoia remains an everlasting companion.

One and a half hours later, the plane lands on the red soil airstrip. A few farmers briefly stop to watch the spectacle. A short time later, out of nowhere an MSF Land Cruiser appears and brings us 80 kilometres south-east to Guéckédou where MSF also runs an Ebola CMC. The trip takes three hours, and is tedious and bumpy. However, I do not want to complain, because at least we could fly to Kissidougou. Otherwise, the journey from Conakry to Gueckedou, close to the border with Liberia, takes two days by car.

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Photo: Martin Zinggl/MSF

While waiting for the MSF car to pick up the team from Kissidougou airstrip, American nurse Carissa Guild plays the ukulele to pass the time.

At lunch later on, I find myself on the banks of the river Makona again - the Guinean-Liberian border, a place I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would visit. "MSF travel" comes to my mind. It is pouring with rain.

Although the border is officially closed, the border authorities let us pass. No questions asked, they stamp the passport in silence. With a canoe we cross the river and - all of a sudden - we are in Liberia. Fifty boxes of safety equipment for our medical staff are loaded into the waiting MSF cars, off we go, and in a short time we reach Foya.