By Tom Clynes
On the Front Line of the Ebola Epidemic
Author’s note: With Ebola back in the news I’m reposting this long-form feature article on the Ebola outbreak in Gulu, Uganda, which I reported with photographer Seamus Murphy for National Geographic Adventure. Seamus and I were confident, when we arrived in Gulu, that by following the doctors’ leads we could keep ourselves safe. It would soon become devastatingly clear just how naïve that assumption was. I often include this story, which was among the most harrowing of my career, in my keynote talks.
When the old Czech prop-plane lurches to a halt at the side of the military airstrip, the six doctors unfurl their stiff legs, disembark, and begin unloading. They shift 47 boxes—a metric ton of laboratory gear—onto a truck and drive toward town, trailing a spiral of orange dust as they pass army checkpoints and outsized churches, roadside vendors and crowds of people listening to radios, talking, and singing.
The most surprising thing is how ordinary it all looks, at first. Set in the middle of a fertile, if unrelieved, savanna, Gulu could be any other East African provincial center. Everywhere, people are on the move, some pedaling bikes, others riding on the fringed rear seats of bicycle taxis, most just walking. They walk upright, with stone-straight posture, some carrying babies on their backs, some balancing loads on their heads, some bare-footed, others in sandals. They walk—and the doctors drive—past the field where the Pope once spoke, from atop two shipping containers still piled one atop the other; past the turnoff that leads to the witch doctor’s house; past another road that leads to a small village near the forest—the forest where, perhaps, it all started.
It takes a few minutes, as if the doctors’ eyes were getting used to a new light, before hints begin to emerge that life here is far from normal. There are none of the usual swarms of children in school uniforms. White trucks drive through town, emblazoned with the red crosses and acronyms—UN, WHO, MSF—that portend crisis. The hospital building, where the doctors pull up, is wrapped in white plastic sheeting. At the door, a hand-lettered sign warns “No entrance without permission.” The sign is illustrated with a crude human figure, with an X drawn over it.
Author, photojournalist and National Geographic speaker Tom Clynes travels the world covering the adventurous side of science and the environment. His work appears in National Geographic, The New York Times, Nature, Popular Science, The Atlantic, and other publications. As a keynote speaker, Tom works with organizations that want to catalyze creativity and engagement at their events, inspiring audiences and bringing them along on assignment to some of the world’s most intriguing places. To contact Tom and discover more about his memorable and inspiring programs, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.