The two girls had nursed their mother as she died, cleaning up her vomit and curling up against her feverish body on the family's only mattress. They braided her hair until a truck came for the corpse.
Now, as Ebola leapt from house to house in this sprawling slum, it seemed inevitable that Princess, 13, and
It was Bobby Pomney’s job to intervene.
Pomney is a "contact tracer" for the Liberian government. When he arrived on a sweltering morning earlier this month, Mary Nyanford's body was being driven away. Princess was screaming for her mother. Tears were running down
"These girls need to be isolated," said Pomney, a slim, bald man, sweat beading on his forehead.
There may be only one way to halt the worst Ebola outbreak in history: find the disease's victims, strictly quarantine them and monitor everyone with whom they interacted.
When Thomas Eric Duncan tested positive for Ebola in
But doing contact tracing and enforcing quarantines in a place like
Or at least, on that Monday morning, he thought he did.
Into the slums
"I know this is my job," Pomney would later say. "But I don't think it works here."
The day after Mary Nyanford's body was carried away, Pomney returned with a clipboard and rain boots. He started writing down the names of people who had had physical contact with her while she was sick.
First came her daughters, Princess and
Within an hour, Pomney had written the names of eight people.
"But there are really around 30," he said, "or maybe more."
Some people he visited wouldn't give their names. Others denied that they had been around Nyanford, apparently to avoid being ordered into the 21-day quarantine, even though it wasn't enforced.
"You all want to quarantine us, but how we going to eat? How we going to pee?" Cleo Tobar asked.
Perhaps there was reason, though, to be hopeful about the two girls. The disease had been raging across
A pair of gloves
In her sixth-grade class, Princess had been taught by her teacher, Mr Ballah, that "you can’t touch each other anymore." A community health worker distributed latex gloves in the area. When her mother got sick, Princess slipped on a pair.
"It was to be safe," she explained later.
But the gloves eventually became dirty. And when her mother got really sick, Princess forgot about them.
The day after their mother died, the girls' eyes were glassy. Pomney couldn't tell if it was from crying or something else. He looked at the girls. He wondered if the symptoms were starting to show.
"You got a fever?" he asked.
Both girls offered a muffled no. But Pomney didn't have a thermometer. No one did in
A checklist for survival
Pomney rattled through a list of what the girls had to do.
"You guys need to stay here. You can't play or run around for 21 days," he said. "My aim is to get you early treatment if you're sick."
The girls looked at the ground and nodded.
Pomney thought he had covered everything. He never thought to ask them where they had stayed the previous night.
In a health professional's world, this is quarantine: No socialising with other people. No sharing food. No sharing a bathroom. Ebola is spread through the bodily fluids of highly infected people, and their vomit, urine and mucus can accumulate in bathrooms.
The reality on the ground
This is the world of Princess and
So the girls had spent the previous night with their grandmother, who lives across the unpaved alleyway. She, too, had Ebola.
Pomney didn't know this until someone pointed to the shanty and said, "They got a sick person in there."
Pomney looked at her through the doorway. The girls' grandmother, Miriam Nyanford, had covered her naked body with a bedsheet and was breathing heavily. On the wall someone had scrawled, "The Blood of Jesus Must Prevail."
"You all didn't call an ambulance?" he asked members of the family who had gathered in front of the house.
We called, but no ambulance came
"We called one but it never came," a man said.
Pomney called an ambulance from his cellphone. He turned to the girls, who were sitting in chairs outside their home and using sticks to draw in the dirt.
"That's indirect contact," he said, exasperated. "You can’t be staying with her."
"Where else they going to sleep?" a neighbour asked.
Real time disaster
Scientists use formulas to map Ebola's transmission vectors and its exponential infection rate. But
Every day that Pomney returned, he was approached by someone reporting a new case: a corpse that had been left on a mattress for three days until it started to decay, the body of an 11-month-old boy, a young man with a high fever who sat zombielike in front of his house.
"This whole area is infected," he said.
Pomney was left with hardly any contacts to trace, except for the two little girls whom everyone watched, waiting for symptoms to emerge.
On the third day of their quarantine, the girls played hopscotch with friends on a patch of sand between homes. They played checkers until
"My mom bought me whatever I wanted. She bought me clothes," said Princess, who wore a pink sundress.
"She bought me food,"
The evil ghost
They had heard about Ebola on the radio and in school, but it remained a mysterious, alien force. The men in moon suits aren't health-care workers, they're ghosts, Princess said. Ebola isn't just a virus, it's an evil spirit that takes over your body. To the girls, quarantine wasn't a public health precaution, it was something that might leave you alone and hungry.
And being alone was a terrifying new possibility. Since her mother died, Princess had had the same dream: She's washing her feet in front of the family's house when her mother suddenly appears. Her mom starts running, and Princess chases her through the sandy streets of
"These girls are supposed to be in quarantine, but they're running around with other children," Pomney screamed when he arrived to check on them one morning.
"Everyone here is going to get infected," he said.
Then, almost on cue, someone came up to him.
"Bobby, we got a sick person over here," the man said.
Pomney sighed and walked to the home pointed out by the man. Another member of the contact tracing team, John Shagbeh, joined him. When they got to the house, a few yards from where Mary Nyanford had died, a man in his early 20s was sitting with a hoodie covering his head, staring blankly.
"This guy needs to go to the hospital," Shagbeh said.
"We went to the doctor. He said it's yellow fever," the man’s mother said.
The contact tracers didn't believe her. Many people in
"If you don't go to the hospital, we will call the police on you," Shagbeh shouted. "You need to accept that this man is infected."
A crowd had gathered. Shagbeh and the sick man's mother continued shouting at each other while the man with either yellow fever or Ebola sat in his sweatshirt in the 100-degree heat.
Then a man from the local Unicef team, Chris Dassen, arrived. "These people need pampering, not hardness," he said to Shagbeh. "We don't need the police."
Shagbeh walked away.
"There’s nothing the government of
An overwhelmed system
"The way to stop Ebola in its tracks is contact tracing," Tom Frieden, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said this month.
Students, shopkeepers and stationery sellers
The country’s public health system was almost nonexistent even before Ebola. In the
Some days, no one came to check on Princess and
"Your American dream starts here," it said. "Win and live in the
Five days into their quarantine, the girls' father suddenly returned. He was skinny and weak, wearing tattered clothes. He struggled to speak above a gravelly whisper.
He held a piece of paper bearing the letterhead of Doctors Without Borders, a nonprofit group treating Ebola victims.
"Nyanford Christopher has recovered from the Ebola Virus and is no longer infectious," it said.
But there was no celebration. Nyanford learned that his wife had died. He learned that his mother was now in the hospital and his daughters had nowhere to sleep. He sat on the stoop of his home and hung his head.
Then he looked at Princess and
"I cannot conclude if they are OK or not," he said.
Nyanford forced open the door of his home that the body-collection team had locked. He saw the burned mattress.
"How I am supposed to take care of my family now?" he asked.
In the shack next door, the body of his sister, Alice Jallah, had been lying in a room for two days. The ambulance still hadn't come. The family had locked the room but left the radio on inside, with the corpse.
Wash your hands
That morning, through the thin metal walls, a public-service announcement blared into the ravaged neighbourhood.
"Wash your hands with chlorine and report all cases," the man’s voice said. "If we do these things we can prevent ourselves from getting Ebola."
"How are you coming on?" Pomney asked the girls, six days after their mother died.
Each morning when he showed up in
It was Sunday, and the voices of church choirs rose above
"You can't quarantine people here. We’re all intertwined," said Aloysius Nimely, the pastor of
Three new bodies
As families attended church services, Pomney was running between houses. In three hours, he had heard about three new bodies. His job is not to remove the dead, but he was the only representative of the Liberian government in the slum, and he decided he had to do something.
He called the body-collection team. He waited with the families. He took out his clipboard and tried to diagram the web of physical contacts orbiting the deceased. Each time, he got a few names, and then he gave up. The circles were too wide. There were too many people who didn't want to give their names or didn't want to admit that they had had contact with the dead.
Exactly one week after Mary Nyanford's body was driven away, Pomney walked by Princess and
"It's only a matter of time," he said. "One day, they’re going to get it."