While the truth comes limping after


I have this friend who works for the Red Cross.


She just came back from West Africa, she was there during the Ebola outbreak.


One of her jobs was disposing of dead bodies.


Which, in an Ebola outbreak, is about the most dangerous thing you can do.


She would arrive in a village in a two-layer hazmat suit, dragging a tank full of chlorine.


People stopped shaking hands with each other in the first weeks of the outbreak. She would greet families whose relative just died by waving, standing two feet away.


Then she would go into their house, wrap the body of their mother or son or uncle in black plastic and take it away. Then come back to spray down the room with chlorine.


In most cases, it was already too late for the people living there. The virus was in their bloodstream, there was nothing she could do.


The chlorine was for the people who came after. She had to disinfect the furniture, the sheets, anything else the dead body might have touched.


Everyone in the village saw her arrive in her suit, saw her spray the home of the person who died. Noticed the strange smell, the clear liquid, the huge tub she kept in the back of her Land Rover.


They saw when, three days later, the people who lived in the home that got sprayed fell ill. When they died, someone else from the Red Cross would come, spray again, and more people would get sick.


After a few weeks, it started to look like causation. Someone dies, then foreigners come and spray this liquid, then someone else gets sick. Feeling became rumor, rumor became news, news became truth.


She saw a mob kill aid workers, pull them out of their trucks. She saw them throw rocks at politicians and doctors and NGO workers.


People there thought international pharmaceutical companies were deliberately infecting locals so they could test treatments on them. Given the history of West Africa, this is incredibly unfortunate, but also incredibly understandable.


When the outbreak was finally over, the president stood at a podium and repeated the rumors. He told crowds that international charities had brought the disease. That they were to blame for the thousands of deaths, the 18 months of chaos.


“There was so much anger after the outbreak,” my friend told me. “Sooner or later, it would point to him. He had to get in front of it.”


I know I’ve said this before, but I think growing up in America has left me unprepared to understand the world in a lot of ways. I’ve never lived under an autocrat, never experienced genuine fear of authority, never had to be fearful about what I say or to whom I say it.


I took these pictures last week in Tajikistan, a real life dictatorship.


You see pictures of the president everywhere. Criticizing him carries a five-year prison sentence.


He’s amended the constitution to stay in power forever, he’s changed the election rules so his son can take over when he’s gone.


About one-quarter of the national museum is dedicated to him. It runs through the country’s decades-long Soviet occupation in just a few pictures, skips its brutal civil war entirely, then spends room after room presenting the president as its salvation


It’s easy for me to forget that power does not only rest on force, but also on lies.


When the president took perpetual power, he didn’t say, of course, that that’s what he was doing. He hid behind a title—’Founder of Peace and Harmony: Leader of the Nation’—and a story about leading the nation to glory against big and greedy world powers.


He gave his people a way to explain away what he was doing. To excuse the power grab as essential, as justified, as normal.


I heard an interview years ago with the head of Cargill, a huge agricultural conglomerate.


One thing he said that stuck with me was that when you become a CEO, the first thing you lose is the ability to think out loud.


As the head of a multi-billion dollar company, your words have consequences. Loose ideas—”Maybe we should look into banning GMOs”; “bringing jobs back from Mexico is an interesting idea”—will spike your stock price, destroy your workers’ morale, remake your suppliers’ operations overnight.


The CEO said this aspect of the job felt like nakedness, like every thought and word was scrutinized. And he’s right, I guess.


As someone who’s always lived in the developed world, this is what power looks like to me. It is careful, restrained. It is those long pauses between words and before answers in Obama press conferences.


When I think about dictatorships, I usually focus on its victims. NGOs ransacked, opposition tortured, citizens running from footsteps in the middle of the night.


But even the worst dictators only make victims of a fraction of their people. They don’t just need fear, they need stories. They need reasons for everyone else, all the people between the boot and the crown, to shrug away what they see around them.


When Hitler wiped Czechoslovakia off the map, he made it a story of a German minority in need of his protection.


When Robert Mugabe liquidated his country’s economy, he told a story of turning back colonialism.


When Enhver Hoxha sent a third of Albania to the Gulag, the story was the need to prevent political dissent, to continue the country’s unilateral focus on development.


The scariest thing about these stories is not that they are lies, but that there is a tiny bit of truth to each of them. Dictatorships do not do away with veracity. They do away with proportionality.


As someone who has never seen this up close, I find it hard sometimes to see the big lie surrounding the small truth. I’ve never been trained in this, never had stakes in knowing how.


I asked my friend how she stayed the whole 18 months in West Africa. How she survived.


“We removed all of our emblems,” she said. They stopped wearing uniforms. Took the stickers off the trucks. “And then,” she said, “we got back to work.”


Filed under Personal, Travel

43 responses to “While the truth comes limping after

  1. Incredibly poignant, and really accurate. Thanks for this, one of the few times I enjoyed the captions more than the pictures – which I loved, by the way.

  2. azpascoe

    Stunning. This is so beautifully presented with the photos (which are great); having the post itself as seemingly little more than ‘just a caption’ to the images really drives home the idea of subtext and how much happens beneath the surface. I really enjoyed the way you put this together and without doubt, it forces the reader to really consider their own worldview. Thank you.

  3. badsinging

    What a way to tell a story. Thanks for the good work.

  4. We seem to get a long when we drop what separates us…this was awesome!!

  5. Wow!!!!!

    When you are ignorant to the fact… it’s so hard to understand the truth

  6. Travel is life…The pics are amazing

  7. What a story your words share ~ your friend’s experience during the ebola outbreak as told by you contrasted the incredible pure/natural photos you have of Tajikistan. And then the realities of living under rule where freedom of speech does not exist…and the danger for the people being robbed of learning of the world and themselves.

  8. Thought-provoking and touching. Absolutely loved it.

  9. The beautiful pictures are the palliative for the saddest report.

  10. We have been deceived and controlled by our leaders. Now seems like a good time to come together to make things right in this world. We need to all think in a new way.
    We have learned from our experiences, but nothing that has happened in the past needs to influence our future.

  11. Wow,
    This is a really incredible post. The way you have shared your friends story and your perspective, helps to show how and why people have “given” in to horror in their countries. Lately, I have felt so much shame, for being white, for being American.I am ashamed for not understanding how different life is outside the borders of my country. This ahs helped me see a little better. I have so much I need to learn, as do so many other “privilged” people about a life outside the U.S. Thank you so much.

    • You don’t have to be ashamed of who you are..

      We just have to embrace the difference in cultures.. peoples and countries..
      and know that.. just like you.. they can’t help being who they are

      • I see this as the perfect time to design and build a new way for humans to exist in harmony. The first thing I would do is dissolve all countries. People will be sovereign and able to move about and live without restrictions.
        We will have to follow two rules, obey contracts, and harm nobody. Until all here are on the positive path, there will have to be a way to enforce and judge, but it will be done by common law courts of peers.
        But we will soon forget about this world of separation, competition, ego gratification and polarization. Those that are of service to others will soon live in a world of harmony and peace. Those that still want to live in a status quo type existence will have that opportunity to continue their growth, it will just not be here. This is the Universal decree, as I understand.
        There are so many good sites with people being able to pierce the thinning veil, but always use your discernment.
        More and more our decisions will be made from the heart, not the conscious/ego mind.

      • We have the mind.. but not the resources..
        And we just have to accept each and everyone as is..
        do what we can when we can to help and to make a difference..

        Yep… you are very passionate about it all.. and you are deeply affected.. and I do understand your strong feelings and desires..

        We can only wish for a world 🌎 like that….

  12. I heard reports at the time, that the aid workers were being attacked, but I had no idea why. Finally understand now – thank you 🙂

  13. This is such a moving piece. The pics were juxtaposed with your narration but they brought out the message of hope, humanity. I love it

  14. A beautiful powerful poignant piece.

  15. It’s very true. People in developed nations don’t have experience with absolute dictatorships. The experiences in developed worlds are different. Boot to neck is different. We are distracted by reality TV and sports, while civil liberties and decency care removed from beneath us. Leaders tell pacifying lies, and many shrug, and put their headphones back on. I guess world wide, indifference is just easier.

  16. Thats very deep thanks for sharing your thought

  17. My parents were missionaries in Cameroon, French West Africa, in the late 1940s to mid ’50s. During this time Russia sent rumor mongers into the villages to foment resentment, strife, destabilization

  18. They convinced the villagers that the Doctors and the hospital administration was withholding pay from their checks that was owed them. There were missionaries down river that were taken from their homes and murdered. There was a Russian lawyer dispatched with charges to take sue our mission but, thank God, the plane bringing our adversary crashed and the charges were dropped.

  19. Wow..an incredibly powerful read…beautiful photos paired with harsh realities.

  20. Fear mongering is a powerful tool – this is a very poignant post. Will be sharing.

  21. #Super

  22. I am touched the way you presented it, a complicated topic so simply understood. I also see we have tiny dictators in this world, eating away every bit behind a lie… Making their existence true.

  23. Loved your idea of telling the harsh reality with pictures. You gave us a virtual trip of the place and the emotions.

  24. Heart touching pictures you share. Thanks for great post.

  25. Stunning pictures and the conception troubles, disturbs and moves as it should. Downright humbling talent at the service of humanity. Thank you.

  26. Important points for us (US) to consider…

  27. That is the problem to begin with. History is often manipulated and veiled to the liking of it’s writers. Much is lost and more would have been lost if not for the efforts of such people who put their life on line, unearthing the facts albeit difficulties. We should salutetheir tenacity in the quest of truth and duty.

  28. Nice way to present your story

  29. Thank you. I do feel that in the Wesr we’re face to face with those lies too though. The Trump campaign lives on them, Guantanamo Bay and regular mass murder by gun survive on them. In Australia where I’m now living, one of the nastiest “security” campaigns has been waged against refugees for the last sixteen years. Most recently thousands are marooned in Nauru and New Guinea, locked up indefinitely without committing a crime, and Australians think that’s “necessary for their own safety”. Argh, humans.

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  31. Your mountain shots is impresive ..

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  33. I would have looked at the pictures closely but your friend’s tale had be bound. I am speechless and I don’t know what to say.

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