Written by Arthur Rasco, director of the new documentary, ‘Facing Darkness.’ Photos courtesy of Samaritan’s Purse.
It was 2:15 a.m. In the darkness, Joseph Gbembo ran as he pushed a wheelbarrow down the dirt roads of Foya, Liberia, to go get his brother, Prince, who had been vomiting all night. Prince had been at his pastor’s home, but had become too ill for his pastor to care for him. Something needed to be done. Joseph rushed to get to his brother before it was too late.
But Joseph feared the worst. It was spring 2014, and Ebola had been appearing in this small town that bordered Sierra Leone and Guinea where the virus was already spreading like wildfire. Cases were already in Liberia, and three of Joseph’s loved ones had died from the disease.
The deadly Ebola virus preyed on families. This virus turned a culture of family, love, and life upside down. This invisible adversary destroyed entire generations in a country where the notion of family is so highly esteemed. When loved ones tried to care for family members dying from Ebola, they unknowingly exposed themselves to this highly contagious, fatal disease.
Funerals also played a huge role in spreading the virus as people would wash and groom the bodies of the deceased— which in our Western mindsets might seem largely inappropriate and unsanitary, but in Liberian culture is expected. In those early days of the epidemic, as many as thousands of people acquired the disease through funeral practices.
As the disease spread, however, so did denial. Many of Joseph’s family believed that Ebola wasn’t real. Some believed that if they took you to the hospital, they killed you there. As the youngest in his family, it was difficult for Joseph to argue with his older siblings and family members. But he had been working with Christian relief agency Samaritan’s Purse and they were doing public education about the virus, what it was, and how it spread.
Now under the cover of night, Joseph was facing the reality of Ebola, and he was running. Joseph knew he couldn’t carry his brother himself, nor should he should even touch him. A wheelbarrow was all that he could find to get to Prince as quickly as possible. Joseph covered his hands and got Prince into the wheelbarrow, ready to take him to the hospital. But a relative stopped Joseph and said not to take him to the hospital, that they must take him home. And that’s what they did. Fifteen hours later, Joseph’s beloved brother, Prince Gbembo, died.
Joseph would go on to see seventeen members of his family pass away from Ebola: His mother, his aunt who helped raise him, four brothers, a sister, three nephews, two of his sisters-in -law, three other aunts, a brother-in-law, and his uncle.
I met Joseph in 2015 when I traveled to Liberia to shoot for a new film by Samaritan’s Purse called Facing Darkness, which tells the story of the ministry’s response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Joseph’s story was extreme, but it was also illustrative of the issues facing Liberia through that very difficult time. The epidemic seemed so far and distant from the Western world, and yet here was a young man in his twenties who is left to say to me that he faces “pain over pain, pain over pain.” He said in an interview for Facing Darkness, “It’s just better that God would take us all as one than for me to live alone in the family.” I have to confess I didn’t know how to comprehend his grief.
He took me around his home. It was a small, mud-brick apartment compound, where several of his family members used to live. He took me into one small room. No lights. No electricity that I could tell. Only daylight streaming in from the window. Speaking about Prince, Joseph pointed down at the floor and said, “At the hour of 7:35 p.m., he died right in the room here. I miss him so much.”
Later he took me to an Ebola cemetery outside of Foya where several of his relatives were buried. At the time, it was overgrown with grass, and the weeds were waist high. It was hard to see the hand-painted wooden burial markers. It was sobering. Later that year, Samaritan’s Purse took on the task of creating a formal cemetery at this site complete with engraved headstones, giving deference to those buried there.
Joseph Gbembo credits Samaritan’s Purse for saving his life and educating him about Ebola. He told me that God “didn’t make a mistake by sending Samaritan’s Purse in Liberia. It’s really for the purpose to save life.” In Facing Darkness, I tried to subtly weave in the premise that fear leads to death, but courage leads to life. And I think that Joseph embodies that notion well: In the face of danger, because of the education he had, Joseph could be courageous, help people and stay alive.
The story of Joseph is tragic, but also has the most beautiful epilogue. As our team was interviewing him for the film, I could tell he was struggling with the conflicting emotions of sadness and hope. At one point he said, “I just take everything to God, let Him take control.” Joseph could see that God was using him, the youngest sibling in his family, to take care of all the children of his late family members who had died from Ebola.
We stopped the interview to ask him, “How many?”
“There are sixteen,” he told us.
This young man was now caring for sixteen of his nieces, nephews, and cousins who had nowhere to go because their parents had died. This is his new legacy: Sixteen faces that smile and laugh with joy now that the epidemic is over. Sixteen bundles of energy and happiness.
Ebola has transformed lives all across West Africa and continues to do so. I have often shared that the Ebola crisis wasn’t just three years ago. For people like Joseph who continue to live with the realities of the epidemic, it was yesterday.
Samaritan’s Purse is a non-denominational evangelical Christian International Relief organization. (Learn more here.) Its documentary on Ebola, Facing Darkness, will be available on digital platforms on July 25.