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Sunday, February 25, 2024

A Liberian Humanitarian: Dr. Emmett Dennis

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By Jeannie Molly Cooper

One of the tasks that I had within the Medicines Sans Frontiers team during the war was to produce a weekly newsletter. Or situation report.

I sent it to our Abidjan office by facsimile or some kind of telefax machine, and they added in news from other parts of the Liberia relief effort and sent it out. I reported on what we saw in the hospitals, in the villages, in the IDP camps.

I reported on population movements, and included some anecdotes. Later on, when we got more equipment, I would take photographs and include them.

Who knew who read these newsletters? Or cared about our heartbreak that we’d brought on ourselves?

Sitting in that office in Danane, Côte d’Ivoire, with only one cook and a driver as staff, the workload was heavy. Heavier still was the heartbreak.

Every day seeing someone you know, hearing of someone you know, of some place you know…death, terror, sickness.

Every single day. And every night, I would lay there worried. Were my owna people okay? How were they eating?

Were they being attacked? I hadn’t been able to go into Monrovia, or have any news from there since we left the Catholic Hospital in August.

I’d scan the faces of those coming out, looking for anyone familiar. Worry was incessant and sleep elusive. How to incorporate that into your news reports?

Eventually, I did get into Harbel, where we stayed for a time, until ECOMOG and Prince Johnson drove the NPFL out.

And one fine day, we made it as far into town as Congo Town but no further. There were atrocities, and “doodoo bird droppings” that BBC told me were to clear out the rebels. For our own good.

And us? Us the civilians who were packed into Duport Road and in Paynesville? May those of you who have not lived through it never know the fear of bomber jets flying over you!

But my story is about my time in Danane…I was used to international organizations coming, stopping over in the town for information.

They rarely went into Liberia, preferring to get their news from the border. I was working solo for MSF-Belgium in a house/warehouse/office. MSF-France had a program in the town for refugees and ICRC was not far away.

But I was pretty much alone, not being their “typical” aid worker…and reporters or whoever usually went to them -the “real” aid workers- for information on what was going on in Liberia.

So imagine my surprise when a group came from the United Methodist Church Relief Organization especially to see me. Liberian me!

They had read my newsletters and knew I could tell them more precise information about their parishioners and schools and all.

Some of them knew my grandmother Eugenia Simpson Cooper and her work with the UMC Women and education.

They wanted to hear from me, because they wanted ‘genuine news’ of inside Liberia. And I talked. And talked.

And felt that many more people out there cared about us, not as statistics, or numbers, but as real people with lives, dreams and hopes. And fears.

So I can not forget the very first group of Liberian aid workers, humanitarians, who came to see me.

There were at least three of them: Dr. Ayele Ajavon; Dr. Emmett Dennis and Dr. Yede Dennis. I knew Aunty Ayele but I had not met Dr. Dennis or his wife.

But these were my people and they came to help! To say I was proud, and relieved…to have someone with whom to share details of who and what I had seen.

We talked all through the day and night. Here at last, we could ask specific questions…about loved ones; about places; about the conditions of facilities; about what kind of help was most needed.

They were part of a group of concerned Liberians in the US who needed to find out what was going on, and how they could help. They came with medicines and supplies.

They taught me one of the first lessons that working in international humanitarian relief can drum out of you…we the victims also care.

We who are being attacked also help each other. Humanitarian help has no color or creed but is based in humanity.

Us helping our own. We may not have the flash or the financial heft of international organizations…but we can and do go that last mile for each other.

Dr. Emmett Dennis. We met again during Ebola. Another crisis, decades later. And him playing the same role, although older now and now he was ‘inside’ and I was coming from ‘outside’.

We met and we exchanged and he prepared a proposal for beefing up medical capacities at the university, so we could handle pandemics and so forth.

Liberia had lost several doctors…so many had died, or left the country; and the University was down on professors at the Medical School and otherwise. I ferried that proposal around to whoever would listen.

But that first humanitarian lesson was not lost on me, and gave me the drive to push the African Union to help Africans during Ebola. Not just give some money and sit down. Come help. And they did. And they do. Still.

Drs. Dennis and Dr. Ajavon inspired me from that dusty border town across the years.

Every cell of Dr. Emmett Dennis’ body was a concerned Liberian, wanting more and better for his country. Every inch a statesman. Always dapper. Always well-spoken and articulate. Passionate about us.

His loss is immeasurable because his presence was so great. His love for Liberia so pervasive and all-consuming.

Rest in Perfect and Eternal Peace Dr. Emmett Dennis. Rest. Your strife is over. We are grateful to have had you. I am grateful to have been inspired by you.

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