A group of Kenyan orphans on a trip to the US are facing a backlash from a section of Oklahoma residents who believe the children may be carrying the Ebola virus.
But the sponsors and hosts of the 24 children from an orphanage in Kisumu have come out strongly to deny the suggestion.
“Ever since the children arrived last week, there have been fears from a small section of Oklahomans that some may be carrying the Ebola virus. A lot of these fears are out of ignorance of the geography and history of Africa.
The Ebola outbreak is in West Africa while the children come from East Africa,” Ms Beatrice Atieno Williamson, the founder of the orphanage, told The Oklahoman newspaper.
The 24, who are members of Light the Future choir, travelled from Kano in Kisumu County to Oklahoma on a two-month tour that involves a series of activities and an exchange programme meant to enhance interaction with their Oklahoma-based sponsors. Many are hosted by families in the city.
The Kenyans have been performing Christian songs at various venues in preparation for the main gala night which was scheduled for last night.
But news of their arrival on October 7 has stirred attention after some residents claimed the children — aged between nine and 22 years — could potentially bring the Ebola virus to the southern American state.
“It’s really heartbreaking and hard on us,” Ms Williamson, founder of the faith-based non-profit organisation the Maisha Project, told the paper.
She added: “I just want to clear the air for Oklahomans: The Maisha children’s choir did not bring Ebola to Oklahoma.”
Oblivious of the controversy their presence has caused in a country where some people think Africa is a country, the children, most of whom are travelling outside Kenya for the first time, have been enjoying themselves visiting various sites unmindful of the reaction from some residents.
Ms Williamson, a Kenyan who migrated to America a decade ago, told The Oklahoman she had been receiving some unpleasant phone calls and hostile Facebook posts on the visit. The newspaper reported that things got worse after a local TV news station aired a segment about the visit.
However, Ms Williamson assured residents that the group of 24 young choir members come hundreds of miles from Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — the three West African countries worst hit by the Ebola outbreak — and are all healthy.
She said the main goal of the trip is to allow the young people to experience life outside their village and for cultural exchange opportunities at schools and churches across the state.
Maisha, a non-governmental organisation based in Oklahoma city and founded in 2007, supports an orphanage in Kisumu and residents in nearby villages.
Ms Williamson said Oklahomans, mostly faith groups, have helped to start an orphanage, school and medical clinic in Kenya. She told the US newspaper that the children appreciate the support.
“These kids don’t forget what has been done for them, and they want to return the favour,” she told the paper.
Carmen Hancuff, a resident of Edmond, told the newspaper that she and her family were comfortable hosting two choir members aged 16 years and 13 years.
“The odds of us getting Ebola is greater than their (Kenyan children) getting it because we have more exposure to it here from Dallas,” The Oklahoman quoted her as saying.
The Ebola virus has in the last month been spreading fast in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Kenya has not reported a case.
There has been panic since the first Ebola death on US soil of Liberian Thomas Eric Duncan. Two nurses who treated the Liberian at a Texas hospital have also tested positive for the virus. The American and British governments have started screening passengers from affected West African countries at major airports while many other countries are on high alert.
The term “fearbola” — the irrational fear of catching Ebola — has been coined to describe the extreme reaction of some Americans. The Washington Post recently quoted a fake doctor in a comedy segment saying, “It is very easy to contract . . . Just five minutes of exposure to CNN or Fox News, and you might have Fearbola.”
On Friday, a Kenyan nurse in Dallas, US, claimed she had been sent back home from her work station at Novus Health Services after her employer supposedly got information that her daughter had visited from Kenya.
The nurse, who was only identified as Alice, was later told to fill a form asking her, among other details, if she had been in contact with people abroad. The hospital told American broadcaster ABC that this was part of “additional screening procedures” that come with “an abundance of caution”.
A Kenyan in Dallas, who spoke to the Sunday Nation on condition of anonymity, said there has been racial profiling as some in the US believe all black people are potential carriers of the virus.
“You see it in the way some people look at you or move away from you in public places. My children, who have never even visited Kenya, are also constantly being bullied by their classmates about having Ebola,” he said.
Reuters recently quoted Dallas politician Eric Williams as saying that some Liberian pupils in the US had been branded “Ebola kids”. An Ethiopian parking lot attendant said somebody had told him to “go get yourself quarantined”.
Some conservative politicians, mostly Republicans, have used the response to the Ebola crisis to attack President Barack Obama’s administration and the US immigration policy. Some are said to have come up with stickers ridiculing President Obama, who has Kenyan roots, as having links with the virus.
In the UK, it was reported on Friday that some parents at Berkeley Primary School in Crewe, Cheshire, had threatened to withdraw their children for three weeks — the incubation period of the virus — because two teachers are planning to visit Kenya on an exchange programme.
“It is an excellent school, however a large number of parents are concerned about the health of their children as there are teachers travelling to Kenya as part of an exchange system,” the Daily Mirror quoted a parent as saying.
However, Headmistress Carolyn Brown assured the parents that health warnings on Ebola did not affect Kenya.
“There is no more risk of catching Ebola in Kenya than there is in the UK,” she said.