As the heat finally broke on the afternoon of New Year's Eve, word went out across Monrovia that Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf had lifted the months-long curfew, for just one night. Introduced in September at the height of the Ebola epidemic to help curb spread of the disease, the midnight to 6am curfew has shuttered dance clubs across the country. When even handshakes are dangerous, sweaty grinding could be lethal.
There were rumors before the official announcement. New Year's Eve and Day are prominent holidays on the Liberian calendar. Surely the government would not arrest the whole country for breaking the curfew, people wondered. But after street chatter turned to legit government talk, thumping dance music poured from every beer parlor and club and storefront church, all up and down Tubman Boulevard, and from UN Drive in the west to Paynesville on the eastern outskirts of Monrovia.
Some local joints were caught unaware. The owners of Club Dubai, distinctive for a street-side, life-size statue of a man and woman in full-on grind, had not gotten the word in time, and so the club remained dark while the neighborhood filled with revelers. Women donned short dresses, men dressed up in hats and sweaters, and together they danced in the streets as horns honked from every car and cab.
On that night, Ebola would not rule. On New Year's Eve, there would finally be a party.The celebrations began long before dark. If you have money - a lot of money, and own your own Cadillac and have a driver and security - you go to the casino at the Mamba Point Hotel, where world-class sushi is served. And if have less money, you go to Miami Beach, a haven of relaxation where the beers cost less than one dollar. Roast chicken and smoked fish are for sale at the gate, hard alcohol in sold the back, and marijuana at the African Village. Young women, vacuum-sealed into their dresses, sit in chairs beneath thatch umbrellas. Pay for a drink, and you can sit and talk to a girl. Pay for a little more, and you can disappear around the corner. It's like a strip club where a wide ocean view replaces the stage and dance poles.
But if you are an average Liberian - which means you have almost no money - you are likely simply in awe that you survived 2014's Ebola outbreak, and you will go to church for Watch Night.
Watch Night is the ubiquitous New Year's Eve tradition of Liberia. Congregations across the country fill for a prayerful vigil turned ecstatic revelry once the clock strikes 12. At the Pillar of Fire Church, on the grounds of the Firestone Natural Rubber Company, Reverend Luther Tarpeh led his flock through the final hours of a truly catastrophic year.
Reverend Luther attends the renowned annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, DC. His sister, a healthcare worker, died of Ebola in December. His next-door neighbor, a "big medical doctor," died of Ebola as well. For four hours on New Years Eve, he preached and sang and squeezed his eyes in prayer. The theme: gratitude for life. You made it, you survived Ebola this year.
The sound in the hall was deafening, like a garage rock band throwing a concert in a basement. Drums and piano filled the hall as a choir and soloists sang. The entire church shook as every last member, shoulder-to-shoulder, danced and sang "Thank you, Jesus."
"Somebody put your hands together for Jesus," a church elder said. Cheers followed, and then a new song began - a sort of "thank you, Jesus" slow jam.
Christine Tarpeh, the wife of the reverend, led a series of callbacks in group prayer, with every plea about Ebola. "Please open the schools." "Let this Ebola end."
There is hope for 2015, that their children will not sit at home, and that they will take a taxi without fear. Reverend Tarpeh thanked God that all of their pregnant women survived. They thanked "the healthcare professionals on the forefront of this battle for our nation," and then prayed for those nurses' families. They thanked God for his protection, unable to find another explanation for their good fortune.
"Do you think you lived because you were careful?" Reverend Luther asked. The congregation called back "no." "Can you really explain, why not me?" Another shout of "no." "We will follow the wisdom of the healthcare workers," said Reverend Luther, "and pray for God's mercy. This evil that came in the form of a disease called Ebola, pack your bags and go. Pack your bags and go. Pack your bags and go!"
As midnight approached, the hall grew quiet. They had been warned, repeatedly: This is not normal Watch Night. Do not hug. Do not kiss. Dance in your seats. Stomp a hole in the floor. There was no ball drop, only an old clock on the wall, four minutes slow. Reverend Luther counted down to midnight, 25 seconds, 15, five, and when he suddenly shouted in the New Year, the speakers popped. An eruption of dancing followed. Some put their heads on their plastic lawn chairs and cried alone into their seats.
Back in Monrovia, crowds of young men ruled the streets, setting up impromptu roadblocks. The police, in black and white Toyota pickups, arrived in force. The joy of a lifted curfew had deflated by 2am - the music shut off, the beer parlors were now close to empty, and only a few lone walkers were seen making their way home.
The next morning, the smell of chlorine was overwhelming at the Medecins sans Frontieres Ebola treatment unit on the main highway outside of the capital city. A high concrete block wall lines the road, and only a few iron gates provide access, lit by a flood of outward facing spotlights. All of those gates were locked all night, except one. Just inside, the night watchman sat in a white plastic chair, wearing white boots and a blue plastic suit. He waited all night for new Ebola victims to be dropped at his door. Another sentry stood vigil the next day, and then into the night, and the day after that.
There is hope. Ebola will go home in 2015, but not yet.
Travel support for this story was provided by the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting
All photos by Cheryl Hatch