When Ashoka Mukpo speaks about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, his words carry a compassion and humanity that can only come from firsthand experience. That’s because Mukpo, 33, is one of only a handful of Americans to contract Ebola in West Africa, where he was working as a cameraman with NBC News.
It’s an unusual turn in what was already an extraordinary life. Mukpo is the adopted son of the legendary Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who helped establish Tibetan Buddhism in the UK and North America and founded what would become Shambhala International. His mother is Diana Mukpo, who married Trungpa when she was just 16; and his father is Mitchell Levy, the late Rinpoche’s personal physician. When Mukpo was very young, the 16th Karmapa—one of the most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism—recognized him as the reincarnation of a teacher from Eastern Tibet. But as Mukpo grew up, he decided to forego monastic robes for a career in human rights and international development.
Mukpo first went to Liberia as part of a UN research project to study the impact foreign direct investment was having on the country. He soon began to feel a special connection with Liberia and its people. After the project ended, he did more work investigating foreign investors in sectors like agriculture, logging, and mining with the Sustainable Development Institute. After a few months away, Mukpo returned to Liberia in May to report on the Ebola outbreak.
A couple of weeks later, Mukpo started showing symptoms of Ebola. He flew to the Nevada Medical Center for treatment, where he remained until the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that he was Ebola free on October 20.
With another US healthcare worker possibly infected with the virus and West Africa slipping from the headlines, Mukpo sat down with Tricycle to discuss his work in Liberia, his fight with Ebola, and how spiritual communities can help.
Did Liberia change dramatically between when you left in May and when you went back after the Ebola outbreak had started? Quite a bit had changed by the time I came back. I felt that I was returning to a country that had been damaged by the outbreak and that was in danger of really coming apart at the seams. Despite that, there was still an air of normalcy in people’s lives. They still went to work, most of them. They still had to buy food and cook food and live life. There was just this omnipresent potential for danger and death that existed around every corner.
What went through your mind when you first realized that you were showing symptoms of Ebola? Fear and shock, and a sense of urgency—an immediate realization that I had to be on my toes, start thinking fast, start making the right phone calls, and get a handle on what was happening as quickly as possible, because the timeline for getting treatment with Ebola can be a matter of life and death. There was obviously a sense of severe dis-ease—not disease, but dis-ease—that I was showing the early symptoms of Ebola, which was something that I’d been afraid of the whole time I was covering the outbreak.
The first thing you did upon realizing that you were showing symptoms of Ebola was to wipe down the doorknobs you’d just touched with bleach so as not to infect anyone else. Of course. There’s sort of an unwritten impulse for anyone who is covering or working with Ebola that if you get sick, the first you do is make sure that you don’t infect anybody else. So I went into an immediate self-quarantine. The guy who was putting me up in the apartment is a lovely person and a very dear friend of mine. Throughout my whole illness I was desperately concerned that I had gotten him ill. He isn’t an American—he was somebody from South Asia. So if he’d gotten sick, his ability to get modern care would have been limited to nothing. Fortunately, he’s okay. We’re all pretty happy about that.
Experts are warning that it might be too early to start celebrating, but it seems to me that most people in Liberia feel like they have Ebola under control. I think that Liberians themselves deserve a profound amount of credit for that, because they really led the response. They worked in ambulances, they staffed treatment centers, they conducted awareness campaigns. Liberians themselves stepped up to the plate and addressed this situation, in some cases with very limited support. As they’ve done many times before, they saved their country from ruin.
You’ve written about hearing Liberians singing hymns in the Ebola ward. Can you say more about the role you saw faith playing in this crisis? Liberia is a very difficult place, and people are, in some senses, very powerless. There’s an immense reliance on spiritual strength and what they see as the love of God to get them through hard times.
I don’t think there’s any harder time to be diagnosed with Ebola than when you’ve already seen family members die from it. People, in order to generate the strength they needed to live through the illness, would display and radiate their faith. You never hear a Liberian say, “I have regrets”; they say, “I’m in God’s hands.” And I found that, that generative spiritual strength, even as a Buddhist who doesn’t adhere to a theistic philosophy, to be not so dissimilar to our efforts to create inner strength and fortitude for ourselves, and to have a sense of dignity and self-awareness.
What about your own faith, when you were sick? On some level, some things I would aspire to as a Buddhist, I didn’t live up to. I’m not mad at myself for that, but, for example, I was quite fearful at the prospect of dying. As Buddhists, we’re training ourselves to understand that death is real and it comes without warning, but there was no part of me that had any ability to relinquish my attachment to my life. And I’m not ashamed of that. I think wanting to live when you’re 32, 33 years old is a pretty sound impulse.
I did a lot of Vajrasattva practice [a purification practice in tantric Buddhist]. I tried to keep it simple, and I tried to do visualizations of healing energy and those things. But I also kept it very light, because I wanted to preserve my strength so my body could heal itself. I wasn’t under the illusion that spiritual practice was going to save my life. I knew it was intravenous rehydration and an airlift that was likely to get me through.
Did Liberians feel wary about the US sending the military to aid the country’s Ebola response? When people hear about the US military, they think of war-making capacity—they think of guns, they think of bombs, they think of invasions. So there was definitely some concern out there that this was a part of a Western plot to grab resources in the shadow of the Ebola outbreak. But I think the military’s role was much more to build infrastructure and help train health workers.
There was a lot of rumormongering that was going on in Liberia at the time that could be seen as suspicion and skepticism about the good intentions of both the international community and their own government. That’s understandable, given Liberia’s poor have been marginalized from decision-making and have frequently had to deal with being at the very bottom of the economic and social ladder. Any time there’s an intervention that comes from the outside world, there’s this tendency to look at it from the most sinister possible angle, because Liberians are used to being mistreated.
You’ve written that Liberians feel a special connection with the US because of their history. Has the US done enough to support Liberia as a country? I think the United States has made significant efforts to help Liberia, but sometimes their strategy for doing that has been very top-heavy. My impression has been that they’ve looked the other way, based on political calculations, when it comes to situations of corruption and low accountability.
America’s historical relationship to Liberia gives it a special responsibility to help the country get on a sustainable path of service-delivery for its population and for the building of a society that works for everyone in the country. A lot of the conflict in Liberia can essentially be traced to its beginnings as a state. The US was not always as supportive of the state-building project in Liberia as it could have been. I think that there has been a bit of relegation of Liberia to the second tier, or the third tier, because it just doesn’t have very much strategic importance.
Do you think the political will to help Liberia and other West African countries affected by this Ebola outbreak will remain once Ebola fades from the headlines? When Liberia needs help reconstructing after the crisis is over, I think it would be very unfortunate if the world, and in particular the US, didn’t follow up on its commitments. And already, they’ve done a lot. They’ve been very supportive of efforts to battle Ebola and to stop the outbreak. But attention goes elsewhere. Hopefully, we can prevent that from happening.
There are just a lot of people who are already doing this work in Africa and in Liberia, and who are doing it very well. What we as a society and what we as a country can do is find those people and give them the support that they need to improve their own country. Paternalistic solutions that are imposed from London or Washington are destined to fail in Liberia, as are initiatives that rely solely on politicians. I think what we all need to do a much better job of, in the wake of the outbreak, is looking at the people who’ve been screaming for reform and change and figuring out what we can do to support them. And those people will tell us what they need. It’s just a matter of listening to them.
There’s been a lot of criticism of US media outlets for focusing on Westerners with Ebola, who are a tiny minority of Ebola cases. How can journalists re-center African voices and experiences when covering the Ebola outbreak? There are heart-wrenching stories and profound stories of strength and dignity and hope that are coming out of all three of the countries affected by Ebola—Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. For me as a journalist, I consider it important for all of us to find ways to tell those stories effectively. That means going to those countries, it means finding those people, and it means helping the audience connect. Of course, audiences in America are going to want to hear from American Ebola survivors. I think that’s just natural. But that doesn’t mean that media organizations can’t find ways to bring unconventional and important stories to those audiences in a way that they might be taking a bit of a risk ratings-wise, but might actually change someone’s opinion and perspective and might help them see someone else’s world with a little bit more clarity. I’ve been trying to do that as much as I can.
Your path has been very different from what would be traditional for a recognized tulku and the son of a high lama. Do you see your human rights work and your journalism as still connected to that in some way? I’m definitely influenced by the gifts I’ve received through the lineage and try to use them for the benefit of others. At the same time, we’re all different. Some people might choose to be artists, some people might choose to be scholars, some might choose to be business people. But for me, my own personal inspiration, intellectually and from what I see to be important, has led me to try to do this work. And I don’t think it’s just a Buddhist thing. Sure, Buddhism guides a lot of my decision-making, professionally, but so does the inspiration of people who might not even be Buddhist.
Do you think that Buddhist organizations and meditation groups could be more socially engaged? Yes, I do. Absolutely. Sometimes, Buddhists have a tendency to fall into this trap where they think that personal development is the number one priority. Then they tend to sometimes forget about the need to be aware socially and aware of the impact of their lives, and to see what they can do to help, financially or professionally, to alleviate suffering. For me, the central guiding principle of Buddhism is compassion and concern for the world in which we live. It’s the idea of interdependence—that our actions dictate the experience of others. I don’t think everybody needs to run out and join an aid organization and everyone should feel bad that they’re not doing more for people in need. But I would like to see Buddhists have a braver relationship to engaging with the world—and also, potentially, a smarter one. We’re trained to develop our intellect and develop our wisdom, and it’s not worth very much unless you put it into practice.
It’s sometimes very easy to feel disempowered, but what we can do is educate ourselves as much as possible about what’s happening in faraway places so that we get a sense of our own position and our own role in the world, and our own privilege. Beyond that, it’s important to really think hard about which charities you support and why.
Outside of that, maybe the best we can all do is try to live good, decent lives and be kind to people around us, be aware of the gifts that we have and the blessings that we have and understand that not everybody has those. And listen for solutions. Don’t get caught up in apathy and resentment about how difficult the situation is for our country and for our world right now.
For information on development initiatives led by Liberians, visit the Sustainable Development Institute, the Save My Future Foundation, Green Advocates, and the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia.
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