“We’ll just keep goin until Uncle Sam pulls you out”

Coronavirus. The buzzword of the year. The global pandemic that has shaken the world to its core. The virus that has cancelled face to face meetings and sparked the great toilet paper recession. And the thing that has thrown me and my fellowship for a complete loop. 

I’m going to give you my coronavirus saga. Before I do, I’ll tell you that this story has a happy ending- I am currently sitting in my home in West Chester, PA, with a mug of hot chocolate in my hands (I certainly did not miss the winter cold while I was abroad, but I did miss the hot chocolate). 

My coronavirus saga began one month ago, on Monday, March 2nd. I arrived in Uganda to visit Amy Haven, the Minerva Fellow at Engeye Health Clinic. 3 hours into my vacation, the Minerva Fellows received a message that Union was considering pulling us from our respective placements. They said it isn’t likely we’ll see out the rest of our time abroad, and we should mentally prepare to leave because the outcome doesn’t look good. The estimation was two weeks. 

One minute Amy was showing me around her beautiful village, and the next minute my whole reality had been pulled from underneath me. Leave in 2 weeks?? But I had just left the country to renew my South African visa! I wasn’t supposed to even return back to SA until 2 weeks from now! That aside, I couldn’t imagine leaving so soon…what about all the projects I was working on at Witkoppen? All the places I still wanted to visit? All the plans I’d scheduled for my remaining 7 weeks in the country? Needless to say, I did not take the news well. I was absolutely devastated. And in that devastation, I realized how much my time in South Africa has meant to me. How much I’ve assimilated here, how much my friends became family, how much my coworkers at Witkoppen and the work I do for the Gift of Hope has transformed my life. It was wonderful that I didn’t want to go. Except I had to. 

Union’s message came in response to the CDC releasing a report stating that institutes of higher education should consider canceling and postponing upcoming study abroad trips, and to bring home current students that are traveling. I looked at the word consider. Would Union consider? Or would they air on the side of caution and pull us early? It was an agitated few days as we sat and awaited our fate. I was not ready to leave– so I wrote an email making a case for myself. This decision needs to be made on a country by country basis, not made on a global scale (Sub-Saharan Africa didn’t have any cases at the time).  

I guess the message I sent had an impact- the news came the next day that we could stay! For now. I didn’t know whether to rejoice or punch someone. They had told us we had to leave quite abruptly and now we can stay?? I was thrilled don’t get me wrong, but it had been a roller coaster of emotions the past few days. The caveat was if anything escalates, they will need to reevaluate. So much was up in the air and there were simply no answers. I knew things were going to escalate, but how quickly? 

I found myself caught in the very same situation I was in before I came to South Africa. When my visa was denied last June, I had to cancel my outgoing flight and wait for the appeal and approval to be processed. I had been packed for weeks, and knew that every day could be the day I get my visa and can leave. I was living my life on the verge of departure for several weeks. Fast forward to now, and the same thing is happening, but in reverse. Mentally preparing that they could pull me from SA any day. I can’t tell you how stressful this situation was. Not knowing if this will be the last time I see someone, and having to cancel all of my future plans. Living each day like it was one of my last. 

I carried out my two week vacation- 4 days in Uganda with Amy, 5 days in Kenya with Matt and Mollie (Matt’s another Minerva Fellow in my program and Mollie is a close friend doing a Fulbright Fellowship in Cape Town) and 3 days in Cape Town. I made the most out of this vacation, knowing it would be one of my last weeks on this continent. I got to pet giraffes in Nairobi and went on a helicopter ride over Table Mountain in Cape Town (very much a last minute YOLO decision). During my amazing adventure, South Africa got its first case. And its second. (I was actually in the same airport that the first person who tested positive in SA had traveled through earlier that day) (also South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was at the Johannesburg airport while I was there…he was testing the temperature taking equipment, meanwhile I had tested it for HIM 2 hours prior…).

Every day brought more bad news…the state dept’s level 3 travel advisory was the big one. That’s when programs abroad seriously reevaluated their situation. That’s when our program director Michelle called and said you won’t be in South Africa much longer. But I still didn’t want to believe it. I figured I had until the end of the month. How naive of me.

When I returned to Johannesburg on Friday the 13th, there were 13 confirmed cases in the country. That’s hardly anything right? I didn’t think I had anything to worry about. I was hearing of school cancellations and the steady increase of coronavirus cases in the US and I felt much safer in South Africa. One scary aspect of this pandemic was that things were changing at an unprecedented rate. Cities were going into lockdown. The other fellows had made plans to travel back home. But South Africa remained relatively unfazed, so I did as well. 

Until President Ramaphosa addressed the nation on Sunday March 15th. “We have decided to take urgent and drastic measures to manage the disease and protect the people of our country….” In a country with 60 cases, all foreign nationals from high risk countries will be denied visas, and previously granted visas have been revoked. Travel will be restricted to and from high risk countries (aka the United States). The list went on but I had stopped listening. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. A few minutes later I got a call from Michelle, and I wish it was a call I didn’t have to answer. It was my reality calling, that I needed to get out of the country as soon as possible. I was going home. 

And to think I had started planning what my remaining 2 weeks would look like! I now had.4 days. (And thank God I was granted 4 days and not 24 hours). I tried to spend time with every colleague I had become close with at work, hold as many babies as I could (working in the post natal clinic had its perks), and was able to see a few friends that I had made from attending Greek dance practice. I didn’t get to say bye to nearly enough friends. No final celebrations, no last time going to church at Pantanassa or visiting the Fourways farmer’s market. It hurt me that my last goodbyes with friends had happened weeks ago and I hadn’t known it would be the last.

During my last week, harsher restrictions were put into place in SA, positive cases increased 8 fold, Union cancelled an on campus spring term, and the US state dept issued a level 4 travel advisory. Thankfully I had a flight for the next day because with that travel warning, all US citizens who were abroad were urged to return home immediately or be prepared to stay for an indefinite period of time. 

It was hard to process I was leaving, even as I packed up all of my things. It didn’t truly hit me until my very last day, when I said my hardest goodbye to my dear friend Lolo Njisane. I went into work that morning to say bye to everyone. The executive director, the clinicians and postnatal clinic staff gathered together and shared some parting words that made the tears pour down my face. I was again reminded of how much this place has impacted me and how much of an impact I have made on the people. That’s why this was so hard. But it’s also why the goodbye was so beautiful, since there was so much meaning behind it. I left the clinic feeling immensely grateful that I had spent 6+ wonderful months there.

Because nothing in life comes easy, my story doesn’t end with this happy ending. Mere hours before I was to drive to the airport, I find out that South African Airways has suspended all international flights indefinitely. My flight, on South African Airways, set to leave in 5 hours, would not be leaving Johannesburg. I never got a cancellation email so I packed up everything and drove to the airport, but it wasn’t meant to be. My flight was cancelled. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a major airport during a global crisis, but let me just say it’s one of the most stressful environments I’ve ever been in. I visited every airline counter to see if there was a flight to get me home that night, but flights were booked for the next 3 days. Some airlines were cancelling international flights completely. I went home to my host family that night and enjoyed such much needed comfort food. 

Later that night, my heart was beating uncontrollably as my parents, Michelle, and I searched for flights to the US, watching flights get cancelled and getting kicked out of a reservation half way through filling out my information because the seats filled up. By the grace of God, I got onto a flight Saturday evening, 24 hrs later. It would stop in Doha, Qatar, and then fly to JFK. Was I in the clear? Not quite. I was sitting in my seat the next day waiting for the plane to leave the gate when I get calls that Doha is restricting flights to the US and that JFK was cancelling flights. Would I get stranded in Doha? Maybe. But I couldn’t get off the plane and reenter South Africa at this point since visas had been cancelled, so I put my faith in Christ and the plane took off. My connecting flight to JFK did happen, and I made it home Sunday evening, March 22. 

You can exhale that breath you’ve been holding. I took the biggest exhale of my life when the airplane wheels hit the New York ground, and I know mama Michelle took an even bigger one, now that all of the Minerva Fellows were home. I’m in Day 12 of quarantine, and I’m feeling just fine (really missing human touch though). My emotions are all over the place. Those first few days, I couldn’t stop crying. My reality had been yanked from me, just like it had for so many others. My fellowship had been delayed in July with a visa mishap and now it had been cut short by a global pandemic. I’m still processing all of these feelings but I know this is the best place for me to be right now.

The day after I got home, South Africa announced they were going into lockdown. All airports closed. I am getting emails from the US embassy in Joburg about repatriation flights to get US citizens home, but there has yet to be one. I am so thankful and incredibly blessed that I returned home safely before the lockdown, as hectic as it all was, and that I have a safe environment to come home to and quarantine in. And I know so much doesn’t make sense for so many people right now. Of course I ask myself why now, why couldn’t have happened when I wasn’t having a life changing experience in a foreign country. But that’s life for you. And when life doesn’t go as planned, you trust the reroute. 

I do plan on writing more in this blog even though I’m back in the US. There is so much I didn’t get the chance to share, and especially since I won’t be going back to Union in May to share my experiences with the students, I’m going to use this platform for you to continue following me through my journeys in Joburg. 

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