Living/Traveling/Working in Africa During the Coronavirus Pandemic Pt. 2
SORRY FOR THE WAIT Y’ALL.
I attempted to write this blog post about 3x in the past few weeks, but I was triggered each time I opened up my Word Doc. Reliving and documenting this experience so important to me, but it's also emotionally disturbing. Thank God, I’m in a better place now. I’ve come to terms with everything that happened in the past few months. I am happy, and overall, blessed.
My father laughs at me every other day. Consistently. There’s a joke that arose during the time of uncertainty, where my dad began laughing at me because of the way I handled a certain situation. (Hint: There were tears involved). You’ll learn more about what it was, and probably jest me for the same reason, soon.
On Monday March 16th, after a 2-week long trip, I arrived back in Ghana safely. After two layovers and doing remote work on my flight, all I could think about was resting.
I got home from the airport, freshened up and went straight to bed. I took one of those long naps where you wake up confused and hungry.
When I woke up from my nap, I browsed through my phone to check the time and read messages. My phone was BLOWING. UP. I kept seeing texts about “a missing attachment”. I was trying to catch up with all of the messages that I had missed; that’s when I saw a message from a good friend, who also lives in Ghana, sharing his support because he’d learned that the PiAf fellowship was suspended. I don’t know if he knows, but he was the one to share the news with me.
PiAf is suspended?! Whaaat? What does that mean for my fellow cohort & I?
I went straight to the email app. I was really calm, and just laughing in my head (honestly, what else can you do?). I saw an email from PiAf detailing the program’s response to the global pandemic. “Attached please find the official response policy from PiAf.”
There was no attachment on the email.. I was confused and annoyed. That’s when I realized what was meant in the group chat by “a missing attachment”. My co-fellows had also noticed there wasn’t an attachment on the email.
I scrolled down, saw an updated email accompanied by an apology and saw an attached letter. It read: “In consultation with our Board Health, Safety & Security Committee, Princeton in Africa has made the very difficult decision to suspend the program for the 2019-20 fellowship year.”
Whewww.. Ok, I just got back to Ghana (BARELY), and I just made “work-from-home” arrangements with my supervisor. I’m excited to resume work. Must I now refocus my attention on making arrangements to head back to New York?
Ok, no. We’re not going back to New York, a state that has an escalating number of cases and fatalities. From the Ghanaian perspective, America (NY especially) is the worst possible place to be. Some of my coworkers were even contacting me regularly to see how my family in NY was doing, I couldn’t stomach returning there.
After reading the email, I told my roommate and my squad of friends in Gh about PiAf’s suspension. I held off telling people in NYC because I didn’t see the point in worrying everyone if I didn’t have a next step. I could already envision the “So what are you going to do?” messages all up on my phone. If I don’t know, I won’t be the bearer of irresolute news.
I spent a few hours browsing through flights to see how much it’d cost for me to fly back to NYC. I was really turned off by the thought of returning because I really wasn’t trying to even enter another airport. My chances of catching the virus would increase substantially if I got on an international flight back to America. I wasn’t about to take my chances, then have to sit at home for a 2-week quarantine where I couldn’t interact with my family.
That’s settled. I wasn’t going back to the states, and my roommate wasn’t going back to Canada.
The next day, I tried to make arrangements with my organization to find a way to stay in Ghana and continue my work. I received emails reminding me that cases in Ghana are likely to rise significantly in the near future as they have in the rest of the world. I also received emails encouraging me to leave as quickly as possible if I planned to be back in the US before the March 23rd deadline presented to me by PiAf.
“Please consider both the current conditions in Ghana and the US in addition to the potential scenario of not being able to travel back to the US for some time if you decide to stay. [your HR rep] indicated [they were] looking into you being able to continue working with [your org] after March 23rd.”
At this point, I called my parents and informed them of the situation at hand. They were calmer than I expected. We spent the rest of the day weighing out my options, and looking at potential flights in the case that my job couldn’t accommodate me, being that they were the reason why I was in Ghana in the first place.
Any time my phone buzzed, I panicked a bit. I didn’t like receiving emails anymore.
Paraphrased version: It is with much regret that I am informing you that a senior management decision was made that if PiAf cancels their program for any reason — global pandemic, terrorism, natural disaster — your org would no continue to engage them.
Abeg, when’s the next flight to NYC?
Upon receiving this email, I called my parents instantly, and they both said it was best that I come home. In the case that anything were to happen, they preferred that I’d be home with them. We were searching through flights, having a hard time booking with a reliable airline.
“We don’t want any ‘you should’ve, you could’ve situations. Please.”
This was my first good day in a while. I enjoyed fufu with my roommate and her boyfriend.
My "good day" didn't last for long :)
Later that day, I received an email from the US Dept. of State saying that all US citizens abroad should return home or prepare to stay in their respective countries for an unknown period of time.
“The Department of State advises U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19. In countries where commercial departure options remain available, U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period. U.S. citizens who live abroad should avoid all international travel. Many countries are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks and implementing travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines, closing borders, and prohibiting non-citizens from entry with little advance notice. Airlines have cancelled many international flights and several cruise operators have suspended operations or cancelled trips. If you choose to travel internationally, your travel plans may be severely disrupted, and you may be forced to remain outside of the United States for an indefinite timeframe.”
I know my parents were TIRED of me at this point. I called them up and informed them we had to book my flight asap. Because of the announcement, I knew that the limited flights available were about to sell out. I began to panic because every time I found a flight, it’d sell out within minutes.
Dad: How about the Ethiopian Airlines flight we found the other day?
Me: Sold out.
Dad: I see a one-way Delta flight
Me: Dad… that flight is 3,500 pounds, not even USD. It's too pricey
I was coordinating with my dad to book the flight because my laptop was dead and there was a black-out in my neighborhood. Talk about VEXED.
Me: Dad, can you give the phone to mommy?
He handed her the phone.
Before I could even utter a word to my mom, I bawled my eyes out on the phone. I had faith that God would see me through all of this, I was just super overwhelmed by all that had happened in the past few days. All the pressure that was on me, and the fact that if I didn’t book a flight, there would be no new flights. I didn’t mind staying in Ghana, I just didn’t like the idea of staying in uncertainty.
Whew, that cry felt great.
Sitting near my mom, my dad heard me crying through the phone and was super offended. Till this day, he makes jokes about my little episode. “Are you about to cry?”
“Let me not stress you out, before you cry and ask to talk to your mom again.” See, this is exactly why I let mom handle the tears and dad handle the bookings. *insert eye-roll emoji here*
He didn’t understand why I couldn’t share my tearful moment with him. Highkey, I knew he couldn’t handle all of that added pressure in that moment.
At last. My flight was booked with KLM for March 22nd. ACC to AMS, AMS to JFK.
I was at ease. I felt way better, and slept peacefully in my dark, warm room.
Now, I had to figure out how I was going to obtain a mask and gloves in anticipation for my flight, since most vendors in Accra were sold out.
The coronavirus cases in Ghana had risen to 16. Two cases in particular stood out to me, as they were proof that the virus had begun to spread in the community.
--- 29-year-old Ghanaian lady; resident of Accra; no history of travel; sample confirmed positive in the laboratory
--- 53-year-old Ghanaian male, resident of Tema; no history of travel, no evidence of close contact with confirmed case; sample confirmed positive in the laboratory
I informed my org and PiAf that my flight back to the states was booked.
I began to pack and make arrangements to leave Ghana. Some of my friends began to see the seriousness of the virus and reached out to me to see how I was doing and what my next steps were. The other PiAf fellows had slowly begun to make decisions as to whether or not they’d remain on the continent or head back home.
A friend of mine hooked me up with 2 masks and gloves, a hot commodity in Ghana at the time. I was super thankful and now felt prepared for my flight.
If anyone would’ve told me a few months ago that a global pandemic was going to put my job in a questionable position, I wouldn’t have believed it.
My year started off really poorly, I felt like 2020 was not going to be my year (I don’t like manifesting such bad thoughts into the new year but, I just knew. God is king though :))
I spent this day saying my farewells. Bonding with my roommate. Eating good food and just packing up my room. I was still in disbelief, but reminded myself that it was all in God’s hands now.
I also spent the day trying to figure out what items were staying in Ghana and what I was taking with me (forever grateful for those who helped with this). I ultimately had to sacrifice some items to make space for some things my mom requested. They don’t care if you are leaving because of an emergency ooo, Ghanaian mothers must receive all of the fish and meat that they requested.
I was on the second to last international flight out of Ghana before the borders officially closed on March 23rd. My flight was at 10:15PM, and the borders closed at 12:00am. My flight was PACKED. Almost everyone was wearing masks.
I thank God that my flight wasn’t canceled and that I made it to Amsterdam, then NYC safe and sound.
There were so many canceled flights.
Over the course of it all, I also received a number of texts that really defined this transition for me.
Ultimately, God knows best. We make plans but, at the end of it all, He will have His way. It’s best I spend less time stressing over something I simply cannot control. There are so many other people who were in my exact position. We all handle stress differently, but for the most part I’m sure we felt the same things. We’d miss the countries we grew to love, the friends we made, for some of us that included family, and most importantly, an international experience that would leave a significant imprint on our respective journeys.
Ghana hasn’t seen the last of me, and I’m sharing this story so that any of my loved ones who didn’t get a chance to see me or didn’t understand how things played out can better understand. I’m also sharing this so that those who weren’t doing much international travel during the pandemic can get a feel for what the experience was like.
Thank you for reading. I’ll share a story about what my next steps look like in due time.