Living/Traveling/Working in Africa During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Whew, life comes at you fast.
One moment, you’re laid out on Nungwi Beach in Zanzibar, Tanzania, planning for dinner with your girls. You’re anticipating that plate of Champagne Shrimp Spaghetti from the Z Hotel, accompanied by good views and even better vibes. The next moment? You’re frantically trying to call your travel agent because you fear that you’ll be rejected at the border of the country you’re currently living in. As coronavirus cases continue to rise in the African continent, so does your anxiety.
Friday morning, I woke up extra early after bailing on what should’ve been a night of partying with Jen the night before (sorry girl). At about 6AM, I was scrolling through Twitter, with a feed inundated by the only thing anyone was tweeting about, the coronavirus. It was hard to avoid and even harder to ignore.
“No big deal, Tanzania hasn’t recorded one so I shouldn’t have a problem when I get to Ghana”, I kept reminding myself.
That’s when I saw messages from a few of my co-workers from the night before alerting me that Ghana had its first cases of the ill-famed “rona”.
In that moment, I started noticing texts in my ex-pat group chats and from trusted friends, which seriously worried me. I had a number of people texting me and telling me to try to make it back to Ghana as soon as I could, because travel was about to get real tricky.
I told the ladies I was vacationing with that I was worried about re-entering Ghana, as Ghana just had its first cases so they would become stricter with outsiders traveling in. I was also the only one out of our group who was traveling all the way back to West Africa, as opposed to staying on the East or going down South.
“Ok, I’ll call my travel agent, rebook my ticket back to Ghana ASAP, and cut my vacation short,” I told myself. (In situations like these, you find yourself having a lot of hypothetical conversations with yourself in your head while you try to figure it all out.) Hey, I’d rather be secure within borders than to be rejected as travel restrictions were implemented.
After a long search for phone credit (airtime) in Nungwi Beach, I got on the line with my travel agent. I was on hold for a while, as coronavirus had caused a huuuge queue of people trying to alter travel arrangements. I finally got on the line with a phone operator and was told that all flights to Ghana between Friday night and my scheduled flight on Sunday evening were FULL.
I know many of you have pretty much stayed in one place throughout this whole pandemic, but I did quite a bit of traveling and had a few layovers, so I got a glimpse at how different countries dealt with the “rona.” I also witnessed the urgency increase in certain airports.
When I left Accra for my trip on March 4th, people didn't appear to be worried. The airport was pretty slow; I remembered having my temperature checked before going through immigration, but nothing serious.
On my way to Tanzania, I had a layover Kigali, Rwanda. This was my first encounter with the severity at which some African countries were approaching the coronavirus. The health professionals at the airport were dressed in protective garb that I hadn’t seen in Ghana. There was a line of people waiting to answer questions about their health and recently visited countries: “Do you have a fever? Do you have a
cough? Have you been to China, Italy or Iran in the past 14 days? Etc.” Followed by a temperature check.
Next, I had a layover in Nairobi. Same type of check, but way less frightening than it felt in Kigali.
While going from airport to airport, I maintained a routine of using sanitizer any time my hands came in contact with a surface at the airport, washed my hands every chance I got, and tried to remain calm. For those wondering why I required 2 layovers, I was flying into Kilimanjaro airport on a specific date and that was the only route available within the budget provided to me.
I’m going to jump around in this story a bit, as I’m mostly trying to capture the impact the coronavirus has had on me and some others who are living/traveling abroad during all the hullabaloo.
March 15th, the day I remember the Ghanaian government put its first coronavirus-related travel restriction on foreigners. On this day, a bunch of people forwarded me a message which said “Traveling to Ghana has been strongly discouraged until further notice and non-admittance of travelers from countries where at least 200 cases of COVID-19 were recorded was declared; this restriction does not apply to Ghanaian citizens and people with resident permits.” There was also a section saying that this would be effective March 17, a portion many seemed to overlook, considering that I’d return to Ghana early on March 16.
“Ok, that’s fine. Tanzania hasn’t had a case of the rona yet, and I’m a Ghanaian resident. I will be okay.”
I had people contacting me to ask if I’d be let back in the country, some people asking me if I’d heard the news, others trying to call and text me. I had co-workers worried about my return, trying to ensure that I’d be allowed back with no issue. I had friends who I expected to help calm me down literally only send messages of worry that would bring about anxiety in such a situation. I really appreciated everyone’s concern, but I was overwhelmed by the messages and officially worried all over again. I’m Ghanaian by blood, but my passport says otherwise. It’s crazy because I had stopped worrying, only to re-worry because of everyone’s messages. Either way, my flight back to Ghana was that evening.
Getting back to Ghana, I took the same route. I was flying out of Zanzibar Airport this time though, as opposed to flying out of Kilimanjaro Airport, the way I arrived. I had layovers in Nairobi and Kigali.
When I got to Kigali Airport, the protective garb that the airport workers were draped in had increased. More workers were wearing face masks than they were when I left Ghana.
When I finally arrived in Kotoka Airport, I was SUPER happy to be back. For those of you who don’t know me, I crave stability. I hate feeling like the path to stability is out of my control, which is why I panicked when I couldn’t change my flight back to Ghana.
At the airport, I was asked questions about my travels and my health, then had my routine temperature check. I proceeded to immigration, which is where I noticed that the airport was EMPTY. Ghost town. It was scary. Ghana is the first place where I noticed people had quit giving handshakes and began “elbowing” one another, at the airport at least. I made it through immigration successfully, claimed my bags, and met up with a friend who called a car for me home.
Upon arrival to my house, my job had already made it clear that I’d have to self-quarantine for two weeks. I couldn’t believe I left for a retreat & a vacation for two weeks just to return and have to work from home for another two weeks. Had I known that such measures would be taken, I would’ve cut my vacation short. Much like most other people, I had no idea that this pandemic would get as serious as it did.
Before I proceed into this next section of what felt like a never-ending saga, I just want to make clear that Ghana absolutely is home to me. I regard USA as home to mean the country in which I hold citizenship and where my nuclear family resides.
A few days into self-quarantining and working from home, the discussion of “returning back to our home countries” came up in some of my group chats. Some PiAf fellows began to repatriate. My roommate and I, set on staying in Ghana, laughed it off and just made sure our fridges were stocked and our water cooler had enough water to last us 2 weeks if needed. The last thing on our minds was returning back to North America (she's Canadian). I was comfortable and felt safe in Ghana. I enjoy my work and didn't see the need to complicate that by leaving.
That’s when I received an email that stopped me in my tracks. “PiAf is suspending its 2019-20 fellowship…” Eh?
Ok... am I staying in Ghana or not? Wait, did I just lose my job?
Everything was happening quicker than I could process it. I went from vacationing in Tanzania, worrying about re-entering Ghana, to self-quarantining for work, to now my fellowship program is suspended? Remember, in the beginning of this piece, when I said life comes at you fast? Well... this is what I’ll call Pt. 1 of what felt surreal.