It started as just dots on the map. Yes, there was a virus. Yes, it was spreading. But it was far away from us. And was it really a big deal? Ten years ago during the swine flu pandemic, our mission doctor had instructed our team on what could happen. Twenty percent sick, two percent dying.... I was nervous. We were in the States in 2010 and I bought masks and rubber gloves and brought them with me back to Tanzania. We even got a few swine flu cases in Tanzania. I stocked up on food. Then....nothing happened. So why would Corona be any different?
At the beginning of March, there were no confirmed cases in Tanzania. Among ourselves, we predicted it had already come. Why should we worry? East Africans are used to dealing with a variety of diseases. Last year there was a Dengue Fever outbreak in Dar es Salaam that was a lot worse than a respiratory illness. While Americans were clearing shelves of toilet paper, life was proceeding as normal for us in East Africa.
The first impact was felt in our community when a major missions conference that was planned for the end of March was cancelled in Slovenia (next to Italy). A number of our teachers were planning on attending and we were all shocked to hear of the cancellation. Really? Is this thing really that big of a deal? Go to Europe during spring break anyway, I urged my teachers. Why not? It's just a flu virus.
We received notice that an ACSI teacher's conference, also scheduled during spring break, was cancelled in Rwanda. Several other teachers were planning on going to that one, so now we had more disappointment throughout our community. And disbelief. What? There weren't even any confirmed cases in Rwanda!
Meanwhile, we started getting worried about our own upcoming mission conference. Ours was to be held in South Africa at the end of March, and was something we had been looking forward to for months. Our family had planned to spend a week in Cape Town after the conference--one of our "bucket list" locations. We had booked an Airbnb with a view of Table Mountain. We were going to visit Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela had been imprisoned, and see the South African penguins. Maybe even do a shark dive. Surely our conference wouldn't be cancelled....right?
Wrong. Even though just a couple of days prior, our leadership had assured us that the conference would go on as planned, we started to realize that things were changing very quickly. March 12 was the day we got notice that our trip had too been cancelled. We were deeply disappointed. It was the first day that I started to personally feel the effects of the pandemic.
There were still no confirmed cases in Tanzania, and no travel restrictions. We had hope that the virus wouldn't take hold in hot countries. Or that maybe it was already present and circulating and wasn't really causing any problems. But we were reading the news, and the other HOPAC principals and I had a couple of meetings with our tech guy to discuss what distance learning would look like if we needed to go that route. But that still seemed far away. And those teachers who wanted to go to Europe over spring break? Sure, we said, you can still go.
Friday, March 13
The school leadership team met in the morning. The following week was to be our annual Service Emphasis Week, the greatly anticipated week when we send all of our students out into the community on service projects. Is it still wise for us to do this? we asked each other. We debated back and forth. We consulted with a couple of contacts that had expert information. Why not? we decided. There still aren't any restrictions in Tanzania. It should be fine.
That afternoon, we had the all-school assembly to launch Service Emphasis Week. We crammed all 500 students and staff into the performing arts building. So much for social distancing! we joked.
Saturday, March 14
Just in case, I decided to start stocking up. During my usual Saturday grocery shopping, I bought twice as much as usual. Just in case. I made sure our outside water tank had been filled up. Just in case.
Sunday, March 15
I don't usually check my phone during church, but on this Sunday morning, I just happened to. We attend church that meets on the HOPAC campus, and the director had sent me a message asking if I could come to his office immediately. Alarmed, I quickly ran out to meet him and the other principals. We had been advised from an important source that we should cancel Service Emphasis Week--set to start the next day.
It seemed like such a massive decision. This was an event that had taken all year to prepare for. Once again, I was in disbelief. What is happening? Our director sent out a message to the community--Service Emphasis Week was cancelled.
My kids were in shock, Lily especially. She stared sadly at her neatly prepared paper plates and cotton balls. But what about the rainbow craft I made for the preschool kids? It is all ready to go. Now I won't be able to use it. She loves Service Emphasis Week. Maybe we'll do it in June, I assured her. When this is all over, we can do it at the end of the school year.
I received text messages from parents all day. Has Service Emphasis Week really been cancelled? they asked. Yes. Yes. Yes.
I went back to the grocery store and filled my cart again.
Monday, March 16
The air hung hot and low that day, one of the most humid of the year. The air was suffocating, and I felt like I couldn't breathe. I walked down the hall of the eerily quiet and empty primary school building, mourning the silence. This campus is supposed to be full of children, I thought. They are supposed to be getting on buses to go out and serve, and buses are supposed to be arriving with children from other schools, excited to be visiting our beautiful campus. What is happening?
My teachers and I met together, all of us in shock. Get ready for the possibility of distance learning, I told them. We don't know if school will close, but we should be ready for it if it does. We discussed what that would look like, what hurdles we would need to face.
That afternoon, I took Johnny to the US embassy. We had been working on his US citizenship for two years, and there had finally been some movement on it. I was confident that it would be completed by the time we left Tanzania in June. But meanwhile, just in case, we had decided to get his temporary US visa renewed. So I had made an appointment to at the embassy to do that.
I was at the little photo shop at Shopper's Plaza, getting passport pictures taken, when I got the text message: The first Corona case had been confirmed in Tanzania. I looked up, wide eyed, at the elderly Indian man behind the counter. Did you see this? I asked. The first case! He stared at me blankly, unimpressed.
The sun still shone, the air still pressed down around me, people went about their business. But it felt as if something had shifted in my world.
I got the temporary visa approved. The next day, the embassy shut down for the week.
Tuesday, March 17
The Tanzanian government declared all schools would close for a month. The Canadian Prime Minister made a public announcement encouraging all Canadians who were abroad to return home. What is happening? I quickly texted my Canadian friends. What does this mean? Why would he say you need to go home? Why would someone leave a country with a little bit of Corona and go back to another country with more Corona? Why would that make sense?
But borders and airports were starting to close.
Wednesday, March 18
My teachers and I met with our tech guy to prepare for distance learning. My staff kicked it into high gear; I was incredibly proud of them. For two straight days, the photocopy machines never got a break. We sent out emails to parents, giving instructions on using Google Classroom. We instructed them to come to school on Friday morning to pick up their child's school books and packets of work. We asked parents to give us their kids' library book requests. I helped to fill those orders, selecting books that I thought kids would like to read.
My best friend and I talked on the phone. What if we need to leave? she asked. That's impossible, I said. Why would we need to leave? Corona is everywhere. What would be the point of leaving? But the seed of doubt was planted. What if we don't get a choice?
Thursday, March 19
I spent all day at school, helping my staff get ready for distance learning. Throughout the day, I heard reports of some missionaries leaving, or moving up their leaving dates. My anxiety level went up, but still, leaving was not even remotely on the table for me.
Around 4:00, one of my staff members urgently said he needed to talk to me. His mission had just contacted him. His family had been told to leave the country as soon as possible. It was a mandate. For the first time, I started crying. I could see what was coming.
As soon as I got home, I told Gil the news. More specifically, I dragged him into the bedroom, shut the door, and started weeping. What if they make us leave?
Grief crashed down on me. I cried and wailed harder than I can ever remember. We can't leave, not now. Not like this. What about all those books I've read about healthy transitions? What about the importance of closure? What about all the places we still needed to visit, all the people we needed to meet with? What about finishing well? What about taking Johnny back to visit his orphanage in Mwanza? What about all the things I still need to do for HOPAC?
No. No. No. We can't leave before June. We cannot. I cannot accept this. I will not. But at dinner that night, we told the kids: Guys, we might need to leave early. We don't know when. Maybe next week. Maybe next month. But you just need to be prepared that it could happen.
That night, conversations zoomed around our mission team and leadership. Multiple questions. Multiple what if scenarios. My adrenaline was pumping and I couldn't sleep. The United States government issued the Global Level 4 Travel Advisory. At 11:30 pm, we received the call from our mission leadership: Staff in Tanzania need to leave as soon as possible. The decision was made for a number of reasons, and we trust our leaders. But I was devastated.
We got online to book tickets. Many airlines had already cancelled flights, and those that remained were filling up quickly. We booked tickets with Emirates Airlines through Dubai for Tuesday night. We made it to bed at 2 am.
My emotions were screaming. This cannot be happening! Many of our missionary friends were going through the same thing, and it was sudden and traumatic for all of us. But most knew they would be able to return to Tanzania when this was over. For us, since we were already planning to leave in three months, we knew it meant we had to prepare as if this would be a permanent departure.
That meant I had four days. Four days to pack twelve boxes, sell everything else in my house, and leave behind a life of sixteen years.
Friday, March 20
I woke up after 4 hours, surprised I had been able to sleep at all. I got to HOPAC early. The plan had been that I would supervise the pick-up time of students' materials. But now I had a million other things to do. My superstar staff stepped in and organized the pick-ups, while I frantically organized my office and made sure I had all of my files uploaded to Google Drive so that I could work remotely. Many staff stopped by, hearing our news, and tears flowed freely by everyone. We threw social distancing to the wind, hugged and wept together. I brought my kids to school, encouraging them to say as many goodbyes as possible--not knowing if we would be back before the end of the school year.
In addition to packing and selling everything, we had a few other challenges to overcome--the main one being that Johnny's citizenship process had to be completed in Tanzania. Though we had the temporary visa, if there was any way we could complete his citizenship before we left, we wanted to do so. So Friday afternoon, I took Johnny for a medical appointment required by the embassy. I sat with him while he screamed getting his required vaccinations, and we stopped and got cotton candy afterwards.
By the time I got home, it was about 5:00 pm. Much to my surprise, the house was full of people. We had quickly posted our furniture on Facebook and word traveled quickly. Gil and the girls were busy selling things. This was too much for me. We had decided to leave only about 16 hours ago, and I hadn't had any time to get anything in our house sorted or organized. People were opening my kitchen cupboards and asking to buy things. I freaked out. Nope, not gonna happen. We sold some furniture but told everyone to come back Sunday afternoon if they wanted to buy anything else. Even still, I later asked Grace where our bath mats had disappeared to. Oh, I think the lady we sold the bed to took those, she said.
From that day on, I ran on pure adrenaline.
Saturday, March 21
I became a robot. Do the next thing. Do the next thing. Do the next thing. It was often hard to decide which "next thing" to do when there were a million options. The closets and cupboards vomited their contents onto every available surface. Sort, pack, throw away. Do I keep this? Is there room for this? There was an underlying anxiety that I was going to forget something important, throw away something I would regret. But no time to overthink it. Just keep going.
Friends stopped by to say goodbye, a steady stream. All of us shell shocked, all of us choking out last sentiments, gratefulness, prayers. Not knowing when we would see each other again. The hardest for me were Tanzanian friends and co-workers. How could I look them in the eye? How could I not be ashamed, not feel like I was abandoning them? How could they not be hurt that I was now fleeing the country that had so graciously given me a home for 16 years?
Esta came by with her new baby born a month ago, named Grace. She had worked for us for 13 years--all of my Grace's life. She had been on maternity leave so I hadn't seen her for several weeks. We wept together, worried together about what would happen to her now.
Meanwhile Gil took off on other frantic errands. Took Grace to the orthodontist to get her braces removed and retainer fitted. Drove to the UPS at the airport to get some medical equipment cleared that had been stuck in customs. Drove back to the dentist's office to pick up Grace's retainer. Josiah was with them and was spontaneously invited to spend one last time with his best friends. Arranged for an Uber to pick him up.
Kids asked what they could eat for lunch. Whatever you can find, I told them. Wow, Mom has never said that before. Dumped meat from the freezer into the crock pot. Asked a friend to bring me a cup of soy sauce and dumped that in too.
I had no appetite. I had to consciously remind myself to drink, to eat, to breathe.
Sunday, March 22
As a family we worked to get the house organized for the sale that afternoon. Many came. It was much easier to sell things to friends than the strangers. Giving things away or selling for good prices was a way I could express the love and appreciation I didn't have time to give in other ways.
The landlord came by, who has been so good to us for the 10 years we have lived in that house. We arranged for one of my HOPAC staff members and his family to stay in the house until our lease was up. He would take care of things and sell off our remaining furniture after we left.
I sold the dishes. I ran out to buy chicken, rice, and beans--our version of take-out.
That evening, frantic messages started appearing on our phones. Emirates Air was shutting down all flights by Tuesday. We were leaving on Tuesday. What did this mean? The final message we received before sleeping said that they would still keep some flights going. Okay then. We should be okay.
Monday, March 23
Gil left early with Johnny for the embassy, hoping to expedite his citizenship. He was gone most of the day. I continued to sift, sort, pack, sell. We dumped everything on the front porch that we didn't want. I started giving visitors a bag and telling them to fill it up and take it away. We sold the car.
Around mid-day we got the message: Emirates would definitively not be flying after Tuesday. That meant we could get to Dubai on our first leg, but the second leg to the US would be cancelled. We received advice that we should do it anyway, and then figure out a plan once we were in Dubai.
That was the first time I started panicking. Figure out a plan once we were in Dubai? What did that mean? I started envisioning needing to take an evacuation flight. I realized we would probably need to travel without any luggage--to leave it all in Tanzania and hope to get it later. Considering I already was getting rid of 95% of my possessions and everything in our luggage was really important to us, that thought sent me into a tailspin.
A couple of hours later, I got word that all Emirates flights were cancelled, even the one to Dubai. Gil finally came home from the embassy. I was mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted and not thinking clearly any longer. Somehow we managed to get back online and find tickets on Qatar Airlines for Wednesday. The prices had doubled, but we got tickets--the last six tickets available on that flight. Still, I was on edge. Which airport was going to close next?
Tuesday, March 24
Weirdly, we got emails from Emirates, telling us to check into our flight. We called to make sure the flight was really cancelled (it was), but obviously their website wasn't up to speed. Things were changing so quickly that even the internet couldn't keep up.
I breathed more on Tuesday. Having the extra day was a blessing, even though I was still anxious about whether we would actually leave. We visited close friends and let the kids have a decent goodbye. We cleaned up the house better so that it didn't look quite as much like a tornado had gone through it. We found a wonderful home for Snoopy, our Jack Russell Terrier.
We went out to dinner at Ramada. We were pretty much the only people in the hotel other than the employees.
Wednesday, March 25
Our flight was scheduled to leave at 5:30 pm. We decided to leave for the airport at 11 in the morning even though it was only an hour drive. We didn't want to take any chances.
We got word that Johnny's medical report had come through. So on the way to the airport, we stopped at the embassy to make one last ditch effort for his citizenship visa. We didn't get it. But by this point we had many, many people praying we could enter the US.
We needed those prayers. People on temporary visas aren't supposed to be entering the US right now, so when we went to check in, the airline didn't want to let us travel. The check-in clerk took Johnny's passport to his supervisor. We all held our breath.
Then the most extraordinary thing happened. At this exact moment, the exact person with the authority to convince the officials to allow us to leave "just happened" to be standing in line right behind us. She intervened on our behalf, and we got through.
Thursday, March 26
Five hours to Qatar. 95% of the flight was non-African, which I've never witnessed before on a flight leaving Africa. Over half of the passengers wearing masks. Eight hour layover in an airport hotel. Thirteen hours to JFK airport in New York. We zoomed through US immigration with zero issues.
JFK was a ghost town. Almost every store shuttered. Hardly any people anywhere. Silence, except for the far off clicks of roller bags down the empty hallways.
We collected our bags and rushed to the Alaska Airlines desk, only to realize that all Alaska Airlines flights had just been cancelled. They tried to help. There's an American Airlines flight leaving in just over an hour. You could take that one, but Qatar would need to book it for you.
So we rushed back to the Qatar desk. I noticed dozens of Arabs in line, waiting to check in. Interesting. Apparently Americans aren't the only ones repatriating. Qatar hadn't opened their ticketing desk yet, so after some difficulty with our Tanzanian SIM cards, we managed to figure out a way to call them. The agent told me, Start walking towards the American Airlines desk. With him on the phone, we dragged our 12 pieces of luggage over, explaining to that airline what we were trying to do. The 6:00 flight was just about ready to close. One minute....two minutes.... It's booked! the Qatar agent on the phone told me. I see it! the American Airlines agent at the desk exclaimed. Bags checked, rush through security, run across the empty airport, and board the plane.
Five hours later, we arrived in another empty airport in San Francisco. My parents were there to pick us up. And right now I am writing this in my childhood bedroom. Yes, this is "home." Sort of. But it doesn't feel that way. It feels more like I've been ripped from my home. It feels like I've betrayed my home.
I am relieved. I am grateful. The stress has drained out of me; everything is okay. Except, I'm not really okay. This is all wrong. I am not supposed to be here. Today I was supposed to be in South Africa for our conference. I was supposed to be experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime two weeks of family memories with some of our best friends in the world. Josiah was supposed to have his last basketball tournament last weekend with the friends he's had since first grade, and Gil coaching them. Grace was supposed to perform as Annie in the school musical in April. Lily was supposed to have her fifth grade graduation. Gil was supposed to be organizing the Bible School graduation. I was supposed to finish strong this school year, with everything carefully prepared for the next principal.
And I was supposed to be able to say a proper good-bye to those 150 precious little souls that have been my life for the past three years.
Instead, I feel like I've been thrown into some sort of alternate reality.
I can't help but still cling to hope. Maybe this thing will pass faster than the experts think it will. Maybe in Tanzania the virus won't be a big deal. Maybe schools and airports and borders will open soon, and we'll be able to return to Dar es Salaam and finish what we started. Maybe. Maybe. Oh God, please, let it be so.
Every day last week, these lyrics kept running through my head. They still are.
Whatever may pass or whatever lies before me
Let me be singing when the evening comes.
Still trying to sing. Bless the Lord, Oh my soul.
|Zanzibar Island (Gil Medina)|