A Storm is Coming
In the wake of the new Covid-19 pandemic, many of our expat friends are scrambling to get some of the last few flights still running to return to their home countries. Meanwhile the US says to come home NOW or risk being out of the country indefinitely. We would be in that second category. For now at least, we are hunkering down in Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world.
Friday night I said goodbye to my best friend I’ve made in Malawi. She is Israeli and is heading to to Australia (where her husband’s family is from) because both he and their daughter have asthma and they can’t depend on Malawi’s healthcare system to help them in the event they were to get sick.
She had originally organized a flight to leave in a few days, but South African Airways abruptly cancelled it with no warning Friday afternoon. She thankfully was still able to individually string together four flights on other airlines and piece together a several day journey to Melbourne where her and her family will immediately go into a two-week quarantine upon arrival.
Just that morning before I did some more illustration work for UNFPA Malawi, my friend made me a beautiful coffee and avocado toast (we are very young Gen-X’ers, not Millennials, yet still we love our avocado toast!) and a fruit salad. Our children’s’ school was set to close down on Monday even though no cases of Coronavirus had been confirmed in all of Malawi. This is of course because the nation is not developed enough to have done much testing, though thankfully this is starting to change… hopefully just in time. (Nervous laughter…)
Here I’ll pause to teach you a word in Chichewa, one of Malawi’s national languages (the other is English). That word is corona. It means cross, as in the thing that Jesus carried around and died on. Malawians are a very religious people, with roughly 85% of the population practicing Christianity. That’s why the government, aid organizations, and media are mainly calling the virus Covid-19 here as they try to educate the Malawian population on what it is and what it’s capable of.
As we bit into the crusty, freshly baked bread my friend had pre-ordered from Romana, a local business woman here who is particularly famous for her rye (shout out to Pasta alla Romana!), we lamented how Malawi, at least in this moment, was one of the safest countries to be in on the planet right now.
As I wrote a bit about in my last blog post, What If Your Biggest Weakness is Actually Your Biggest Strength, Malawi is a country full of self-reliant people who are able to live without access to electricity, running water, government safety nets, and much of an infrastructure. I’m again, not saying that this is a good thing, as people do worry about where their next meal will come from and how to pay for their children’s school fees. The life expectancy is intolerably low and people die of things here that are more easily treated or prevented in richer parts of the world. However, in this case, the script could be flipped and Malawians could teach the rest of the world a thing or two about surviving and even thriving as a community in times of crisis.
By Friday evening, my friend had a new flight and was leaving the following morning. We scrambled to figure out what would become of her adopted cat (she will be taken care of in their rented home by her house-helper, a local Malawian for now). I stopped by one last time and she kindly lent me dozens of books and games for my sons to use while we are shut-in for the foreseeable future. We didn’t hug, just in case. She said she hoped “they would be back soon.”
Yesterday my sons’ amazingly talented German teacher also got a last-minute flight to Los Angeles with her partner. She’s both German and American and taught my sons so much German in the last few months, they are finally able to communicate with their Oma and Opa in Berlin for the first time.
She was set to leave in July anyway to start her PhD program in Clinical Child Psychology and Counseling ( I may have the exact name of the program wrong) in Portland anyway, so we were already mourning the loss of having a teacher who my kids described as “someone who tricks you into learning things by making a game out of everything.”
After learning my sons’ school was closing and we’d be switching to distance learning in a few days, I had taken a small solace in the fact that at least their German teacher, who would come twice a week and give lessons at our home, would provide a small shred of continuity, structure, and excellence to an education otherwise being forced online while my husband and I tried to get our work done simultaneously.
As she delivered her popular Jeopardy board they had made together to do German quiz shows and walked away, the sense of mounting losses started to pile on. (We did discuss the possibility of her continuing her lessons via Skype, so as long as our internet holds up, it’s maybe not a total wash-out!)
In any case, here we are. Now it’s Sunday morning. I’ve had a million thoughts and I have a million stories I could tell you of both my own inner and outer states, my family, and my host country here in Malawi, as well as my growing concern for my family and friends in the USA, Italy, Myanmar (whose government claims not to have any cases of Covid-19. I don’t believe it for a second!) and elsewhere. However in the spirit of K.I.S.S. (keep it simple sweetheart), I’ll just stick to the last two days for this blog post.
So maybe we are starting to lose some of our expat community here. If we are lucky, we can celebrate when they eventually return. Please come baaaaaaaaack!!! And we can appreciate the friends who have not left as well as the wonderful Malawian locals. Malawi has a lot on its plate at the moment. They are supposed to have a new election in May (and are still holding political rallies, though as of Friday, a State of Disaster was declared and gatherings of over 100 people are banned) and have a risk of major civic unrest just over politics alone. If and when they do discover their first case of Covid-19, they don’t have a healthcare system that can handle an outbreak. Apparently only a few weeks ago, Malawi donated a number of ventilators to China leaving just a handful left in the entire country. A very nice gesture, but perhaps not the smartest.
My husband, my children, and I… we so far are feeling strong and healthy. Because the electricity and water go out all the time anyway, we are better equipped than we were in Italy and the US to withstand a breakdown of services. We haven’t panic-shopped (too much), but did get enough food and supplies to last us a few weeks if we were unable to leave home as well as extra maize flour and cooking oil (to make the favorite local dish called nsima) for our Malawian house-helper and her family (three daughters) that we agreed to take in back in August so they could be with their mother after many months apart. They live in a small house just behind ours.
We have much to be thankful for, including a garden, lots of books, a few games and distractions, bikes, a large yard and access to the outdoors, and an internet connection (for now) so my sons can learn remotely. Our house-helper’s girls on the other hand also have no school starting Monday, but Malawian teachers don’t have access to online teaching, so as long as the children are out of school, they most likely won’t be able to communicate with their teachers or continue with lessons.
If it’s safe to do so (perhaps with social distancing) I can have my boys share some of their lessons with the girls or do an English/Chichewa language exchange. We frequently have them over for movie nights and popcorn, though this pandemic makes me wary of inviting anyone over at the moment, even my sons’ expat friends who have also decided to stay so far.
Well, that’s all for now. Every day things change quickly. I’ll be sure to make updates as we go along. Stay healthy and safe everyone! We are in this together. Hugs from Malawi.