the joyful traveller

Escape From Zambia: One Peace Corps Volunteer’s Covid-Evacuation Journey

I’m about to finish off a pound of Ethiopian coffee which arrived along with my daughter, Emily, on March 23, 2020.  That she was in the midst of a Peace Corps evacuation, sent home with but a few days’ notice,  finally arriving at JFK, you’d think she’d be a bit flustered.  But even with a sudden world crisis and a hurried globe-trotting experience, she was cool, calm and collected.   She remembered my coffee.

What an itinerary it was.  If you can call it that.  First, she said, she’d fly out on a Sunday, but then it was moved up and she had just two days to pack, leaving now on Saturday, the day before.  THEN told she’d fly out this Friday, with a layover in Tanzania, Dubai, Ethiopia, or Togo. (Yes, there’s a country called Togo).  Was there even an airline flying? I asked.  Dunno, she said. But she’d been told there may be a military plane, or chartered jet if a commercial airline was not available for a flight into JFK or Washington, D.C.; her route was constructed minute by minute.

Prior to this escape from Africa, she was a Peace Corps Volunteer in a far corner of Zambia on a mission to encourage fish farming to the community which would provide income and a nutritious food source.  A worthy project, she was only one year into a two-year commitment having arrived just seven months before via a Peace Corps jeep.  With her came the few things she was able to bring from the US, items collected from local shops, and PC supplies.  She’d hunker down in a clay house constructed by her host father, sleeping underneath a mosquito net hung by string and hooks. In the evening, the biting insects would be relentless.  Her bathroom facilities were outside, a hole in the ground.

Emily’s days were spent assimilating into village life and trying her best to rally the local farmers into learning the fish farming project.  An adopted dog and cat, Moli and Mona respectfully, would be her sole companions during these solitary days.  It was great comfort that her host family lived nearby who would look out for her and greet her in the mornings with a “mwazyukeni mukwai!”   For me, back home, it was equally a relief that she wasn’t so isolated, situated miles from Peace Corps headquarters.

As February 2020 arrived, so did the news of Covid-19 and its swift spread throughout China, then to Europe, and subsequently the United States with hospitals overflowing with patients.  As the days progressed throughout February and March, the world seemed to enter isolation. The Peace Corps kept their Volunteers updated with multiple emails, travel updates, then travel bans, and offers of a voluntary resignation.  Eventually, in the early hours of Monday, March 16, Peace Corps Volunteers around the world (7,000+) were notified that they were to be evacuated from their countries back to the United States. Emily left me a lengthy voice message on the WhatsApp notifying me that she was being evacuated and to expect her home in a matter of days.

With so little time now, she couldn’t make proper goodbyes to her host family and village friends. She was, however, glad to gift them her collection of furniture, food/spices, and cooking supplies. They’d been her family during those months, feeding her, teaching her the local traditions, and sharing recipes.  She took what she could in two backpacks, and a large suitcase.  The host family would find good uses for the items but was sad to see their adopted daughter hurry off.  

The logistics of sending all these Volunteers home must’ve been a nightmare for the Corps, but it was handled swiftly, and I’m sure with all the power of the federal government behind it: those in Washington did not want to have their Volunteers caught up in this world plague when medical treatment could be days away back in their rural village communities.  Add to that, international travel was being shut down country by country, creating a real health and safety disaster if a Volunteer got stranded due to a medical emergency. I was elated to hear she was coming home, but sad for her, that her mission was cut short, that she was powerless in her return home — to a place was far different from the one she left.

The final itinerary was this:  Zambia to Ethiopia for a 24-hour layover.  Then, a flight to Washington D.C. for another overnight, and one last flight to JFK.  After four long days of travel, Emily set foot on US soil on the early afternoon of Monday, March 23, 2020.  JFK was a ghost town when her plane landed, and she noted that there were probably only 10 people on the flight. The always frantic pick up spot where cabs and limos pick-up passengers was empty. I had on my mask, anxiously waiting in the car; I knew her the minute I spotted the terminal door open and a tired looking head emerged. She spotted me immediately. No hugs, just a “let’s go. I’m hungry,” she said, and got into the back seat, windows cracked despite the cold. Who knows if she’d picked up anything in her days of world travel. After a stop to get some supplies, and stand online for a Trader Joe’s run (her first experience at this alien land she had returned to), I dropped her at an Airbnb to quarantine, not too far from my place on Long Beach, Long Island.  Her first meal: bagel with lox.   

Three bags of African coffee would be handed over to me a few days later on one of our socially distant meet ups.   With her quarantine over, she moved to an apartment in Brooklyn to readjust to New York living; it was April 1, one year to the day she took her Peace Corps vow.  

Says Emily: “There was some relief to be back home, some anger at being displaced so frantically, frustration at leaving a job unfinished and possibly creating a bad taste in the communities for future Peace Corps Volunteers.  The inability to say give proper Thank You’s to people I called family, and goodbyes to some of my new and closest Peace Corps friends left me simply sad.”  

What a year it’s been, what an underwhelming welcome home experience she’s had. We’re still wearing masks, keeping somewhat of a good distance, and all the things she missed about NYC are still inaccessible.  I haven’t hugged her yet, but that will come. But, we’re passed that anyway. I have my coffee; I have my daughter.  Emily’s home. That’s enough.


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