We’re only four months into 2020 and it has been… well, how do I even begin to describe this year. You’re feeling it, we’re all feeling it. No words needed here, honestly.
I want to preface this post by saying that while I am heartbroken about the evacuation, I am still grateful to be healthy and to have had the support of the Peace Corps community, friends and family. I am not worried about where I am going to sleep tomorrow or having to decide between feeding my kids or buying soap. I do not fear for my life as America’s essential workers bravely do every day. I want to thank them for running the country to keep us safe. I am doing what I can to keep them safe by staying inside.
My situation is fortunate compared with so many other people right now. It is a privilege to have even had the opportunity to work in beautiful Zambia. I do not want to come off as if I am complaining, but I am simply sharing my story for myself to document and perhaps others may feel that they can relate. In another post, I will go into more about my thoughts about the evacuation; the following is more of a description of what happened and what was going through my mind at the time. Thanks for reading!
Monday, March 16, 2020: Evacuation order
Adam woke me up in the morning. “You were right. Start packing.”
The Peace Corps director, Jody Olsen, posted an open letter announcing that due to the pandemic, all Peace Corps activity will be suspended worldwide. For the first time in the organization’s 59 years, all 7,300 volunteers are being evacuated.
Adam and I laid under the mosquito net with our sweet cat snuggling between us. I loved waking up every day in Zambia with my morning routine followed by whatever may happen that day. Each day was unpredictable. Maybe we’d have our respective school clubs, a meeting with fish farmers, or a class with the women’s group. Maybe we’d scrub our clothes near the stream or I’d turn my compost heaps. Maybe everything would be canceled because we learned about a funeral. Or maybe we’d visit a neighbor and crack peanuts while attempting to have deeper conversations in broken Bemba.
Every day of service was different and it is something that I have come to cherish over two years. One must become adaptable as a Peace Corps volunteer. You know, go with the flow. Learning that we’d have to pack up and depart to America during a pandemic was the ultimate test of flexibility.
After Adam broke the news, I burst into tears thinking about having to say goodbye so suddenly. Just a week earlier, we had officially been approved to extend a third year. We celebrated the news with our counterparts and had already begun new projects. Now we had to go out and make quite the amendment to that news.
The evacuation came as a shock to many volunteers in Zambia given there were no cases in the country yet, but I had been mulling over a possible evacuation that weekend as I obsessed over the news after COVID-19 was officially deemed pandemic. Peace Corps volunteers understandably evacuated from China, but then Mongolia, Ukraine, and Morocco followed suit. On March 15, I went to bed with a gut feeling that we too may be evacuated. I contemplated what I’d pack should that happen and suggested Adam prepare a bag, too. So even though I was shocked the next morning, I can’t say it wasn’t something that hadn’t crossed my mind.
After a few minutes of sadness, I got out of bed, fetched my trusty backpack, and slowly began to shuffle things around. We accumulated a lot after moving into an empty house two years ago. We made our home our own and felt settled, something I thought I’d never feel as somebody with antsy feet.
Peace Corps staff updated us as the day went on. Adam and I had three full days at site before shifting to Kasama and then Lusaka. We’re lucky we even had a few days; some volunteers were in the capital for training when the news broke out. They were not able to go back to their homes to say goodbye.
I couldn’t bring myself to go out and tell people yet. One reason was that we weren’t 100% sure we would actually get on the plane. Adam and I debated all day whether we should opt for “field termination” in which we’d forfeit our Peace Corps passport and remain in Zambia without any ties to the organization. We’d have to obtain visas on our own and be without health insurance. We wavered back and forth, leaning toward staying in Zambia where we’d be able to continue our work and probably be safer from the virus, but there’s always the danger of malaria and other parasites. Peace Corps was evacuating us not only due to fear of the virus, but because of travel restrictions and border closures. Ultimately, it was the right decision for the organization and a huge undertaking to evacuate 7,300 volunteers worldwide in one week. We eventually decided to pack as if we’re going to America, but keep in mind that we could turn it down should the situation change.
Tuesday, March 17: Goodbyes
In the morning, Adam and I started the dreadful process of saying goodbye. Chishimba and Damas from the school were the first to visit after I messaged that I couldn’t come to the GLOW club (a recent video I made about the Girls Leading Our World camp). Chishimba became a good friend; we loved chatting about each others’ cultures and even got into some taboo topics. Her open-mindedness and cheerful aura inspired me to even more to commit to the weekly club meetings.
Then we rode our bikes to visit some homes. As we were about to pull into Grace’s, I started to cry and had to stop to pull myself together. Call me a drama queen if you want! She ended up not being home, so we rode on to Victor & Maggie’s, a lovely couple with whom I spent 99% of the time laughing. After some tears, I showed them my favorite video of them singing and we cracked up. Next was Christine’s, a gentle woman I befriended, followed by Mr. Chileshe, an energetic 87-year-old full of wisdom and power as he continually worked renovating and digging fish ponds.
When sharing the news, we framed it as us temporarily having to leave, but we hoped to be back in a few months. I felt guilty. It felt like we were abandoning the community so abruptly, but also recognized that our purpose here was to work our way out of a job. They don’t need us. They have been here for years and will continue long after we’re gone. It’s not about us. We tried to focus the conversation on 1) expressing our gratitude for their friendship the past two years, 2) the work going forward, and 3) information about coronavirus.
In the afternoon, our main counterparts came by. They were shocked just as we were that we had to leave so soon. We tried to keep it positive and take care of business. Adam worked with the Kabotolos on an action plan to complete the furrow renovation project while Grace and I cried. Stereotypical gender roles, sure, but it’s okay to cry.
We couldn’t get through with some fish farmers on the phone, so we planned on biking out to them the next day. But at 11pm that night, we receive a text that the situation changed: we would have to be in Kasama tomorrow, not Thursday like originally planned. So I fixed myself some coffee to fuel my already rampant anxiety and packed/cleaned until 4am.
Wednesday, March 18: More goodbyes
In the morning, I made phone calls for people to come to our house because we wouldn’t have time to go out and visit individual people. Again, it was so hard to say goodbye, not like it’s ever easy. I cried yet again as Bwalya tied his remembrances to his bike and rode off into my sweet potato field. Saying goodbye to him was the most difficult. He was the ultimate counterpart of any PCV’s dreams. He’s always reliable, punctual, and enthusiastic. A true fish farming champion, role model, teacher, and good friend. We kept saying that this is not goodbye and that we are coming back. Tukamonana.
Then we had to say goodbye to our beloved cat, Espy! Adam and I love her SO MUCH. We thought about taking her, but she belongs in Zambia where she could hunt and play in the bush all day. She’s very independent and feeds herself every night. She’ll be fine.
Loading the taxi and driving out was a blur. Kids were at our house when we left; I don’t think they knew that we were leaving for good. I distinctly remember the first time we drove into the village in the cruiser two years earlier. We waved to everyone with dorky smiles. People waved back with curiosity and even bigger smiles. This was not how I wanted to leave.
Forty minutes later, we found ourselves at our new but somewhat familiar provincial Peace Corps office. I thought the house was going to be full and frantic, but it actually felt weirdly calm. People were clearing out their food cubbies and piling snacks on the table to share. I stress ate some chocolate and then packed up the things I had there. Even though everybody was feeling all kinds of emotions, the mood was generally positive with the normal banter and silliness. Being with fellow PCVs was comforting.
Thursday, March 19: The last bus ride
I woke up in my top bunk with around 3:30am with others cramped in that room, though many didn’t even sleep the night before. Like zombies, we hauled luggage onto the bus and piled in to leave around 5.
The 15-hour bus ride was rather uneventful. I stared out the window to watch the scenery of everyday life in Zambia – people pulling over on their bikes to make room for the bus to pass on the narrow road, bags of charcoal piled up, fresh peanuts for sale. We passed the Chambeshi River which I crossed via canoe with my bicycle in September. Then it was Mpika where I had spent a few nights drinking Black Labels with Muchinga ladies followed by a stretch break in Mkushi where I always looked for popcorn.
When we finally arrived in Lusaka, I was grouchy and relieved to be done with long-distances buses for now. But the sweet volunteers who were already in Lusaka welcomed us with cheers and snacks! I wasn’t in a good mood until they made me smile.
Friday, March 20: Administrative tasks
A day at the office in Lusaka. For me, this was probably the most stressful day of the entire evacuation. Peace Corps Zambia has one of the largest posts with over 300 volunteers working in four sectors plus Peace Corps Response. Since the evacuation order, staff were slammed with tasks. They worked 24/7 getting everything in order, attempting to book flights when borders were closing, coordinating with HQ, and trying to respond to everyone’s questions. People were running around with paperwork to complete, signatures to fetch, money to return, medications to pick up, bank accounts to close, hugs and catch-ups, chatting with volunteers we’ve never met, and may never see again. Some volunteers had multiple flight cancelations and some even got booked on a flight in which they had 10 minutes to grab their things and head to the airport. The stressful energy at the office had me a bit on edge. Everybody was feeling emotional but I tried to put my feelings aside to get these administrative tasks done.
Things settled in the afternoon, thankfully, and I felt calmer. The remaining volunteers had a quick ring-out ceremony; I’m glad I was able to ring out with my friends! Don’t get me wrong, I still want to go back. That was not a real close of service.
I am grateful for the staff who worked hard to ensure the safety of all volunteers in the enormous undertaking.
Saturday, March 21: Zambia -> Zimbabwe -> Ethiopia -> Ireland -> USA
Onward to the Lusaka airport! I hadn’t been there since flying in two years prior, back as a bright-eyed trainee. This time, minibuses shuffled dozens of baggy-eyed Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, many of whom were not ready to leave.
An employee at the airport took our temperature and I filled out a medical questionnaire. The first flight stopped in Zimbabwe and then arrived in Ethiopia where travelers packed out the airport. With travel bans and border closures, there were limited flights from the African continent to the US. I could pick out groups of Peace Corps volunteers from other countries as evidenced by Chacos and yarn tied to their bags.
Despite the massive lines and crowds, I did not see any signs or information about COVID-19 in the airport nor hand sanitizer. The bathroom I used ran out of soap, a recipe for disaster. I was anxious during the flight from Ethiopia to Washington D.C. with a refueling stop in Dublin. I washed my hands incessantly and used little anti-bacterial wipes to constantly clean surfaces. This is the new normal. I wondered how many volunteers would contract the virus en route home. I certainly felt at risk.
Sunday, March 22: Back in the USA
For the first time since leaving the US in 2012, I was back with no plan. I had visited three times in eight years, but not more than a month as I always made sure I had a plan to return abroad before booking a flight to the states. I generally dislike uncertainty and lacking control, but there kicks in the whole adaptability thing.
First of all, I want to mention that I did not get screened when coming into the US at all. I filled out a health questionnaire, but nobody asked for it. In fact, I still have it. I anticipated long lines trying to re-enter America, but it was quick and easy. I mean, I’m not complaining that I was out of there quickly, but there should have been screenings and information collected from all international travelers. What if the person who sat next to me tested positive a week later?
At the Dulles airport, we were welcomed by parents and other Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. The community has been so supportive and I’m so thankful to be part of this network.
I said goodbyes to my wonderful friends as well as Adam. I was heading to Philadelphia with another volunteer while he flew to San Diego to be with his family. We opted to be long-distance during this evacuation so we could spend time with our parents since we have been abroad for so many years. Adam and I will be together again, but I don’t know when. Nobody knows anything.
I am so grateful that Peace Corps covered my accommodation for two weeks of self-quarantine because my parents are considered high risk. I would never forgive myself if I was the reason they got sick, so I wanted to ensure I was not infected before going to see them and my sister.
Finally arriving to the hotel was a massive relief after what felt like the longest week of my life. I was actually very much looking forward to being alone with nowhere to go for 14 days. Sheltering in place is easy for me as I have developed introverted tendencies, but I am still an extrovert at heart. I worked out, tailored resumes, applied to jobs, caught up with friends, slept a lot, and ate a ton of vegetables and whole foods. I felt pretty good throughout the two weeks with some sadness and denial sprinkled in.
I completed the 14 days symptom-free and safely returned to my parents’ place in South Jersey where I have been for nearly a month. I am not going anywhere besides biweekly for groceries; I’m glad that I can be here to get essentials because I would worry about my parents going out. The time has passed quickly and I’m doing fine given the circumstances, just uncertain and semi-overwhelmed with figuring out what’s next. I will write more about my thoughts and what I’ve been doing this past month in another post.
The evacuation was covered in the media. Adam was featured in some interviews if you would like to check them out!
NPR: Coronavirus Sent Peace Corps Volunteers Home. It Could Also Give Them A New Mission
APM’s Marketplace – Peace Corps volunteers return home to a dismal job market and a future in limbo
NBC: Evacuations leave Peace Corps volunteers in limbo back home‘New York Times: ‘None of Us Saw It Ending This Way’: Peace Corps Volunteers Evacuate Abruptly