It was 8pm on a Saturday night in Antananarivo and the President of Madagascar, Andry Rajoelina, announced to his nation that the borders would be closing ….
We’d heard rumors and talked about it in the days prior but it just didn’t seem possible. What would happen in Madagascar if it closed its borders with France? They are such an important economic partner… It was being rumored and discussed as the numbers of Covid-19 cases soared in France and the border with China had already been closed. But France? It just didn’t seem possible. And there we were, hearing the announcement… it’s happening.
The calls and messages went back and forth between colleagues and headquarters. My emotions bounced as a pinball from shock to action to tears, yet constantly hovering just below break down, shut down. This is happening. You don’t get to worry about how you feel right now, that will come later, I told myself. Then clarification came as I understood it was just with France, not the multiple African routes that could still get us home, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia even Mauritius, they would all stay open it was just France (and Reunion and Mayotte) that Mada would close its borders to on Thursday at 23:59 completely for 30 days. The calls ended with you are all going home. So at 10pm on that same Saturday night I informed the volunteers, tomorrow is your last Sunday, pack your bags, we’re leaving.
I got up the next morning and went to the English Chapel where I had preached just the week before to worship with this community for possibly the last time. After, I went to lunch with Stine and Mirenty. We ate and I sat wondering if this might be our last meal together… at least for a long while. Stine had already been ordered to evacuate and was departing on Tuesday. Mirenty is Malagasy, so she would stay. My head worked to stay present and eat the calories I needed while it swam in the looming details of evacuating seven volunteers from all corners of the country and temporarily closing my home for a time in which no one knew a probable end…
That week borders around the world went from bridges to walls and we watched Madagascar spring surprise mandatory quarantines on all people arriving from France for the now standard, 14 days. They could avoid the quarantine but only by staying on the plane and returning immediately back to France for 11 more hours of flight.
I worked to bring volunteers in from all directions, not a single one able to travel with another because of the tight timeline and the need to replace one of their passports AND visa so that they could leave the country… and all of it further compounded and compacted as it was decided on Monday, that we wouldn’t depart on Saturday as originally decided, it would be Thursday instead. Which would end up being a good decision as a few hours later, Madagascar announced that all its borders (air and sea) would close Thursday at 23:59.
It was a week of anxiety and stress. Some volunteers came to Tana via bus, others by car in order for them to get back in time. All of us emotional, all of us trying to make sense, all of us in varying levels of disbelief. There wasn’t a single case of Covid-19 in Madagascar, or so said the numbers…yet things were clearly beginning to fall apart back home…
I arranged everything at my home in Tana to be taken care of through the end of May 2020. It seemed a reasonable amount of time in which to be away. A reasonable amount of time for this pandemic to break in some fashion… Even if my time in Madagascar had a scheduled end, this was not it. This departure would not let me say my thank you’s and goodbyes to friends and colleagues. This frenzied evacuation would not be enough to close down my life in Madagascar with my home, bank account and all the rest that is after five years of living, anywhere. So with hopes of return, I packed two bags of things a brain focusing on the wellbeing of seven others packs.
We arrived at the airport in Antananarivo at about 10:30 on Thursday for the volunteers to check in for their 2:30pm flight. The airport was relatively calm and I was thankful for it. ‘Get everyone checked in and through security and I can start to breathe’ was my thought. My flight wasn’t scheduled to leave until 5pm. Borders were closing all over the world that week and flights were filling up, apparently the volunteers got the last tickets on their flight through Ethiopia and I was lucky to get one later through Mauritius/Istanbul.
We walked into the airport and to luggage screening where I said goodbye. I gave pre-Covid hugs to another year of volunteers as they went on ahead and away from Madagascar for their final time. I found a place where I could see them as they passed to security after checking in and waited until they were all out of sight. They confirmed with a text that they had all made it through and my lungs filled a little more completely then they had been that morning.
My flight was not open for check in and wouldn’t be for awhile. So I went to grab some lunch with Hasina. It was such an odd lunch. We ate at a place full of French speaking tourists … or maybe residents … most of whom didn’t seem the slightest bit phased by the chaos and panic and stress and disappointment that had filled and defined the last days for me and the volunteers. I sat there thinking this cannot be the last time I share time with my friend. Hasina and I ate and talked and returned to the airport.
The airport had a much different feel an hour later. It was packed as people tried to check into more flights than the Ivato airport ever handles in a day. Once in the terminal I was lucky to find some fellow missionaries from Norway and joined them in the wait and heaviness of the situation. People were present trying to get on flights that didn’t have seats. People were finding out just the day before South Africa had closed their borders to citizens of the USA, so they couldn’t take that flight though Johannesburg and they were left without a way home.
You could feel the tension and the emotional restraint. Some handling it with silence, others by talking loudly without seeming to take a break even to breathe.
The checkin area of the Ivato airport was crowded, hot and moving as a sloth. If Covid-19 was already here, we in this place are all infected now I thought.
I made it through checkin and security to wait for my plane. I’d been certain I wouldn’t see the volunteers again as it took so long to make it through security but their flight was late in boarding, so I saw four of them and gave four more pre-covid hugs as they scanned their tickets and walked out to the tarmac.
My pacing took over again as their plane sat not moving until a full 90 minutes after the flight was scheduled to take off. They only had a 2 1/2 layover in Ethiopia. It was a relief to see the plane finally push back.
Maybe 30 minutes after that my plane began to board. We took a bus out to a more distant plane and eventually stepped into an incredibly tranquil environment of soothing music, temperate lighting and the semi-serenity that comes with knowing that you made it onto the last commercial flight that could have gotten you to the USA and all of your volunteers are headed ahead of you…
Madagascar to Mauritius (staying on the plane) and then to Istanbul. Change planes in Istanbul and fly to JFK. Change planes, airlines and terminals in JFK and fly after multiple hours to Detroit. The airports were silent and they screamed of a world shutting down, of people returning to wherever they were from and of fear. I moved easily through all the airports and was taken aback by the number of people not present and yet the presence of many that I encountered. Kind words, patient encouragement, time taken to notice the person in front of you.
I was a mess that day, actually that whole week and for much of these weeks that have since past. I remember the loveliness of fellow passengers, crew and workers throughout the trip. We were all shaken at least a bit and we recognized that in each other. Our humanity and frailty was exposed and mutually met…
I am now in Michigan and watching Covid-19 take over our lives. I watch Madagascar and see mostly the same. Their Covid-19 case count is 121 and there are varied opinion about how and when to end their lockdown. Today is a month after we landed back in the USA.