My Return to Nigeria

A return to Nigeria is never without drama! The people are dynamic, expressive and at times, combative. When I moved to Nigeria in 2014, I asked a friend who is a flight attendant if there were punishment routes for cabin crew? She responded no but I believe that a flight to Nigeria is either a punishment or only for the very experienced.

Last month I boarded a flight to Nigeria from Tanzania. Even before departing from Dar es Salaam, I became acutely aware that I was traveling to Nigeria. As I was standing in the immigration queue waiting for my turn, I could feel the presence of an individual standing too close behind me in the queue. Nigerians don’t believe in the personal space bubble. My queue was moving too slow for him, so he jumped to another queue and presented his green Nigerian passport to the officer. My suspicions were correct.

A typical queue in Nigeria. There is no space between individuals.

On our connecting flight from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Abuja, Nigeria, we had a technical issue before taking off. This issue delayed our flight by two hours. Technical issues on planes are always unsettling when you are about to ascend into the heavens. But I have watched several documentaries about airplanes and why planes crash and have come to a basic understanding that most planes crash because of an unknown issue or an issue that occurred mid-flight. Usually, an issue on the ground is fixed or the passengers are rebooked for another airplane.

On the flight from Addis Ababa to Abuja, the passengers were not having it with the cabin crew when the pilot announced that we would be finally taking off. We were taxing down the runway when murmuring began among the passengers. A woman yelled out that people on this plane are too calm after we just experienced a technical issue. She declared that she wanted to get off the plane. She continued by saying that she “used her money to buy this ticket and demanded to get off.” Her comments were like a fuse as others began to talk loudly about getting off the flight. Then other passengers began standing up in the aisle demanding the pilot make an announcement. The flight attendant pleaded with people to sit down as we are about to take off. At one point she was drowned out by the cacophony of complaints from the passengers. When there was a pause in their complaints she said, “why do you think we would risk our lives if we didn’t think this flight was not safe.” Minutes later the pilot made an announcement. He explained the situation and apologized for the delay. He also apologized for not communicating with passengers on the issue. While this settled the passengers on the plane the initial woman continued murmuring about not wanting to be on the flight and her desire to get off.

I understand their concerns as flying through the sky is unnerving! As a passenger your life is in the hands of a few pilots that you have never met. You must trust that they understand the plane and will do their due diligence to safely land the plane at its destination. However, flying is a very safe travel option. At any given time, there could be close to a million people flying through the skies to a destination.

But for a Nigerian, their fear steams from a country where institutions are weak, money can circumvent regulations, and no one is held accountable for their actions. I used to wonder why Nigerians, when airlines call for boarding would rush the door to be the first on the airplane. However, I was informed by my colleagues that there was a time when airlines would book multiple people for the same seat. The person who sat in the sit first would be the one to keep the seat! In addition, a series of plane crashes between 2008 and 2012 in Nigeria affected Nigerians perceptions of the aviation sector that lacked institutional controls. There is even a story that Nigerians tell of a former Governor who died in Lagos and as his body was transferred back to his home, the plane crashed minutes after takeoff. Nigerians say he died twice.

But this isn’t the first flight where Nigerians tried to storm their way off a plane. In 2016, as my parents and I were traveling to Kigali, Rwanda from Lagos for my wedding, a group of Nigerians stormed the front of the plane in hopes of forcing the flight attendants to allow them to get off the airplane. They were angry because the airplane was unable to provide air conditioning while boarding. The pilot promised that once in the air, there would be air conditioning. The reassurance from the pilot didn’t stop these individuals for attempting a coup of the airplane. The flight attendant told them that if they left the plane, the flight would take off without them. The quietly returned to their seats and the plane pushed back for take off.

I am back in the land of green and white…as eventful as ever!

It has been eight months since we arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and we are ready for visitors! While we are still “settling” into our new home, we wanted everyone to know that we want visitors! “Settling in” hasn’t been easy as we are still waiting on our personal effects to arrive so we can be comfortable in our new home but that should not stop you from hoping on an airplane and coming for a vacation of a lifetime.

Tanzania is a beautiful country, and our apartment has amazing sunset ocean views. Each evening I am transfixed by the beautiful orange and blue sky outside our balcony window. We are often put to sleep by the sounds of waves crashing against the shore. We can tell the moon stages by the sound of the waves outside. A heavy, crashing sound means that we are in a full moon because the waves are crashing against the rocks nearby. Watching the tide has become a newfound obsession for me. Tide-Forecast.com is my favorite time-wasting website for following the tide. https://www.tide-forecast.com/locations/Dar-Es-Salaam-Tanzania/tides/latest

Levi watching the sunset from the roof of our apartment building.

A trip to visit us in Dar es Salaam will also include a trip to Zanzibar! For most of us with limited knowledge of Zanzibar, it turns out that Zanzibar consists of many small islands and two large islands. Those islands are Unguja and Pemba Island. Most travelers to Zanzibar only go to Unguja which includes the capital, Zanzibar City. The historic center of Zanzibar City is Stone Town, a World Heritage Site. Stone Town is an old, fortress city that is rooted in Swahili, Arab, Indian, and European design.

The beach at the Madinat al Bahr Business & Spa Hotel. Thanks to work, I have been able to spend two weeks at this hotel.

Zanzibar was a slave trading port used to transport African slaves to the Middle East and other places via the Sahara Desert and Indian Ocean. Americans are familiar with the West African slave trade, but we are not familiar with the East African slave trade. We don’t know how many Africans were sold from East Africa to North Africa. Many of the slaves perished before reaching the market where they were to be sold. The introduction of the cloves trade in Zanzibar created a need for slaves to work the planation and eventually lead to slaves occupying Zanzibar. Zanzibar’s reputation changed from being the center of the slave trade to a center of slavery. In 1873, under pressure from Great Britain, the Sultan of Zanzibar, signed a treaty that made the slave trade illegal. Like the Atlantic slave trade, the decree was not enforced, and the illegal slave trade continued. It was not until 1909 that slavery was finally abolished in East Africa.

Stone Town, a World Heritage Site, is the old part of Zanzibar City.

Back to the reasons you should visit us in Tanzania. Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam are just six degrees from the equator and have a warm year-round climate. A on a bicycle ride around our community throughout the day selling coconut that he will cut open for you to drink it’s refreshing waters. And we can’t forget about the white sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters that will make any visit to Tanzania, a holiday to remember.

And if that hasn’t sold you on your next vacation to Tanzania, then consider experiencing the wildlife in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater and getting a glimpse of the tallest mountain on the African continent, Mount Kilimanjaro. The Serengeti is famous for the wildebeests that stampede across the grasslands of East Africa every August and September. In a single year, the herds can migrate nearly 1,000 miles.

We are waiting for your reservation!

The tallest mountain on the African continent – Mount Kilimanjaro.

Levi is not his hair…

Levi has had thick black hair since birth. He came into this world with his hair, fried, dyed and laid to the side! As he has gotten older, his hair has taken on a personality of its own. Initially it was slick down and laid close to his hear but it soon became curly and thick. Now we are starting to see it take on new dimensions and what we can expect his hair to look like.

His unique hair has made him stand out especially as we have settled into our life on the African content. People always comment on his curly Afro and how it stands up on the top of his head. At Christmas, we were visiting with cousins in Kigali and one cousin was really fascinated with Levi’s hair. He pulled at Levi’s curls and rubbed his fingers through his curls. Eventually he asked, “why is his hair like this and my hair is like this?”, pointing to his own head. After we laughed at this comment, I tried to explain that Levi‘s ancestors not only include Rwandans, but Nigerians, Ghanaians, English, Scottish, German and French. So all those genes have come together to produce this curly Afro. The cousin looked at me, not fully understanding what I was saying and moved on to play with the other cousins.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, various countries have a word for white that is often used when they see a white person. As a black person from the US, that word has been often directed at me. Not because I have white skin but my mannerisms and speech are reminiscent of their interactions with white people. This has created a long agonizing relationship with being called white, especially in Rwanda and in Nigeria. I have gotten use to it and have now started doing the same thing. I now have to face reality that Levi will face the same of often being called white. It happened a few times when we were out for a walk with Levi in his stroller and the children called him Mzungu (white in Swahili). To stop and engage will only make it worst with my Americanize English and few Kinyarwanda works (the language of Rwanda).

When I think about Levi, what people say of his hair, that other Africans call him white, I’m reminded of his complicated ancestry. He is the descendant of enslaved people, the enslaver, refugees who fled their homeland, proud African tribes as well as European clans. His skin tone and hair reflects these diverse ancestors. But we live in a world where color defines who you are before where you are from. I will start early teaching Levi about his ancestors and his homelands.

Moving is stressful! Anyone who has ever had to pack up their house and move to a new location knows how stressful moving can be! And moving between countries has its own level of stress and challenges. Sheila and I moved out of our apartment in South Africa on December 13, 2021, and we (or rather I) moved into our Tanzanian apartment on January 12, 2022. Now, in all honesty, there was not much Sheila and I had to do regarding the move out process. My organization hired a moving company that showed up at our house and packed our things. Our role was to direct the movers and to separate our items into three categories – items for air shipment, items for sea shipment and items to travel with us on our flight out of the country. Now, I know you are asking yourself, “where is the stress?” The stress is in deciding what goes where and when. And each item category has a weight limit. What makes this process rather difficult is that you don’t know what you will need when you arrive at your new location. When we moved into our apartment in South Africa, the apartment was fully furnished. The apartment had kitchen items, sheets, towels, laundry items, WIFI and DSTV (satellite TV). It was the type of furnished apartment that could easily double as an Airbnb rental. On the other hand, our new apartment in Tanzania has nothing outside of furniture and appliances. While the Tanzanian complex likes to rent out apartments on a nightly basis to make money during the pandemic, complaints on booking.com and other travel sites have focused on the lack of kitchen items needed to use the appliances. The other night I had to go buy pots and pans (even though we have pots and pans in our shipment), cutlery, pillows, and towels.  

The moving process is even more complicated with a child. Trying to decide what to send by air, what to ship by sea and what to bring with us has its own challenges with a 15-month-old. If we put his clothes in our sea shipment and we don’t receive that shipment for three to six months, then he could outgrow his clothes. In addition, we struggled with where to put Levi’s crib? Levi lived the first year of his life sleeping in a travel bassinet, a Graco pack & play and at times, sleeping in the bed with us when we didn’t have a bed for him. When we arrived in South Africa, he finally had a bed to himself. But that was short-lived because three months later, we were on the move again. We decided to sacrifice our air shipment allotment to include his crib and related items. This ensures that when he does arrive in Tanzania, he will have a crib that is familiar and belongs to him.

Levi seemed more interested in removing items from the luggage and exploring on his own.

It is also safe to say that we under packed our sea shipment and over packed the bags that traveled with us to Tanzania. We left South Africa with ten bags to start our new life in Tanzania. However, I have since come to believe that we left some very important items out of our travel bags. As I mentioned above, pots and pans, cutlery, pillows, and towels. In addition, we packed our iron in our air shipment. I have been trying my best to get by without an iron and I guess this is made easy as my office is still working from home.

We clearly overestimate space in our checked baggage and had to leave a few items in South Africa. On my way to Tanzania, I traveled to South Africa (from Rwanda) to pick up our final items. It was strange being back in a city where you once lived and had an apartment. Sadly, I had to get a hotel room for the two nights when I was in town. On my final day, as I was preparing to check out, I decided to take a late shower since I was traveling overnight. I closed the bathroom door in case housekeeping came into the room. After exiting the shower and drying off, I tried to exit the bathroom, but the door refused to budge. I thought, “hmmm, that’s strange.” I tried the doorknob again and this time gently leaned into the door but again, it refused to move. I then became more forceful with the door. It became obvious to me that (1) the door was not going to open without force and (2) I didn’t want to be blame for breaking the door. Lucky for me I had my mobile phone so I called the front desk to inform them that I was locked in my bathroom and unfortunately, the top lock on the outside door was engaged…which meant it would be difficult for someone to access the room. She was a bit surprised with my call and constantly apologized but told me that someone from maintenance would be there to help me. After about 15-20 minutes, there was a knock on my hotel room door. Before entering the room, the maintenance man knocked on my door to make sure it was ok to enter the room. I called out to him several times that I was locked in the bathroom, but he could access the room. Finally, there was a loud thud as he broke the top lock of the door my ramming it with his shoulder. He stepped into the room, looked at the door and with one twist of the doorknob, he opened the door. And just like that I was freed from my temporary prison and able to move on to our new life in Tanzania.

2021: A Year in Review

2021 was a very challenging year for the Barnes Family. We started the year in Mount Vernon, Alabama, eventually made our way to Kigali, Rwanda and finally returned to our home in South Africa in October. During this time, we made three trips to the US and took a much-needed vacation to Dubai. Sentell also had to travel to Tanzania for work twice. A baby dedication ceremony was held for Levi at Mt. Sinai Baptist Church (my dad’s home church) in January and Levi had two birthday parties to celebrate turning one. Levi began to crawl at four months and he walked at ten months. We had numerous flight challenges which included extensive delays, a missed flight, delayed COVID19 test and rental cars being left in the parking lot.  COVID19 defined our year and we tried to make the best of a difficult situation. These are our top memories from 2021.

Levi Meets the Snow

We were late getting on the road to Atlanta for our Turkish Airlines flight to Kigali. It had been a stressful few days as we were trying to get a COVID19 test within 72 hours of our flight. We found a clinic in Jackson, Mississippi (Trust Care Clinic), a six-hour drive round trip from our home in Mount Vernon, Alabama. The drive was even longer because we were traveling with a four-month-old. After securing our COVID19 test, we were off to Montgomery for a quick rest break before making the final journey to Atlanta. We arrived at the airport with exactly one and a half hours before our flight. When we entered the airport, the line at Turkish airlines counter was chaotic! I needed to check in quickly and then return the rental car. The closer we got to the ticket desk; it was clear that our flight was delayed. I was delighted as I would have time to return the car. However, once we checked-in, I was informed that security would be closing at 10pm, even though our flight was now scheduled to depart at 1:55am (the originally departure time of the flight was 10pm). I had a call in a favor from my brother to come to Atlanta to return the rental car on our behalf.  It was also clear that we would miss our connecting flight in Istanbul to Kigali. As the plane descended into Istanbul, we could see snow on the ground. Once off the plane, we were informed that the next flight was in two days so we had an unscheduled layover in Istanbul. Unfortunately, we left all our winter clothes in Alabama and all Levi’s items for sleeping. We decided to go to a hotel that we had stayed in previously during a stop over in Istanbul to wait out our flight. After two days we were finally on our way to Kigali.

A COVID break in the Desert

After living in the homes of others, we needed a break. COVID19 made it difficult traveling to many parts of the world and we didn’t want to make the long journey back to the United States (only to be back in other people’s spaces). Dubai was encouraging tourist to return for Ramadan so, after some discussion, we decided to jet off to the city in the desert. We spent an entire week enjoying time at the pool, hanging out at the enormous shopping malls, and enjoying some time to ourselves. We were joined on this trip with Sheila’s brother Bob and his wife Vanessa. It was one of the nicest visits to Dubai that I have experienced.

Levi Turns One

Levi turned one in October 2021. It is hard to believe that he is already one years old. They often tell you that times flies by…and it truly does fly by. I think we were so focused on responding to his needs that when we finally looked up, he was walking and almost talking. Levi had two birthday parties. Since we had spent so much time in Kigali, we decided to throw a birthday for him in late September. Because of his love of animals, we threw him a farm themed birthday party. We had a second birthday party once we returned to Johannesburg. The South African birthday party was small and intimate with Levi having a cake to smash. We also took Levi to the Johannesburg Zoo on to celebrate his birthday.

Brenda and Freddie’s 50th Wedding Anniversary

On November 5, 2021, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. When we initially started planning for their celebration, we wanted to go all out and host a gala. However, COVID19 forced us to change our plans. In the end, my parents requested that we all be home for their anniversary. While Sheila and I did not want to travel back to the US for a second time in three months, we also did not want to miss this momentous occasion. It turned out to be a beautiful day, joined by family and friends. And in the end, my parents spent their anniversary with their two children, their spouses and three grandchildren.

A Wedding in Uganda (Round Two)

Sheila’s brother Bob and his wife Vanessa were married in September of 2020. Unfortunately, it was doing COVID19 restrictions so many important people were unable to attend, including Vanessa’s parents. They planned to hold a second ceremony in Uganda for Vanessa’s family to attend. After some discussion and waiting to see how the various COVID19 variants would play out, a wedding date was set on December 18, 2021. Despite the rise of the Omicron variant just weeks before the wedding, the happy couple decided to continue with their wedding date. It was a beautiful affair with family and friends in attendance.

Our New Home in Tanzania

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

After two years in South Africa, most of it spent outside of South Africa, my organization decided to transfer us to Tanzania. We are sad to leave our home in South Africa. We really enjoyed our brief time in the Rainbow Nation. South Africa is a unique place. For an American, you can easily create a life that reflects a western style life. Fancy shopping malls, Michelin level restaurants, internationally recognized wineries, and exotic animal parks. But behind all of this is violent crime, poverty and racial divisions that continue to fester from the apartheid days. We only wish that we could have had more time to experience all that South Africa has to offer. However, Dar es Salaam is located along the Indian Ocean with breathtaking ocean views and sunsets. In addition, Zanzibar, is a short flight or ferry away from Dar es Salaam. Our offer still stands for visitors!

447 Days…

Sheila and I left Johannesburg, South Africa on July 12, 2020. We spent 447 days away from our house, sleeping in other people’s beds and having little to no personal space. July 11, 2020 was the last time we ate dinner in our own space and watched people walk up and down our treelined street. Let me say this again, for 447 days we lived with other people and slept in someone’s spare bed. Some of you may read this and think, what’s the big deal? Others may say, at least you had somewhere to say. But it’s challenging living in other peoples’ space, especially during a pandemic and with a new child! When we arrived in the US in July 2020, it was just the two of us. Now, there are three of us and one in particular is not concerned with respecting the rules of the house!

We are grateful that we have family that allowed us to take over their house. Our families have been gracious in taking us in, feeding us and providing free baby care. But we are happy to be back in our home in South Africa.

We attempted a return to South Africa in May 2021 but I had to travel to Tanzania for work. When I returned to Kigali, Sheila and I planned to return to South Africa. But each day we watched as Covid19 numbers increased in South Africa. South Africa begrudgingly went into a level four lockdown. In addition, other countries were putting restrictions on South Africans or those who had been in South Africa. The United States put in place a restriction that if you had been in South Africa in the previous 14 days you were not allowed to enter the US. Now Sheila and I were exempted from the restriction but we were concerned if other countries would establish a similar type of restriction. However, the US Government recently announced and have implemented rules for passengers arriving in the United States. International visitors must present airlines with a paper or digital certificate that shows they are fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Travelers must also provide a negative Covid-19 test result taken no more than three days before departure. Travelers under the age of 18 and those from countries where the vaccination coverage is below ten percent due to vaccine shortages will be able to enter the United States without being fully immunized.

I know that Levi will not remember any of this…he won’t remember the four months we lived in Mount Vernon, Alabama after he was born and he won’t remember the seven months we lived in Kigali…he won’t remember the snow delay that forced us to spent two nights in Istanbul or a recent stay inside the Brussels airport (blog loading). All this seems temporary in this brief world that we live in…again, we are thankful for family and friends that have tried to make our time outside South Africa comfortable and pleasant.

But…we are thankful to be back in South Africa. We arrived in the country on October 2, 2021. The transition back to our life in South Africa has been challenging. As I mentioned above, we left the Rainbow Nation as two and returned in October as three. In Kigali, and to a certain extent in Alabama, we had people that helped us watch Levi while we got an extra hour of sleep or needed to make dinner. In South Africa, it is just the three of us…And we realized that Levi is an energetic little boy. We were overwhelmed after our first week in Johannesburg. However, we now have a routine and a schedule that helps us manage our time and manage Levi. Being back in South Africa doesn’t mean that our period of uncertainty is over. There are new changes coming to our lives. So we prepare for the unexpected…

It has been a stressful eight months! Levi Fletcher Nikuzwe Barnes arrived in October and has completely changed our lives. We once would sleep in on Saturdays, would take leisurely walks in the afternoon/evening and plan our day as the hours ticked away. Those days are done and dusted! We now count our days in three hour blocks and celebrate if Levi takes a two hour nap! And we are still working to get him to sleep through the night.

In July 2020, we “repatriated” to the United States from South Africa because of the COVID19 pandemic and in preparation for Levi’s arrival. We spent nearly three months with my parents before Levi entered the world. Because of COVID19, we lived in a nearby house for two months in an effort to practice adequate social distancing. We would spend the evenings sitting on my parent’s sundeck exactly six feet apart. Before Levi’s birth and as Hurricane Sally was threatening the Gulf Coast, we moved in with my parents. After Levi’s birth, we waited for three months for Sheila and Levi’s passports to return from the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, the passport were stuck in the United States Postal Services (USPS) because of the pandemic and the political games played with the USPS. This delayed our trip to Kigali Rwanda from December to February.

We finally departed the US in February for Kigali, Rwanda. We spent two nights in Turkey where Levi experience his first snowfall before continuing the trip to Kigali. I will talk more about our airplane woes in a different blog. Levi has been meeting with and getting to know the Rwandan relatives.

I say all this to illustrate that unlike other babies who have beautifully decorated baby rooms; Levi has been either sharing a bed with us (we know that it’s not recommended but he had his own bed that sat on top of our bed), sleeping in a portable bassinet and now sleeping in a borrowed pack & play. Levi already has four country stamps in his passport!

It has not been easy raising Levi in the midst of so much uncertainty in our lives. Our time in Rwanda is dwindling as we will be heading back to South Africa soon where we will be on our own raising Levi. We have started early training Levi how to sleep, play and eat. While the training has been successful in giving Levi a daily schedule and helping him sleep better at night, we are still working on sleeping through the night. This has also created some challenges as we know that any move or change of scenery can disrupt Levi’s schedule.

Since Levi’s arrival, I have learned that everyone has an opinion on how the baby should sleep, eat, spend their time during the day, the clothes he should wear, how to manage immunizations, etc. Africans are probably more vocal in their opinions and advice than Americans but Americans love to share their opinions too. As I mentioned, when Levi was born we were staying with my parents, my mom and dad often laughed at us that we used a book to schedule Levi’s days. They were always quick to remind me that they raised me 40 years ago and I turned out ok. We tried our best to navigate our book training with my parents’ experience raising children.

We were out at a shopping mall and had recently fed Levi. At the same time, he needed a diaper change. We had no choice but to lay him down and change his diaper. When we finished, we lifted Levi up and he spit up. At the same time, someone walked up and told us that we are not supposed to lay a baby down after eating! Thankfully, I had a mask on my face so the person could not read the discontent on my face!

Friends often tell us that the time will pass quickly so we should enjoy each feeding, each snuggle, each cry. Very soon, he will be telling you what he likes and what he does not like. He is already showing a desire to walk. He has learned to hold the sides of his pack and play and take wobbly steps. Sometimes when I see other children walking with their parents, I try to visualize Levi holding my hand walking down a sidewalk. Then I wake myself up from the daydream to try to appreciate the time I have with him now.

It has been quite the summer in the United States. As we mentioned before, we came to the US in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. With rising reports of COVID19 cases in South Africa and a desire to be near family as we wait out the pandemic, we decided to return to the US. It was a challenging decision to make as we had developed quite the routine in Johannesburg and had created a ‘firewall’ for ourselves against the virus. But after three months in the United States and spending time with family, we are happy we made the decision. Unfortunately, in these difficult times, Sheila missed her brother’s wedding that took place on September 25. We knew that the coronavirus would probably prevent us from attending his wedding but we were able to follow along online.

Our summer in the US was also marked by three hurricanes that made landfall along the Gulf Coast. The Alabama Coast had two indirect hits, Marco and Delta and a direct hit with Sally. Sheila and I have been coming back and forth to the US since 2016 and this is the first time we have found ourselves in the direct path of a hurricane. For Sheila, Sally was her first experience with a hurricane and I don’t think she knew what to expect. Hurricane Sally made landfall at Gulf Shores, Alabama, a place where Sheila and I like to go to get our feet wet. An interesting hurricane face, Sally made landfall on the 16 year anniversary of Hurricane Ivan, coming ashore in the same location in 2004. I grew up about 60 miles from the coast so we often get wind damage but never the storm surge. The area between Mobile, Alabama and Pensacola, Florida took the brunt of the storm experiencing widespread wind damage.

After arriving in the US, we quarantined in my uncle’s house down the street for my parents. Even after our two week quarantine, we continued to stay in his house. As it became clear that the hurricane was making a bee-line for Mobile, Alabama, we decided to move in with my parents. The day before the hurricane made land fall, we packed up our items and moved in with my parents. It turned out to be a very good decision because the next morning I was informed that a tree had fallen within inches of my uncle’s house. It looked as if someone just came along and pushed down the tree. The roots were standing out of the ground.

Levi, while not a hurricane, arrived very similar to Hurricane Sally. He was slow and methodical and when he finally entered the world, left our lives changed forever. On October 5, 2020, we welcomed our first child, Levi Fletcher Nikuzwe Barnes. He arrived at 12:29pm weighting in at 6lbs 7oz. One of the most important reasons for returning to the US during this time was to be close to family as we expected our first child. The name Levi means joined together/harmony and speaks to that God has joined together and added to our harmony. In addition, in the Bible, Levites were descendants of Levi, a son of Jacob, priests dedicated to serving God. In the New Testament, 1 Peter 2:9 calls all of us “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.” Fletcher is a name that has been passed down throughout my family since 1883 spanning over four generations. The name has been carried by my great-great grandfather, grandfather, uncle and first cousin. The name now continues into the next generation. Nikuzwe is a Kinyarwanda name which means “may he be glorified.” We are excited to welcome little Levi to the family. Like any new parent, we have been suffering from a lack of sleep and disruption to our routine. However, the coronavirus pandemic has already taught us that there is no such thing as normal so we are looking forward to our new life with baby Levi.

It’s hard to put 2020 in worlds. And it’s not even over. And November will bring its own surprises and suspense.

Sheila and I have been in the United States now for six weeks. I was recently telling someone that after four months locked up in our apartment, we developed quite the COVID19 response plan for leaving our house. It included sanitizer, antiseptic wipes and a mask. Whenever we entered a business place in Johannesburg, we would have to sanitize again because every business required you to wear a mask and sanitize before entering. We were shocked when we arrived in the United States and businesses were not requiring masks. Sheila and I stopped at a Wal-Mart in Newman, Georgia and were shocked when only a handful of people were wearing masks. I quickly gathered supplies and darted out the door. We were relieved when Alabama Governor Kay Ivey issued a mask wearing order five days after we arrived.

Since arriving in Alabama, we finished our two-week quarantine and tested negative for COVID19. We even spent an evening at the beach watching the sun set. We made sure that we were socially distancing from others on the beach. We were not really interested in water but just a different scene and an amazing sunset. We had always planned to come back to Alabama during this time but when the COVID19 pandemic hit, we were unsure how we would make it back to the states. South Africa closed its international airport and restricted movement in the country. We began to watch for repatriation flights that would take us back to the US. In June, we began tracking a KLM flight and in early July purchased our tickets home.

Daphne Beach

Enjoying an evening in the sand and sun at Dauphin Island Beach.

When I returned to the US in February, Sheila was unfortunately unable to return with me. It was difficult as we had plans for our time in February that were interrupted. Our priority was to get Sheila a resident visa to South Africa. When she was unable to travel, it changed our plans. I returned to the US for some work events and then rushed back to South Africa before the borders closed. And now we are in the US, enjoying some family time with my parents, brother and sister-in-law, niece and nephew-the newest member of the family. We have been also catching up with cousins and friends via phone and socially distanced.

(l) My work from home attire, business at the top – leisure at the bottom! (r) Visiting with my niece and nephew. 

(l) Catching up with friends from Auburn (the old crew) and (r) catching up with friends from TN2020 network.

Booking a flight when the international airport and land borders closed is difficult. We had to wait until the US Embassy announced repatriation flights. At the end of June, the US Embassy released a list of flights through mid-July that included a July 11 flight to Amsterdam on KLM. We initially tried to book the flight out of Johannesburg but was too late. By the time I could talk to Sheila about the flight, it had sold out. The other option was from Cape Town. Again, after prayer and discussion we decided to add another leg to our flight and go through Cape Town. All in all, the flights were okay. KLM treated us as if we had Ebola and refused to interact with passengers on the plane. They provided a box meal with no options and only water. Theycame back through the cabin two hours later and gave us a bag of snacks, water and a Coca Cola and told us that they would not be coming back through the cabin. The cabin was packed and just uncomfortable. I think at the end of the flight, Sheila and I both thought we had COVID19. The Delta flight from Amsterdam to Atlanta was worlds apart from the KLM flight. The flight attendants were warm and friendly and even commented on my Auburn attire. The flight was half full so Sheila and I got a row of four seats to ourselves. The flight attendants came back and forth through the aisle serving food, drinks, snacks and more snacks and drinks. After the KLM flight, it felt like we were in first class. By the time the flight ended, the flight attendants and I were on a first name basis and we were sad to leave the flight. We rented a car, Sheila spent thirty minutes wiping it down with disinfectant wipes and we were on our way to Alabama. A social distancing stop in Montgomery to visit my brother, sister-in-law, niece and new nephew and then we were off to Mount Vernon, AL. We entered quarantine in my uncle’s former house and prepared for our two week isolation.

Masked up on our flight from Joburg to Cape Town.
KLM’s snack bag! Where do you put this bag when you are already crammed into your seat?

It’s really hard to write blogs these days. The more responsibilities I take at work, the more challenging it becomes sitting down at my desk and sharing my life with the family members and friends that follow our lives around the African continent. And then add COVID19 to the mix and writing for my blog is like a second job. A lot has happened since my last report. Sheila and I are in the United States of America. With rising reports of COVID19 cases in South Africa and a desire to be next family as we wait out the pandemic, we decided to return to the US. It was a challenging decision to make as we had developed quite the routine in Johannesburg and had created a ‘firewall’ for ourselves against the virus. The idea of getting on a 24 hour flight (20 hours actually in the air) to the US was daunting. However, after much prayer, discussion and loneliness, we decided to pull the trigger and book a flight.

Flash forward to August 16, 2020. In addition to writing a blog in COVID19, it’s also difficult celebrating your birthday in the age of COVID19. Today I turned 41. My 40th year was a challenging one where I had to come to grips with middle age, sickness and death. In addition to COVID19 holding us hostage in Johannesburg before we were able to establish a routine or meet friends, we have experienced a number of deaths this year that have left us stunned and reflective. In February, we lost one of my favorite uncles. Uncle Dan, as he was known went off to fight in Vietnam in the 1960s and came back a changed man. He never really talked about his time in Vietnam but it was clear to his nieces and nephews that he came back with some lingering issues. Anytime we fired off fireworks he was quick to leave the scene. But he was nothing but nice to me and he will be sorely missed.

The flag draped casket of Uncle Dan.

In July, just as Sheila and I were arriving in the US, my dad’s twin sister passed away. She and my dad looked nothing alike but they were both kind hearted and friendly. It’s difficult to lose your twin sibling so her death has left a void in our family. Two weeks later, we got the news that we had been hoping and praying would not come. The beautiful soul that was Sheila’s grandmother, her last grandparent, breathed her last breath and entered eternity. She was an amazing strong woman having survived civil unrest, life in a refugee camp and the Rwanda post genocide adversity. She loved Sheila and by proxy, loved me. She often talked to me as if I could understand what she was saying and didn’t hesitate to cram food down my throat. She couldn’t understand how I was so big but yet always politely turning down her food offers (she didn’t understand Americans). She will be greatly missed.

Grandma!

And then, just the following day of digesting grandma’s departure, we received the news that another relative of Sheila had passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. Ambassador Kamali Karegesa passed away on August 11. He served in many positions in the Rwandan government including High Commissioner to South Africa and Uganda. While in Uganda, he and his wife would often provide Sheila with rest break from university. For our traditional wedding, he filled the role of my uncle (umusazamukuru) because, as an American, my dad would have no clue what he was doing. He was successfully able to negotiate a good bride price and send Sheila and me on our way into marital bliss.

Ambassador Karegesa embracing Sheila at our Gusaba (traditional wedding).

It has been a difficult year celebrating my 40th year. But at the same time, I am thankful that each of the individuals entered my life and left an imprint on my journey. Someone once said, “Middle age is the way you would feel about summer if you knew there would never be another spring.” A positive situation of this pandemic is that after being away from Mount Vernon, Alabama, for nearly twenty years, I have been reacquainting myself with my hometown, spending time with my parents and showing Sheila around the town. A lot has changed but upon closer inspection, a lot has stayed the same. Happy Birthday to me!