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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I often imagine Harford Tate was a tall, strong man whose presence filled a room. Born in 1803, in Georgia, Harford was brought to Alabama by his slave master, former United States Senator Charles Tait in 1819 who was taking advantage of available land in the new territory. In 1813, the US annexed West Florida after the Spanish surrendered Mobile to the American troops. This opened up millions of acres of Creek Indian territory to white settlers, including Senator Tait and his son James. James Asbury Tait originally came to Alabama in 1817 with three slaves to start preparing land for the arrival of his father. Senator Tait sent 60 additional slaves in January 1819 to help clear the land and plant corn and cotton. Intriguingly, 40 of the slaves that arrived in the territory belong to the Senator and 20 were a wedding present to James. It is hard to know if Harford was one of the 60 slaves that came to Alabama to work under James but we do know he eventually settled in Alabama with Senator Tait and James.
Harford was of fair complexion because it is believed that Senator Tait was his father. This was common on plantations. Harford was a smart man who unlike his fellow slaves, could read and write. Maybe because he was the son of the slave master, he received a very basic education and became a trusted confidant of Sen. Tait. This is evident in a letter Harford wrote to the Senator in 1826, providing an update of life on the plantation.
The letter was included in a 1929 book entitled Life and Labor in the Old South by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips.
There is not a lot of information about Harford other than a few mentions in the letters of Senator Tait and his son James. He is mentioned in Senator Tait’s will along with another slave named Howard (also believed to be Senator Tait’s son). Harford was to be freed after the death of Senator Tait and Howard after the death of his wife Sarah. There is no information about whether Harford was freed after Senator Tait’s death; however, in June 1836 Sarah sold Howard for $1,000.
The will of Senator Charles Tait
The document above reads, “On or before the 1st of December next I promise to pay Mrs. Sarah Tait or heir in the sum of one thousand dollars for a yellow man [illegible] named Howard. This 8th June 1836.” This image is the property of the Auburn University Libraries.
This is the history of my family. Harford is my fourth great-grandfather. The line goes, Harford, Harford, Jr., Homer, Carlia (Williams), Sarah (Roberson), Brenda (Barnes) and me. Its amazing to think how much life has changed since Harford’s birth in 1803. The Civil War ended slavery in 1865 and the 1960s brought about full citizenship for American blacks. However, what continues to survive 176 years after Harford’s birth is the institutionalized economic disparities that exist between blacks and whites in the United States. When Harford came to Alabama, he wasn’t able to benefit from the land made available to white citizens. He was forced to work the land that did not belong to him. His university educated “half-brother” James Asbury Tait took advantage of his status as a white citizen and built a large plantation in Wilcox County that reflected his wealth. A document I was reading from the National Park Service (NPS) states that “the Tait family of Wilcox County, Alabama was one of the wealthiest and most influential in central Alabama. At the time of his death in 1854, James owned plantations and lands in Alabama and Mississippi, and approximately 360 slaves. Upon his death, he provided his eight children with the means to live as royalty. Robert Tait inherited approximately 3,250 acres and part of his father’s stock in the Wilcox Female Institute. With this inheritance, son Robert Tait built the Tait-Ervin House in 1854.” Harford on the other hand toiled the land and supported the plantation of Senator Tait. He and his descendants became tenant farmers on the land of white landowners barely making enough to get by.
Senator Charles Tait (l) and his son, James A. Tait (r). Photos from myheritage.com.
Today, there is a lot of talk of institutional racism. It is a deep and highly charged subject because few people in power want to admit that the system that they have excelled in is systematically stacked against certain individuals in society. However, we should think about it like this, institutions in the United States were built when the country discriminated against blacks, women, Native Americans, Japanese, Chinese, and the list goes on. Article one; section two of the US Constitution of the United States declares that any person who was not free would be counted as three-fifths of a free individual for the purposes of determining congressional representation. Even our beloved Constitution was written with racial bias. The 14th amendment which was ratified in 1868 changed this provision and removed the bias from Article one. Harford was considered three-fifths of a white citizen when it came to political representation. He was unable to vote and exercise any rights as an American citizen.
When the second wave of American founding fathers in the 1960s came along, they fought to create a “more perfect union” demanding civil and voting rights. Instead of tearing down these institutions and rebuilding them to be inclusive of all Americans, we made cosmetic changes to the system and declared ourselves a “post-racial society.” Even up to today, we have been adding laws and regulations to a “house that was not designed to support these new additions.” In other words, the foundation that was laid in 1776 and 1789 can never create “a more perfect union.” We are coming to term with the fact that many of these institutions have legacies steeped in our racist past.
People, led by the Black Lives Matter movement are demanding reforms of law enforcement in the United States. If we look at the history of law enforcement in the United States, we will see many examples of police officers, sheriffs and FBI agents targeting black Americans and their leaders. Many times, those selected to protect and serve were allowing mobs to kill innocent men and women. From the very beginning, the system was that “law enforcement” was not designed to protect enslaved black people but rather to treat them as property and return them to their owners, no matter how cruel those owners were to their slaves. In the post-Civil War period, these same law enforcement figures turned a blind eye as black men and women were killed for just looking at a white person the wrong way. In 1893, a white mob killed four black teenagers in Monroe County, Alabama after a white farmer and his daughter were murdered and their home set on fire. Law enforcement officials coerced one of the accused into a confession that implicated the four young men. Once the community heard of their arrest, a mob surrounded the jail and demanded the teens be released into their custody. The mob hung the teens outside of Monroeville, Alabama. These teen faced no due process and were killed with little evidence pointing them to the crime. This case had eerily similarities to the Central Park Five case in the late 1980s. I used the example from Monroe County because Harford’s descendants would have been familiar with this case as they were living in Monroe Country, Alabama.
Rebuilding law enforcement in the US needs to be about removing the racist legacy and establishing in its place a system that truly serves, protects, and uplifts society. Context is important as we talk about race and understanding the ugly history of the US is important to understanding why institutional racism still affects the upward mobility of many in our society.
Some of the descendants of Harford Tait (Tate) during the 2020 Williams Tate Sigler Family Reunion.
Lockdown day 82! Greetings from Johannesburg South Africa. It’s hard to imagine that Sheila and I have been sheltering in place since March 17. On March 17, I arrived in South Africa after spending a month in the United States. The world is a completely different place! Since that time, South Africa put in place a level system for managing COVID-19. Having started at Level 5, we are now in Level 3. Level 3 allows for exercise between 6:00am and 6:00pm (daylight hours), the purchase of alcohol between Monday and Thursday, limited travel in the country with the necessary permits, day trips in National Parks and a return to school for some students. However, Sheila and I have decided its best that we remain in our house during this time.
Being stuck in your house for over three months has its challenges. Working from home is not the problem. It is when you finish working and you have nowhere to go that is the problem. So I attempted a lot of new hobbies. I tried to make cauliflower pizza…a traditional pizza…a mask to protect me when going out…and I baked a cake using a new recipe. Unfortunately, the cake stuck to the pan and wasn’t so pretty when I removed it.
Under Level 4 guidelines, which started on May 1, the government allowed exercising between 6:00am and 9:00am. After being stuck in the house for over a month, I decided to go for a run each morning just to get some fresh air. So far, I have run each day since May 1 and have covered 220 miles (as of June 16). I am very slow (very slow), but I am running a 10K in 1 hour and 30 minutes, a personal best for me. For those of you that run, I know that sound ridiculous but I have never run a 10K. I am also down ten pounds…trying to get back to my pre-Nigeria weight. I ate too much jollof rice and pounded yam while living in Nigeria.
In addition, I have been helping my mom conduct an inventory (sounds morbid) of the community cemetery. In addition to learning who is related to who in the Movico/Chastang/Mount Vernon area, I have learned a lot about the history of our community. The cemetery started as a “Colored Cemetery” for families of former slaves living in Movico and Chastang. While we don’t know when the first person was buried in Roper Cemetery, the cemetery has been an integral part of the Chastang-Movico-Mount Vernon area for 115 years. Lucy Hampton Jones was buried in the cemetery in 1905. Lucy probably died from complications from child birth. Many of the families in Chastang-Movico-Mount Vernon area can be traced back to Lucy Jones including members of the Hamptons, the Jones, the Daniels, the Millers, the Walkers, the Breeches, and the Pughes families. She is the great-great grandmother of Movico. Since 1905, the cemetery has grown to include over 500 graves, including members of my family and many of the community stalwarts that once worked tirelessly to ensure the cemetery was maintained as a proper place for the community. These individuals paid yearly dues which provided for the care and up keep of the cemetery.
One grave in particular that caught my attention is Leroy Hampton. Leroy was a Private in the 15th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division in the US Army. He was fighting in South Korea in 1951 when he was killed in action. Private Hampton was awarded the Purple Heart, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Korean Service Medal, the United Nations Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal and the Korean War Service Medal. Leroy paid the ultimate sacrifice. He gave his life fighting in defense of American values at a time when the country considered him as a second class citizen.
We have survived 14 days of total lockdown in Johannesburg! And I think we are both at our limit of boredom. Don’t get us wrong, we like to watch Netflix series and enjoy the occasionally movie but we also like to get outside. I have made three trips to the supermarket to pick up some food. The streets are quiet with a few cars going zooming by. Every so many steps I run into another individual out for a food run but all in all, it has been very quiet in our area. In addition to my telework and reading five reports, I have completed two eCornell courses online, about to finish a book (A Very Stable Genius) and conducted some family history research. On the docket this weekend, is a 4,000 piece puzzle with Sheila.
Unfortunately, this lockdown has us in conflict with our neighbors. As the lockdown has lingered on, our bedtime has gotten later and later. We find ourselves on WhatsApp calls, in Zoom Tele-Conferences and on normal telephone calls with people back in the US and other places. Three nights ago, I joined my cousin’s 50th birthday party. Wednesday night, we were having a chat session with Sheila’s brother and his fiancé. This call was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Because at midnight we got an aggressive knock on our door. It really caught Sheila off guard as she jumped and stared at the door. My first thought was “who the hell is beating on my door.” As I approached the door, I yelled, “Who is it?” The voice on the other side said, “Your neighbor from apartment 12.” We unfortunately don’t have a peephole in our door so I slowly opened the door. On the other side was a man in his bathrobe not looking very happy. I imagined he was there to tell us that we were too loud. But his first words were, “do you know the building code?” I was like, “what? I am not familiar with the building code.” He then proceeded to give me a list of our transgressions which also included late night of moving chairs. I tried to explain that if it is us, we didn’t mean to be noisy neighbors. And then he said, “I have already reported you to the board!” He said his wife was taking sleeping pills because of our noise and he had moved to the other bedroom. I was thinking, ‘we aren’t throwing house parties and blasting music through the walls’. This guy would never survive Nigeria:-)!
Family birthday celebration (l) and church friends from Abuja (r)
After his comments about reporting us, the conversation then changed in my head because I was thinking, “he could just knock on our door and tell us that we are too loud and should keep it down.” I have lived in other apartment buildings where we have knocked on doors to let people know that the music or TV was too loud or vice versa. I was offended because I saw his wife the other day as she drove in and she didn’t say anything, not even a hello. Maybe it’s me or the fact that I have lived on this continent for too long because in Nigeria, people were quick to let you know if something was out of the ordinary. I apologized to my neighbor, closed the door and rejoined the conference call. We decided to end the call because we had been on it for two hours. I fumed for a while wondering, ‘why did he not come to us earlier?’ But I guess, not everyone approaches things in the same manner or is the friendly neighbor. I guess being stuck at your house for 13 days (for us, we have been stuck in for 22 days) will cause you to run aground of your neighbors. It’s unfortunate but maybe we will bake them a cake to show that we are friendly neighbors. But it has to be after this coronavirus pandemic subsides as we don’t want to be accused of trying to make them sick. I’m sure our neighbors are nice people, obviously we got off on the wrong foot! Stay safe friends and be good neighbors.
South Africa ended its first day of lock down! But not without some challenges and a hit to its economic future. Government officials expressed disappointment in people not following the rules of the lock down and many people called for greater enforcement of the lock down. I can tell you that Sheila and I were in our compound all day. We did take a walk up and down the stairs just to get some sun and fresh air. Road blocks were set up around the country with 55 people being arrested for violating the lock down. The Minister of Police said that many people went to stores not to buy basic goods but to enjoy an “outing.” In addition, major credit agencies cut South Africa’s credit rating to sub-investment grade, meaning the country now has a junk credit status. On January 1, 2020, the Rand, South Africa’s currency was trading at 14 rand to the 1 US dollar. As of Friday, March 27, the rand was trading at 17.75 rand to 1 US dollar.
However, the sad news on the first day of the lock down was that COVID-19 numbers jumped to 1,170 positive cases and took the lives of two women in the Cape Town area. These are the first and only deaths from the virus in South Africa.
As for the lock down, citizens are not allowed to leave their homes except for necessary movement, including shopping for groceries, medicine or medical care, attending funerals and collecting social grants. The list of closure includes
- Religious, culture, sporting, entertainment, recreational or exhibition events.
- Locations where goods, other than essential goods, are acquired, disposed of or sold.
- Parks, beaches, swimming pools, markets, nightclubs, casinos. Hotels, guesthouses, lodges, private and public game reserves with the exception of their current guests.
- On-consumption liquor premises, such as bars, shebeens, taverns are required to be closed.
- Off-consumption liquor premises, like liquor stores and supermarket
- Shopping malls, excluding grocery stores and pharmacies.
- Restaurants and food delivery services.
On the first day of the lock down, we finished watching the Downton Abbey series. We watched the film version at the end of the evening to cap off our three months of watching the British historical drama. We really enjoyed the series and was sad to see it come to an end. We are searching for a new series to occupy our attention as we are stuck in our apartment. The day also ended with an amazing sunset. Thankfully, I was able to capture it with my camera.
The blog has been dormant over the past few months as we have been settling in to our new home in Johannesburg. And to be honest, I have been insanely busy trying to learn all I can about Southern Africa. In addition, my travel schedule has been insane! After returning from Rwanda in January (we spent two weeks in Rwanda for Christmas), I then traveled to Botswana, Malawi and Zimbabwe! And let’s not forget a quick weekend trip to Nigeria to pick up documents I needed to get my resident visa. Then in February, I returned to the US to apply for my resident visa! It was a crazy three months. And with the COVID19 changing the way the world operates I guess your question is, “where are you now?”
Our tour of Stellenbosh and the wine region.
Sheila and I are in Johannesburg and preparing for a 21 day, government imposed lockdown! That means we cannot go out of our house for 21 days! Sounds crazy but the COVID19 numbers are increasing at an astonishing rate. Yesterday at was around 500 and today it’s at 709. Who knows where it will be tomorrow! The bright side in all of this, Sheila and I get to spend some much needed time together. January and February were a blur. Although we did get down to Cape Town in late January for a much needed break. What was supposed to be a trip with dear friends who were living in South Africa (they left South Africa before the trip) turned out to be a weekend getaway for Sheila and I where we met some amazing Americans living in Capetown. We also caught up with old friends from my days in DC!
Cape Town from the top of Table Mountain
Cape Town is beautiful and amazing and we encourage all friends to come and visit as we would love to travel back to Cape Town.
So with that, we wait for the start of the lockdown!
I will use a quote of a friend who said that 2019 “was a wild ride. Nothing, almost nothing went as planned.” That sums up our 2019. It was wild, chaotic and sometimes difficult but we survived it and looking forward to 2020. As usually, our house was full of friends and family and we spent a considerable time one the road. Overall, we made it – a few scratches here and there, a bruised knee from failing to meet that goal that seemed important at the time and a few new gray hairs from stressing over events that we couldn’t change.
Our top moments of 2019:
Our new home in Johannesburg, SA
We made a big move to South Africa in 2019! We are slowly transitioning to our new life in Johannesburg. Like all things in this life, it will have its ups and downs but we are thanking God for this new season in our life. We recognize that it will be a different vibe then our time in Nigeria. For one, Johannesburg reminds one of a European city but on the other hand, we will be confronted with race unlike our time in Nigeria.
Saying goodbye to Nigeria
It was difficult to say goodbye to my home of five and a half years. Met some amazing people, had some amazing experience and will forever remember our time in Nigeria. I often define my time in Nigeria like this, for the first year I struggled with the country. In year two and three my feeling bordered on hate and in year four and five, I just went with the flow. Nigeria will kill you if you fight it but celebrate you if you just “go with the flow.” Nevertheless, we are on to big and better things and will continue to share our experiences in the Rainbow Nation!
The Big 40!
Forty is not so bad. Maybe I am not where I thought I would be but boy, God has been a moving and a shaking in my (our) lives. Check out the blog on turning 40!
Auburn goes to the Final Four
In some ways, I feel guilty saying that Auburn’s trip to the final four is a top moment of 2019 because I had very little to do with it. I didn’t block one player or hit any three pointers. However, as a long time Auburn fan, Auburn sports has always found a way to lift my spirits when life is difficult. The first few months of 2019 were difficult and challenging and following Auburn’s run to Minneapolis was a highlight of the first four months. Getting to travel and experience the game was icing on the cake. It was a good time!
Nigeria General Elections
To loosely quote the Sound of Music, “how do you solve a problem like Nigeria. How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? How do you find a word that means Nigeria?” Everything in Nigeria is big and over the top and that includes its elections. To even understand Nigeria’s elections you need an update glossary of terms that include words that sometimes don’t make sense to the casual observer. However, elections come and go and Nigeria keeps moving along.
Anniversary trip to Austria, Croatia and BiH
I am sure Sheila will say it’s me but our vacation always turn into a history lesson! (Yes, its me). This year, it was our road trip through conflict in Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH). Check out our blogs about our anniversary trip to Austria, Croatia and BiH.
Christmas in Rwanda
In case you were wondering, Rwanda is not known for its Christmas markets, artistically decorated Christmas trees and carolers singing Christmas hymns in the street. But the country is changing and trying to adapt a western style Christmas. I know what you are saying, Sentell, you are forcing foreign traditions on a country and trying to change how they mark Christmas. And, yes that is exactly what I am trying to do. Bring a little Western style Christmas to Rwanda. But I can’t take credit for what I experienced when I arrived in Rwanda. Christmas lights blanketed the town, Christmas trees in every home I visited and family gatherings happening around town. I spent Christmas day making cakes for the 40 visitors that came to Sheila’s house to celebrate Christmas. That is how you celebrate Christmas – spending too much time in the kitchen and taking naps because you are too full to do anything else.
Wow! 2019 was a very busy and challenging year! It is ending very similarly to the way it began…extremely busy and a bit unsettled! It started in the heat of the Nigerian election season. There was not much time after getting back from the US after Christmas to rest before jumping directly into Nigeria’s over the top election process. Less than a month after getting back to Abuja, over 60 foreign delegates arrived in Abuja to observe the elections, including two former heads of state and the former vice president of a West African nation!
Members of the International Election Observation Mission, including former President Festus Mogae of Botswana (center with walking stick), former President Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia (center) and former Vice President Fatoumata Tambajang of The Gambia.
For nearly five weeks, I only slept a few hours each night. The election process became even more complicated (and longer) when the election management body announced that the elections would be delayed by one week. I would like you to know that the announcement came at 2am the morning of the elections. There were people queuing at polling units unaware of the announcement. In Nigeria, delayed elections are a normal process as the two previous general elections were push back.
After the heat of the election subsided, we found ourselves preparing to leave Nigeria. Conversations with my headquarters started in April that we would leave Abuja. This process was complicated by the size and attention needed for the Nigeria program. Sentell also made a four day trip to the Minnesota to watch Auburn play in the Final Four! It was an awesome trip that included driving from Chicago to Minneapolis and getting very little sleep. Unfortunately, Auburn lost in the last second of the game to Virginia!
While Auburn didn’t win the game, I did get to see old friends in Madison, Wisconsin and Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In June we traveled to the US for Sentell’s work and spent a few additional weeks dealing with your typical appointments when you have been out of the US for several months. Sheila ended up spending three months in the US so I returned to the continent by myself.
In August, Sentell returned to the US to celebrate his 40th birthday! We spent the week hiking and exploring Aspen, Colorado! It’s hard to believe that He is 40. While He says he doesn’t feel as young as a 20 year old, he likes to think he is a 30 year old man…Sheila also celebrated her birthday in August. She marked the day with her friends in the US enjoying flowers and a Cheesecake Factory cheesecake I sent her to mark the occasion. I arranged the delivery all the way from Maputo, Mozambique.
Sheila celebrating her birthday with friends in New Jersey.
We have been trying to tone down our aggressive travel schedule but we love exploring the world. We started the 2019 in Istanbul, one of Sentell’s favorite cities. We booked an extended layover in Istanbul and spent three days exploring traditional markets and learning the history of the millennium old city. Sheila loved shopping in the Bazaar.
We spent Easter with family in Rwanda and traveled to Austria, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) for our third wedding anniversary. Croatia was amazing but BiH was like a tour through the Balkan past. We learned about the events that led to World War I, Yugoslovia and the most recent Balkan crisis. Most people we talked to have no clue where BiH is located! We also made multiple trips to the US, mostly for Sentell’s work. Sentell also went to Botswana and Mozambique for work.
In November, we finally departed Nigeria for our new home in Johannesburg South Africa. After nearly six years living in Abuja, it all ended as we packed up our house and headed out to the rainbow nation! Sadly, because of visa issues, we were unable to travel together. Sentell went to Johannesburg on November 13 and Sheila followed on December 1. She had to leave Nigeria to process her visa. South Africa’s relationship with other countries on this African continent is a difficult one, which creates significant challenges for getting a visa.
Since December 1, we have been trying to settle down in Johannesburg. We have been looking for housing, trying to find our way around this new city and sampling the rich and diverse culture of South Africa. We are already looking forward to our time here. Just a few weekends ago, we traveled to a game park about two hours outside of Johannesburg and spent the weekend relaxing and viewing the Big 5 (animals). We are already planning our next trip to one of the many game reserves that operate in South Africa. AND we found old friends in Johannesburg. David and his wife Diane are based in South Africa. We got to know them in Abuja and they became second parents to us. We are so happy to have them in South Africa!
Abuja in May (left) and in Pretoria in December (right).
We are looking forward to 2020 and delighted that there are still people praying for us, thinking about us and loving on us from afar. This transient world we live can be lonely sometimes, especially when moving to a new environments but we are happy to know that people are still following story as we travel through this world.
Christmas in Rwanda with family and friends…and even a few Nigerian friends who happen to be in Kigali for Christmas (The Igyuhs).
I don’t often travel back to Alabama to celebrate Thanksgivings. I remember going back to Alabama in 2003, 2004 and 2016 (work event that took place around Thanksgiving). However, I have always found myself surrounded by family and friends despite not going back to Alabama. After arriving on the African continent, I spent Thanksgiving 2013 in Rwanda, 2014 with friends in Nigeria, 2015 in Rwanda (I was planning to propose to my future wife), 2016 in Alabama (mentioned above), 2017 in United Kingdom with Sheila and 2018 in Paris with my parents, brother/sister-in-law and Sheila. Therefore, it was hard to come to the realization that after moving to South Africa, I would be spending Thanksgiving alone. Sheila was stuck in the United States trying to get a visa to South Africa (more on that story below) and I was busy traveling between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia. I tried to focus mostly on work on Thanksgiving Day because for South Africans, it was just another day in the office. However, social media did not allow that to happen. Each post was a picture of friends celebrating Thanksgiving with their loved ones. Everywhere I turned, more photos of friends frying a turkey, decorating a cake and eating delicious food. Social media was more than I could handle.
But on Friday, my I mood moved away from depression to shock because while South Africans were working hard while Americans were eating turkey on Thanksgiving Day, on this particular day, South Africans were participating in a similar fab that has consumed the world – BLACK FRIDAY. Yes, people were running to shopping malls all over South Africa to get a Black Friday deal. It was crazy. I was completely shocked that Black Friday had made it all the way to the southern tip of the African continent. I went to the mall just to experience the chaos and craziness of South Africans buying everything they could put their hands on. I am proud to say that I did not buy anything.
On Saturday, my mood went from shock to happiness as Sheila arrived from the United States. We were planning to depart Nigeria together but since she is a Rwandan citizen, she requires a visa to South Africa. Now, truth be told, she had a visa to the South Africa. She got it in the US in August. However, my organization delayed our departure until the end of October. We decided to apply for a visa at the South African High Commission in Abuja. This was probably our worst decision. We had been told that the South African High Commission could be nonresponsive and slow at processing visas. However, we assumed that since Sheila had an expired visa; it would be an easy process. Boy were we wrong. In the end, we decided to recall Sheila’s passport and send her to the US to apply for a visa. Instead of us traveling to South Africa together, we went our separate ways. So I was extremely delighted when she arrived in Johannesburg in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
On Sunday, my mood went from happiness to sheer amazement as Auburn pulled off an epic defeat of Alabama (Sorry to my Alabama fan friends)! I have been watching Auburn football since 1999 and as a diehard fan, I have watched many games where Auburn either stalls and unable to keep up in a high scoring affair or unable to mount a comeback. I have had a lot of sleepless nights watching Auburn football from the continent. I have been either too depressed to sleep after a 3am lost to a school that we should have beat or to excited after an epic win (AU vs. UGA 2013). It was amazing to watch Auburn go toe to toe with Alabama and use a few trick plays to win the football game. Now add in the success of Auburn basketball and now I get very little sleep between August and April.