DAR ES SALAAM, TANZANIA - “Yes, you can return to Kenya.” That’s what the Immigration officer said at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi after I checked in for a flight to Tanzania. With civil servant’s precision, he dropped the stamp in my passport and handed it back to me.
“Safe journey sir,” he said with a smile.
This was one of those journeys on which you are not sure how it’s going to unfold. As a journalist, such a state is often normal, but this time with the coronavirus it was different. Although strong, it was just a feeling and I left it for what it was.
So I took a trip, first meeting friends in Mwanza on Lake Victoria. The flight from Nairobi was routed via Kilimanjaro Airport and once at cruise altitude, it struck me that I was one of very few passengers on the plane.
It was almost empty, with the cabin crew walking up and down aimlessly. One hostess who sat next to me said she had worked for this airline for many years but had never experienced an empty cabin like this.
She didn’t confirm it had anything to do with the coronavirus, but the sight of the empty seats aligning with the rows of windows left me on the brink of vertigo. I was reassured that my next flight from Kilimanjaro to Mwanza was fully booked, so I concluded that the problem was not the coronavirus.
My next stop after a few days in Mwanza was Dar es Salaam to meet friends who are managing the Mikadi Beach Camp on the southern coast of the city, in an area called Kigamboni.
I hadn’t seen them for years so that was great. But while waiting for the flight from Mwanza to Dar es Salaam, I learned that Tanzania had reported its first case of COVID-19, and that neighboring countries had closed their borders.
Recalling the reassurance of the immigration officer in Nairobi, I went to the Kenyan embassy in Dar es Salaam for confirmation. “Sorry sir,” said both embassy workers from behind their glass enclosures. “You can’t go back to Kenya.”
This was one of those situations where you hear a voice echoing, “What did she say?”
Her colleague, a potbellied Kenyan, brought me outside to a polite notice that was stuck to the wall with tape. It said that foreigners coming from countries with the coronavirus could not travel into Kenya until further notice.
There I was, stuck in a foreign country with only a few clothes, while my girlfriend remained at my house in Kenya.
My next stop was Mikadi Beach Camp to meet my friends, and technically to request asylum as a coronavirus refugee -- a “covigee” as my brother Francis called it on WhatsApp.
My friends, Jesse and Sophia, gladly offered to take me into their community. This was not difficult as hardly any tourists were coming since the onset of the pandemic.
The apartments, the bandas, the bunk beds, all were empty. The pillows and bed sheets were untouched. Jesse and Sophia soon decided to close the beach lodge and remain with a skeleton consignment of staff. So we had the whole lodge and the beach for ourselves, together with friends.
My new home was a banda built on the beach, with the endless coming and going of the waves and the smell of seawater. There are coconut palms, white sand and a blue sky above the azure Indian Ocean.
Jesse and Sophia are great hosts. The first day, we went to a nearby island which they had procured to start a new resort. They were planning to turn it into a coronavirus-free sanctuary. They cooked a barbecue with prawns, crab and lobster and we were laughing. If paradise ever existed, it must have been something like this.
The next day came the reality: What was I going to do? I had existing work to finish, but with the coronavirus spreading in Tanzania, the prospects for future jobs were limited. I applied for foreign press accreditation to be able to work as a reporter In Tanzania. That was weeks ago, and there still has been no reply from the authorities.
It’s an interesting feeling to be stuck in paradise, but that’s how it is. On the laptop, I am developing new business by asking around in my network. I am offering online production, editing, and other work that I can perform with my skills as a video journalist.
All in all, it’s not so bad, waking up every day to the sound of the waves and the ocean breeze. I even started swimming again as a workout. It has been six weeks now, and in that time, I have never worn trousers or shoes. There is something good in that.
But … My girlfriend Emily is alone in the house we built together in Nairobi. This is far from ideal during a pandemic that could hit us personally.
“We’ll get through this,’ she said, strong as always, and it’s true. But we don’t know when we will see one another again. We keep close with WhatsApp chats and Skype calls, and that’s good and tenable for now.
We don’t know what will happen next, and I continue searching for work from the beach. Looking forward, it might end with me going back to Kenya after the pandemic, or with Emily coming to Tanzania for a long and well-deserved holiday in paradise.
And for me? It’s just cool like this, and as long I can find work, I’m content to remain in this Garden of Eden. Life is what you make it.