By the end of March 2020 I was one of the last travellers who managed to leave Uganda as the world shut down and countries went into lockdown.
By Natalia Ojewska
Edit: Drew Hinshaw and Yaroslav Trofimov
GULU, Uganda, March 2020 – Half a million people made a mad dash home last month, boarding the last flights in panic-stricken airports as the world of global travel came to a sudden halt.
Then there was me, a citizen of Poland, stuck in Gulu, Uganda.
While the rest of the world shut borders and grounded airlines out of fear of coronavirus, I pursued my own, resolute plan of staying put in a sunbaked East African town that seemed far removed from the death and economic devastation wrecking Europe and the U.S.
Plan Natalia, however, quickly unraveled. My AirBnB host wanted me out, fearing that I would spread the foreign virus. Hotels were closing up. And, outside my window, officials were barking the orders announced night after night by Uganda’s authoritarian President Yoweri Museveni, orders for pedestrians and storeowners to obey an increasingly stringent set of restrictions that banned weddings, church services and gatherings.
Overnight, I turned into a one-person experiment of whether it was still possible, in a world of abruptly sealed frontiers, to make it from an AirBnB in a colonial-style house facing a church on the outskirts of South Gulu, near Uganda’s border with South Sudan, to my parents’ one-family home near Poland’s border with Germany.
“All shopkeepers must leave their stalls!” echoed the orders pumped through megaphones on the dirt roads just before dusk set in.
It was March 23, and known coronavirus cases worldwide still stood at a mere 300,000, a quarter of their present count. For days, over WhatsApp messages, family members and Wall Street Journal colleagues had been warning me that I better move fast, or accept being stranded thousands of miles from home for an indefinite number of months.
But not a single case of the virus had been identified in Uganda. The prospect of the pandemic reaching remote Gulu seemed surreal. In a nearby market, fruit and vegetable sellers, ordered to follow the president’s ever-growing list of restrictions, complained that none of this was really necessary.
And so I waited — until, of course, it was nearly too late. On March 21, Uganda’s government banned all passenger flights, effective March 26. I understood, I had to act, now. Staying in a country with closed hotels and a closed airport, and hardly any modern medical services, wouldn’t be reasonable.
Dialing the Dutch airline KLM, I tried to move up my return flight, booked for March 30. When the overwhelmed airline didn’t answer, I turned to a more personal route, texting a former cabinet minister in the Polish government. He had news — good and bad.
The good: Like other Western governments, Poland was evacuating its citizens on repatriation flights, a great re-entry for the Polish diaspora around the world.
The bad: There were not enough Polish people in East Africa to send a plane. Maybe if I could make it to Ethiopia?
Hopping on my laptop, I began a desperate hunt for a commercial flight. I was at the mercy of the byzantine system of flight booking websites that each claimed to offer the very best travel deals: Kayak, Orbitz, Travelocity, Expedia, their windows popping up one after the next with the same cheerful promises followed by unhappy results. None of them had a flight available except for one website, Kiwi, which offered a complicated and pricey journey home via Doha, two London airports and landing in Berlin. Book now, book, now, book now, Kiwi insisted. It was $960.
I booked. Twenty-four hours went by. I never got a ticket. The money left my account and returned, like a boomerang.
Now, this was desperate. Friends all over Europe began turning on VPNs and trying to buy me a flight, using shady IP addresses in different countries. Maybe that could work?
No, Europe was empty.
Enter the Wall Street Journal, namely its Poland-based reporter Drew Hinshaw and his longtime travel agent in South Africa, Daniela. Together, they hatched a plan, developed late into the night, each of them discussing my fate over glasses of red wine.
First, I would take a 12-hour bus over the course of a day to the Ugandan border with Tanzania. Uganda had banned foreigners from entering but it wasn’t clear if it would let us leave. Either way, I had a visa for Tanzania whose borders remained open. I could make my way there, rent a car and drive the small matter of nearly 2,000 kilometers across the breathtaking Tanzanian landscape to the main international airport in Dar es Salaam.
Then I would fly from Dar es Salaam to Stockholm whose government hadn’t shut down borders or economic life. From there, I could perhaps catch a ferry to Estonia, drive through the Estonian-Latvian border, the Latvian-Lithuanian border, then the Lithuanian-Polish border, then drive or take a train to my parents’ home near the Polish-German border. At each stop, I’d have to explain that I’d been in a country without a single case of coronavirus and posed no threat to the public.
And I’d have to do that within 48 hours before more flights shut down.
“You can do it!” Drew texted.
Plan Drew had a few failings. By the time it was developed, the Ugandan government clarified that foreigners were now banned from leaving over land borders. Or entering, or leaving, or entering, or leaving. Nicholas Bariyo, the Journal’s Kampala-based correspondent proposed a simpler solution: Why not go to the airport and figure it out?
All the while, my messenger filled up with texts from friends and family asking: Did I have enough money? Did that ticket ever pop up? Might I not want to try to escape through South Sudan? Where am I exactly?
I barely slept that night. I woke up at 5 a.m. like a soldier and started to automatically pack my belongings. I caught a 7 a.m. bus leaving Gulu for Uganda’s capital Kampala at the final second. To kill the hunger, I bought two cooked eggs from a local seller and immediately booked a night at a guesthouse located just 5 minutes drive from the country’s main airport in Entebbe. As I was wracking my brain to find an alternative solution, a message from Nicholas showed up on my phone.
The Dutch embassy was trying to organise emergency flights for its citizens, he had managed to establish, and maybe there would be a chance for me to get on one of those planes. He sent me a contact to one of the officials. She then connected me with her colleagues in charge of putting up a passenger list and, crucially, with Anna, a Polish photographer living in Kampala.
Apparently, there was another Polish citizen in Uganda trying to leave. Our power-in-numbers grew to exactly two. We agreed to share each other details on how to apply for the flights as we learned them.
These would be commercial flights, prices were yet to be determined and foreigners could sign up only through their embassies. A Dutch official added my name to the passenger list, but emphasised that there is no guarantee the flight would take place. Anna had an idea: In order to increase our chances, we contacted the Polish embassy in Nairobi. The consul replied to my email in less than 30 minutes. Three Polish people were trying to leave East Africa, and the Dutch had agreed to help Poland out.
When I arrived at my accommodation in Entebbe after an eight- hour journey, I was exhausted but optimistic. My new host welcomed me with pumpkin soup and told me that I am her last guest.
She had set up her tidy and clean 5-rooms compound a year ago. Since then, all of them were always booked. First cancellations started to flow in in the beginning of March. As the coronavirus started to spread over Europe, German tourists, soon followed by Spaniards and Italians, abandoned their Uganda safari plans.
“I used to think of myself as a strong person. But yesterday I went to the supermarket and saw that the price of sugar has increased,” said the 38-year-old mother of three children. “I lost my confidence. I don’t how I will make it.”
When I looked at her, I saw a skilled businesswoman who was truly scared.
Around noon on the following day, an email arrived from Poland’s embassy in Nairobi. Some seats might be available on a British Airways flight. I asked my London-based colleague Jason to give the airline a quick call. But their hotline was overwhelmed by thousands of customers stranded all over the world. He double checked the KLM’s website and found two available seats on a flight departing around midnight. But they didn’t appear when I searched from Uganda.
In the great logic of the airline industry, it was impossible to buy a flight leaving Uganda from Uganda.
Switching onto a British IP address through a VPN, I managed to buy a ticket. Anna advised me to drive to the airport as soon as possible. Crowds of desperate expats were stranded at the Entebbe, she said, just waiting to scoop up seats left unoccupied by those who will have arrived too late. As we were driving to the airport four hours ahead of my departure, President Museveni addressed the nation again. From the following day all the public transport would be banned. I realised I had left Gulu just in time.
As we approached the parking lot at Entebbe, I got the impression that I was witnessing a mass exodus from Uganda. Entire families who lived in Kampala permanently were leaving with their tables, paintings, guitars and plastic boxes full of personal belongings.
At the gate, waiting for the boarding to start, people cheered at the sound of an airplane engines slowly rolling towards the terminal. “Our happy day has arrived,” said a woman sitting next to me. Boarding began.
But a problem: Seemingly everybody except me had a sticker on their ticket. I approached a crew member to double check my ticket, stress flashing in her eyes. But then, she told me, to my surprise, that I’d purchased a business class seat.
“Board right now.”
Seating in the vast armchair, I reached for a phone, a selfie moment. But as I reached into my bag, I found company: a swarm of 3 millimeter ants who had followed me from Gulu and were now going home to my garden in Warsaw. They were like me, thrown onto a plane in a storm of chaos, the last travelers to leave Uganda.