My grandmother, Alta Barge Shenk, is buried in Shirati, Tanzania. She died in a plane crash on the Ngong Hills in Kenya in 1969. My older sister, Dianne, was born in Shirati Hospital in 1964. These are a few of my personal connections to the place.
These days Shirati is known for its hospital started in 1953 by Mennonite missionaries with the Tanzania Mennonite Church. The same one where my sister, pictured above in the white dress with our grandmother, was born.
Dorothy Atieno Ochieng Kawira is a palliative care nurse at the Shirati Hospital. Every other year, she travels to the US to speak at fundraising events to raise money for the hospital. She traveled for one such tour this year, and got stuck for five weeks in Chicago when parts of the US shut down over COVID-19.
Flights and travel plans changed, but she was finally able to book a ticket back to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Via Ethiopian Airlines with a layover in Addis. She left on April 12. Tanzania suspended all international flights and closed its borders on April 12. No one told her that when she got on the plane in Newark.
Everyone who crosses a border into Ethiopia is immediately put into quarantine–at a government hotel at their own expense–for two weeks. Even though she was en route to her home country, because the border was closed, the airline couldn’t honor her ticket. Upon arrival in Addis, she was taken into quarantine. And the International Mennonite Network went into action. The MCC Representative for Tanzania found out about Dorothy’s plight and contacted me to see if there was anything that could be done on the ground in Ethiopia.
A swanky hotel back in the 1950’s, the Ghion is now a huge “faded glory” sort of place set in the heart of Addis on 30 acres of gardens. You can almost see Haile Selasie strolling through the grounds with one of his pet lions. The Ghion Hotel “quarantine package” was $80 per day–full board and a health check. After the requisite 14 days of quarantine, the health department comes to give you the COVID-19 nasal swab test, and sends it to a lab. When the results come, you are either taken to a government treatment center, or released with a certificate of health.
So after 14 days of quarantine, they came to give Dorothy her test. It took most of a week for her results, and she was cleared to leave.
After almost three weeks at $80/day, even with negotiations and with generous donations from Dorothy’s family and friends and the Shirati hospital, she still had a hefty bill. That’s where the Tanzanian Embassy came in. Dorothy and I had both been in contact with the Tanzanian Consular from the beginning, and wonder of miracles, he had arranged with the hotel that the Government of Tanzania would settle the remainder of the bill.
So last Saturday morning Bruce and I went to the Ghion to pick up Dorothy. In another gesture of generosity and hospitality, the Meserete Kristos Church (the Mennonite Church in Ethiopia) had offered Dorothy lodging at the theological college about an hour south of town. She could stay there as a guest of the college until the Tanzanian border reopened and she could get back home. Everything was working out perfectly for Dorothy’s release! There she was, certificate in hand, luggage in the lobby, an open door of Ethiopian Mennonite hospitality ready to receive her.
But she couldn’t leave yet. There was some sort of misunderstanding between the hotel and the embassy. They needed a letter of guarantee from the embassy that it would, indeed, cover the bill before they could release Dorothy. They allowed Bruce and me to take her in person, masked and with a signed invoice, to the embassy to get the letter and bring it back to the hotel.
Letter in hand, we return to the hotel. After three weeks, the staff at the hotel were almost like family to Dorothy. The hotel manager invited us to a farewell coffee. We sat in the empty lounge, six feet away from each other, sharing the ancient drink and commiserating about the times we were living through. Then we walked right out the door!
It didn’t *look* like the world was pivoting from normal to something else we don’t know yet as we drove the beautiful hour to Debre Zeit. The short rains had come and the fields were emerald, the color as breathtaking as the first wash of grass spreading over the hills after winter.
Dorothy and I discovered that we are sisters of sorts. We were born a year apart–1968 and 1969, and were both babies at the Tanzania Theological College in Nyabange/Bukiroba. Her father was my father’s student. She was named after Dorothy Smoker, someone I knew as one of the older missionary ladies on the compound who had tea together in the afternoons.
Dorothy’s father-in-law, Nashon Kewira, was one of the early Tanzanian church leaders and studied under my grandfather, Clyde Shenk, in the 1960s.
Fifty years later, COVID-19 intertwined our paths again. We left Dorothy at the guest house in the Theological College in Debre Zeit. There were five international students from Kenya who were also stranded there after the border to Kenya closed. They are finishing up their studies and are alone on the campus as the Ethiopian students have returned home. Dorothy has a lovely apartment, a well-stocked library, and friends who speak the same language. Still far away from her home, her husband and children and her work, she is content.
Now she waits, like the rest of the world, for the virus to recede, the borders to open, and life to shift into a new way of being.
Thank you to the Meserete Kristos Church, the MK College, and the MCC office in Addis for finding a place for Dorothy, a temporary COVID-19 refugee in Ethiopia!