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A Lockdown Away From Home

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Shamirah Matovu

If it was court, I would say I was sentenced on the 25 March 2020 but since it’s a lockdown related to the outbreak of Coronavirus, then I shall say misfortune befell me. Or perhaps it was the work of the devil since all misfortune is always attached to him.

It was a quiet Wednesday evening with only three colleagues seated at their desks in the newsroom, trying to pursue their stories before close of business. I was waiting for my friend to finish work and pick me up because I wasn’t feeling well that evening.

Long wait, long speech

Throughout the day, Ugandans on Twitter (UOT) had been discussing their expectations in the President’s speech on the measures being taken to curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by Coronavirus. President Yoweri Museveni had shared a tweet on his account informing the nation of his address that was to be broadcast at 8pm.

Some tweeps were claiming he was to ban payment of rent, water and electricity bills; others were sending in provocative responses, urging him to keep time while others were anticipating a ban on public transport and many other expectations that were generating heated arguments on the blue bird micro-blogging site.

Ticktack, ticktack, and then boom, it was the long awaited 8pm. At the moment, I got gripped by fear and anxiety, not because of the speech, but rather of the politest way I could request my colleagues to turn on the newsroom TV as some were glued to their desktops and the others on their phones.

Being a fresh freelance writer who had just been officially introduced to the URN team a few days back, I was still in the process of blending in, studying the environment and the behaviour of my colleagues to know how best I could work with them. I couldn’t just turn on the TV, the fact that I wasn’t even well conversant on how it operates, my guardian angel kept whispering “what if you damage it, what will you do? Wait for someone else to turn it on”

Ten minutes later, everyone was still busy without moving an inch from their desks. I decided to be the strong woman I always tag myself to be. Pretending to have forgotten the time of commencement of the address, I stood up asked, “What time is the Presidential address starting?” Immediately, a colleague jumped off his seat and exclaimed: “Oh! I’m sure it has already started.” He reachedthe remote to turn on the television set.

Due to his usual procedure of giving a recap of his past speeches, of course nothing was missed. We immediately caught up with him. Towards the end of the speech, President Museveni stamped our anticipation with a ban on public transport, a directive that wasn’t affecting me in any way. Or so I thought. The “rich” friend could provide me free private transport services.

Running into exile

I was staying home with my mother until one fateful Tuesday when I hit the markets to file a story on the implementation of the presidential guidelines of washing hands and sanitising.

Having been in contact with many people that day, I was sceptical about my health, “corona fears” hit me hard. I started feeling a mild fever and a headache. Naively, my thoughts were all zeroing on suspicions of having contracted the terrible COVID-19.

Thinking about my mum who I had convinced to stop work at her stall in Nakawa Market due to her asthmatic and other respiratory conditions, I decided to keep away from home. I requested a friend to house me for a few days as I watch my health.

Dealing with COVID fears

Wednesday morning, a day after the presidential speech and my market story activities, I almost called the Ministry of Health officials to pick me. I had a cold, on top of the headache and fever I had felt the previous. I was so convinced I had contracted the virus. I called one of the editors requesting him to allow me keep out of office until I recovered from the cold. I had hopes of resuming work in a few days since I had access to private transport means.

My friend was convinced it was a normal cold and perhaps COVID fears. She got me breakfast and tablets, then set off to work, leaving me to deal with the “Rona” fears on my own. Covered in fear, I started contemplating on whether I should call the Ministry. Crazy thoughts were running through my head, of how I and my friend shall be quarantined somewhere I wasn’t sure of.

That day, the only journeys I travelled were within the bedroom, sitting room, kitchen, washroom and back. The “corona” news running on almost every TV station made it worse, 400 deaths in Italy, 300 in Spain, I started thinking I was going soon. My Google search engine was full of COVID, “symptoms of COVID-19”, “How to treat COVID-19 from home”, “Does COVID-19 have a cure?” and many others.

Out of exhaustion from COVID information, I decided to tune to only cartoon channels, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Toonami for the rest of the day to relax my mind.

As days went by, I managed to treat the cold and my COVID-19 fears were defeated. I had planned to resume work on Tuesday the following week after the next Presidential address on Monday.

Under lockdown

The Presidential address on Monday, 30 March 2020, found me glued on TV waiting to watch the “new live at 8 news anchor” as President Museveni was nicknamed after his addresses that are always held at 8pm. As usual, he gave a recap of the past speeches and then boom, a ban on private transport that had to take effect at 10:00pm that very night.

By the time he was done with his “35 measures”, both public and private transport was under lockdown, arcades and shopping malls were closed, boda boda cyclists could not carry passengers and market women were to sleep in the market. “Market vendors are not to go back home for 21 days,” he ordered.

This was the end of my plans of resuming work, and the beginning of the real lockdown.

The next day, I was awoken at 6:30 by my alarm that I forgot to turn off after my failed plans of resuming work.  I picked my phone and straight away went on my Twitter account that by then had only 312 followers after 2 years. My new resolution was to build my Twitter following from 312 to 1000 followers by the end of the lockdown. I didn’t succeed but at least made it to 600.

Quiet Easter

Easter was two weeks away. For the first time, I wasn’t excited about the Easter holidays. I was already in forced holidays anyway, nothing special was to happen. I couldn’t even enjoy it with family. We even had Rolex for lunch. we were financially down to afford a fancy Easter meal.

The depressing call

One morning, I was seated on the couch when I received a depressing call from Mum telling me how she was almost out of food and she had no money to buy more. I had only 20,000 Uganda shillings on me, an amount that couldn’t even feed Mum, the maid and my cousin for a week. Yet we were at this moment skeptical on when the lockdown was to end.

Having a sickly mother, with hypertension being one of the toughest diseases we are dealing with, I couldn’t dent her hopes in me. I just had to promise I was to send her money soon to calm her stress.

Well, I managed to put her soul at peace at the expense of my joy. My head started spinning, blood boiling, all sweating. What do you think was the problem? Where was I to get at least 50,000 shillings for them to buy some maize flour, salt, and beans to take them through the extended lockdown.  Shortly after Easter, as I prepared to resume work at the end of the lockdown, the president had extended the “stay home” for 21 days. At the moment sugar, cooking oil, and other food spices were a luxury, after all cooking oil is not good for a hypertensive patient. Those were my consolation thoughts anyways.

My lockdown savior

Have you ever had of the term miracle money? If you have never then, my dear, start to believe in it before you even get to know of its meaning…

The next morning, I was in the kitchen preparing porridge which I had planned to take me through the day. I had to save the 20,000 as I searched for more to top up and save my family. I was planning to have my cup of porridge, sit in the living room and start texting and calling all my friends in my contact list following the alphabetical order.

Tululu tulu tulu tulu”, sounded the tone of my phone. Not expecting anything interesting, I first finished filling my cup with porridge, picked the phone and headed for the living room to sit comfortably, eat my porridge as I check the messages I had missed.

Opening my WhatsApp, my eyes went straight to my only pinned chat and that’s my boyfriend. “Mama, I have sent you some……”  It’s what my eyes saw first before opening the chat. My blood started flowing at a dam speed, I swiftly tapped the chat to read and to be sure of what exactly he had sent.

“Mama, I have sent you some 720k to take you through April and May. Jusufi will be forwarding you the money in a few minutes.”

This was too good to be true. I was too financially down to believe any money promises at the moment. Anyway, I had to be polite and respond to the message of course with just a “thanks my dear”.

Five minutes later, the miracle money message was already on my screen, I almost dropped my phone on reading the message. Now I had to send in the vigorous appreciation message. I couldn’t thank him enough.  I felt like I was pardoned from a death sentence.

Immediately, I sent mum 200,000 thousand shillings and fled to the supermarket to buy chicken drumsticks for lunch to compensate for the porridge and Rolex I had for lunch and dinner on Easter Sunday.

Breaking loose

Almost two weeks into the second lockdown, I was fed-up of keeping home. I had made almost a month at home and everything had become routine and boring. No outdoor exercises, tired of movies, disgusted by COVID news allover mainstream and social media platforms. I thought of a plan of breaking me out of lockdown. 

It was a Friday morning. I woke up with my mind focusing on executing my “prison break” plan. I picked my phone and called one of our editors. I convinced him on how I had some burning story ideas I wanted to execute. By the end of the conversation, we had come to an agreement and he was to send me a contact of the person who would pick me from home.

Throughout the weekend, I waited for the promised contact but all in vain. Monday morning came by and still nothing had fallen in place. I was afraid of sending in a reminder; my head was convinced that perhaps he promised just to put my heart at peace.

All hopes lost, I pulled out our clothes from the laundry basket, sorted them and soaked the white ones in a mixed detergent to wash them the next morning. I was now at peace with my fate, I had to embrace the lockdown and move on.

Thirty minutes after soaking, the prison keys were thrown to me. It was the promised contact message from my editor. He told me to call the number and make an appointment for the next morning. I called immediately and confirmed the programme, rushed to the bedroom and started organising my attire for the next morning.

That night, I couldn’t sleep peacefully but I wasn’t bothered after all I had slept for a whole month. All my thoughts were on catching the vehicle at 7:30 am. At exactly 7:18 am, I was already at Ubuntu Palace Hotel, in Lugala, where we had agreed to meet. I travelled quietly throughout the journey to office battling with myself to let the excitement of breaking free from the lockdown to sink in and regain my senses before reaching office.

At last, I was free!

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