URN Blog

How I Celebrated, Regretted the Lock-down

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By Cynthia Ruth Naggayi

Wednesday, March 18, 2020 started like any other day, a normal day with the usual hustle and bustle in Kampala. That afternoon I was in my room at hostel in Bugolobi, seated on my small chair watching a program on NTV known as Youth Livelihood. It was so interesting having five youths sharing their life experiences. A notification came in on the screen saying that President Yoweri Museveni was to address the nation at exactly 5pm about the measures for preventing the now deadly Coronavirus a pandemic that was spreading all over the world.

I eagerly waited for the speech as my friends knocked at my door asking to come in to watch the president’s address. The number grew to ten, all of us in this tiny single room decorated with dolls on the walls and on the bed. None of us knew at that time that it would take several weeks without us having such a gathering.

“I Love you Museveni…”

Taking water and pancakes, we sat and watched the address until the president noted that all schools and institutions in Uganda would get closed for 32 days. All of us in the room shouted at once, screaming and celebrating this new and unique announcement that felt like a favour at that moment.

One of us in the room yelled “I Love you Museveni, you will forever rule Uganda.” And we all had to back him up by repeating the sentences. On getting out, the happiness was not only in our room but all over the hostel. Checking the social media on our phones, it was like a big event that everyone was talking about it. The hostel custodian told us to prepare ourselves to go back home and in the next morning, off we went to our different destinations.

The “unknown” virus

As I headed out of the hostel gates, it didn’t make sense that schools would be shut down because of an outbreak of a virus far away. Also known as COVID-19, the virus was first diagnosed in Wuhan city in China, late last year. On March 18, the day the president gave us what initially was a month-long “holiday”, the number of reported cases all world over stood  at 191,127 with 7807 fatalities.

The whole of Africa had recorded 345 cases, seven of whom were fatal. In East Africa, Rwanda had recorded seven cases. Kenya and Tanzania had three and one cases respectively. No single case had been recorded in Uganda, Burundi and South Sudan. I wish I knew what was to follow!

At home in Maganjo along the Kampala-Gulu highway, my eight siblings joyfully hug me even forgetting the measures for preventing COVID-19.  They give me what to eat while asking a lot of questions, showing me the daily programme that dad and mum had drafted to bridge the school gap and it was well printed, pinned on the home notice board.

Normal week, family congregation

In the first week of the lock down, everything is normative with four meals a day. Breakfast, lunch, evening tea and dinner. My siblings wake up at 6am and go for morning fitness exercises for one hour, freshen up and do domestic work. By 8am they are in the reading room. Every after a meal, books on the table.

The house rules are clear. No watching TV, no playing during day, no resting except on Saturday.  On Sunday, mum, the maid and I wake up, prepare meals and then the whole family prepares to go into a service excitedly at exactly 10am. A choir of three people, three leaders of the service and the rest of us congregate. In the evening we go for netball in the compound and take it on up to around 10pm. This programme functions for two weeks having faith that this lockdown will take a short period.

Case zero, quiet Easter

It is March 22, 2020. Four days into President Museveni’s lockdown measures and Uganda has recorded her first case of COVID-19. The victim is a male in his 30s who recently returned from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Things move very fast thereafter, as more cases are reported. We enter into the Easter season still unsure of when the lockdown will be lifted. The quietest Easter, ever! No going to church, no going out as a family. By this time, the number of COVID-19 cases in Uganda has risen to 54! Luckily for Uganda, no deaths.

21 more days of lockdown, rules relaxed at home

Things at home begin to change on Tuesday, April 14. Why? President Museveni has appeared on TV in what has now become routine and his message is clear: we shall have 21 more days under lockdown! “These 54 cases might not be the only ones… Let’s wait for another 21 days to see if someone got the virus and they are the asymptomatic type. When you want to hear whether there is any problem you keep quiet, if there is anything it will come out,” Museveni said.

At home Dad stops being strict on us following the daily programme. My siblings start complaining that they cannot read because they are hungry.

To me it feels like “this is hell now”. From four meals, we are now back to two a day. How shall we go through the next 21 days? There’s more sleep now during the day. Boredom has set in. I can’t even tell what day of the week it is. Dad advises us to start praying like never before.  

Life at home slows down. Sleeping time changes and Mum and Dad have nothing to do but only to keep quiet and wait for the president’s changes in the directives he had passed earlier on. I have even lost count of the number times the president has appeared on TV to talk about Coronavirus, always repeating the messages and guidelines he gave the previous week.

Boxes ripped open

It is now clear we will be home for three more weeks. But we are running out of basic necessities. It’s time to pull out our small ‘piggy bank’ boxes. I pull out mine and rip it open. I start counting the money, one coin at a time. Enough to afford us a meal for a couple of days as we figure out how to move out to the gardens that are 14 kilometres away in Gayaza to get food and transport it back to Maganjo. Remember, the lockdown took away both public and private transport means.

Bread and sugar are off the breakfast menu. We can hardly get airtime to call our friends and relatives.  It’s difficult life. What do I do, I ask myself? Dad and Mum start reminding us to eat little food. Three bananas per plate, they tell us.

The calls

One Friday afternoon I place a call to one of my supervisors at Uganda Radio Network (URN). I did Internship training at URN a year ago. I had stayed in the newsroom after the training as a freelance writer, on and off, as I had to attend lectures at school. But the lockdown had hampered my ability to move out of home. I’m literally under confinement at home. I ask myself whether I even still have the opportunity to be at URN, given the difficult circumstances. One of my supervisors picks the call. He’s courteous but tells me to hold on until the lockdown is lifted.

A day later, however, I receive a message from URN. I should get ready, on Monday I will be picked by the company van. I’m resuming work. I jump up from the seat, start dancing and praising the lord. It feels like a miracle at the moment because I did not expect it. I go upstairs and approach my dad with a big smile telling him the good news. He seconds the idea. On Monday morning, I get out of home like I have been set free from a lengthy prison term. I can hardly stop thanking God. I now have what to look up to every morning. The newsroom, editorial meeting, pitching, reporting and writing!

Mum, meanwhile, has moved from being an accountant to being a food vendor. Life is hard but we thank the lord.

And we are into the third day of another 14 days of lockdown. Forget about the 21 days which ended on May 5. What more? Fifty days of lockdown (and still counting). Thirteen presidential addresses on COVID-19. Over 100 COVID-19 cases in Uganda, 55 of who have since recovered. In Kenya the recorded cases have hit 600. Rwanda has 271 cases while Tanzania has recorded 480 cases. South Sudan and Burundi have recorded 74 and 15 cases respectively.

Globally, the number of recorded cases has reached over 3.8 million people. Of these 270,118 have died.  

Looking back to Wednesday, March 18, 2020, I didn’t know the ‘holiday’ would reach this far. In hindsight, I was naïve to celebrate the closure of schools.

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