In 2019, Madalitso Gombo, from Njolomole in Ntcheu, followed her husband who worked as a gardener in Johannesburg, South Africa. Little did the 20-year-old know she would soon return home to wait for the body of her beloved man.
The mother-of-two had hardly settled down in South Africa’s commercial hub when the man was involved in a road accident after knocking off from work on June 17 2019.
“He spent two months in hospital. After being discharged, he went for checkups once a fortnight. He couldn’t work anymore. Luckily, his boss kept supporting him financially,” she says.
Her husband was still unwell when the South African Government announced a lockdown to stop the raging coronavirus transmission on March 26.
The first southern African nation to diagnose a coronavirus case has confirmed 550 deaths from over 25 000 cases, the continent’s highest count. Malawi has confirmed four deaths from 279 cases as of yesterday.
Gombo was caught up in the region’s epicentre of the disease discovered in China last December.
The lockdown made life difficult for the mother-of-two who left her children, aged six and three, back in Malawi.
“I was scared that I was never going to see my children again. The worst came two weeks ago when my husband died in a foreign country amid a fast-spreading pandemic,” she narrates.
Gombo says her only relief is that she was there with him when he died.
She explains: “When he succumbed to the injuries, the South African government had relaxed the lockdown.
“This makes it possible to repatriate the body for burial back home. At that point, I just wanted to return home. Once I get home to Ntcheu, I will arrange for my husband’s body to come home. Nursing my sick husband amid the coronavirus outbreak in South Africa has been tricky for me.”
On Sunday, Gombo arrived home on one of the 17 buses repatriating 785 Malawians who were stuck in the lockdown in the land of their dreams.
She spent about R1 400 (about K63 000) that was left in her household on the trip.
The bus arrived at Mwanza Border last week, before being redirected to Kamuzu Stadium in Blantyre for coronavirus screening and isolation of confirmed cases for self-quarantine.
The global outbreak first detected in China has left the entire world in fear, with health systems overwhelmed, borders closed, economies crumbling, flights grounded.
Three of the returnees, all from Nkhotakota, endured a longer trip from Cape Town.
The trio was cleaning boats and doing piecework in construction sites in the coastal town at the southernmost tip of Africa.
However, they could not go out to work during the lockdown.
“My boss returned to the UK in March and he is stuck there. I haven’t earned a cent ever since, but I still had to pay rent and buy food,” says Kondwani Jaziel, 32.
The returnees were receiving food supplied by the South African Government, but they say it was not enough.
“Usually, South Africans would grab all the good food, leaving us with carrots, cabbages and bread,” says the 32-year-old who migrated from Malawi in 2013.
Jaziel says many Malawian migrant workers are enduring untold misery, but cannot return home because they cannot afford the trip worth about K100 000.
“We left Cape Town last Thursday. I didn’t have this money, so I requested my boss to come to my rescue. Thankfully, he did help,” he recounts.
‘I wont go back’
Mphatso Banda, 27, arrived in Cape Town in January, but still had no permanent job when the coronavirus spread in South Africa was confirmed in February.
“Since I got there five months ago, I was working two days a week. The lockdown made it tough for me to survive. When it’s over, I won’t go back. I’m safer doing piecework here,” he says.
Gabriel Umali, 25, is also relieved to return home, but sounds irked by immigration and health workers at Mwanza Border for allegedly prioritising returnees from Blantyre.
“Instead of assisting people going far, they hastened to allow our colleagues from Blantyre to go home using public transport after medical scrutiny,” he says.
The returnees with a long way to go slept in the buses at the border with just two public toilets—one for gentlemen and another for ladies.
The following day, the private buses dropped the returning migrants at the Kamuzu Stadium, from where some continued their journeys after being cleared by health workers on the frontline in the fight against the pandemic.
For them, a new battle has just begun as they have to deal with stigma and discrimination ramped up by eight confirmed cases that escaped from isolation rooms at Blantyre Emergency Treatment Unit.
Blantyre District director of health and social services Gift Kawalazira says security officers have launched a manhunt for the escapees.
As stigma rises, Gombo’s new chapter has just started. Back in Ntcheu, the widow is waiting for her husband’s body, not sure how she will cope without the man she married as a teenager.