/ 20 April 2020

African students stuck in limbo

Wits Dismisses Two Staff Members For Sexual Harassment
University of the Witwatersrand

From forced evictions to lack of food and xenophobic hostilities, African students studying overseas or in other countries on the continent continue to face difficulties during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In Guangzhou, China, at least half a dozen international students experienced stigmatisation amid racial tensions, while those in Burkina Faso have demanded better meals and health facilities. 

Everything happened so fast. Authorities struggled to understand how Covid-19 pandemic spreads and changing information about the virus’s behaviour resulted in confusion on how to respond. In many cases, this left international students in limbo.

Universities around the world had to close in compliance with emergency regulations. In South Africa, some students were asked to vacate residences within 72 hours. This provoked bewilderment and paranoia among the student population. 

“Within this short period of time, students had to pack their things, book transports and flights back home. It was difficult and it put an additional pressure on us as resident managers to implement,” said Nazime Randera, the general manager at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Wits Junction Residence. 

Academic programmes have been greatly affected and students face worse predicaments. 

“This is something nobody planned for and it’s taking a toll on everyone irrespective of where they are,” said Stephen Kafeero, a Ugandan student studying at Wits university.

For Kafeero, going home would have been the preferred option. “Living away from home right now is very challenging. I wanted to return, but the border was closed before I could complete my travel arrangements.” 

Universities had to devise measures to accommodate students who could not go home. Randera said that before Covid-19, 63 international students lived at Wits Junction (of a total of 1 193 students). Now 20 international students remain, with nowhere else to go. 

International students are concerned about shortages of food and medical care and difficulties with doing academic work. “Previously, I knew that I had a lecture. I have to wake up early and know that I have an assignment and things like that. But now, I have to drive myself and sometimes I’m just stocked in my room; it’s not easy,” said Gabrielle Kwambana, an honours student studying geological sciences at Wits University. 

A similar view is echoed by a second-year law student from Zimbabwe studying at Unisa, who prefers not to be named. “I miss home at moments like these. Most of us haven’t gone to our countries and at times like these it’s important to share your fears close to family because the ‘what if’ something happens to me will be knocking in.” 

News of infection rates and death tolls in their home countries compounds students’ fears. Worried families back home bombard students with regular calls. “Sometimes the calls become annoying and I feel like turning off my phone. I think I am fine here and worry about my people back home, but they tend to worry more about me. It gets confusing,” said Kafeero. 

Kwambana said that when the pandemic started, her mother would call regularly. “She will say to me that people are dying and bombards me with figures of increasing cases and asking me not to move too much and to stay safe. It all made me worried.”

For Kwambana, there came a moment when the Covid-19 fight got personal. “When I heard news of the UK prime minister contracting the virus. I was seriously worried about my dad, who lives in London. I was praying that he doesn’t get the virus. On the other side, he worries about me so much.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s extension of the 21-day nationwide lockdown by an additional two weeks until April 30, was a blow for students like Kwambana. “I was looking forward to the lockdown being over and all of a sudden an additional two weeks was announced. It crushed my spirit.” 

For her, this lockdown has been more than just missing university. “I escape from this boredom of lockdown whenever I feel like it’s too much by calling my father and friends. Socialising is a lot harder now and when you don’t have much to do, you keep repeating the same things over and over again.” 

Wits University has instituted online classes. “It is hard being alone, but working from the comfort of your room without having to worry about classes makes it easy. My job is to try to study and be a good citizen,” said Kafeero.

Abdul S Brima is a media fellow of Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Stiftung