Surprisingly, a YMCA career in Ontario communities was a pathway to volunteering in Africa.
Retirement has given me an opportunity to spend time on the ground, assisting the YMCA in more than 15 African countries as they serve their mission of Empowering Young People for the African Renaissance.
One week into my March 2020 tour of Africa, my trip was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I was in French-speaking Senegal, unplugged from the media and unaware of how rapidly things were changing back in Canada. It was unsettling to receive emails from family and friends indicating it was time to return home … NOW.
Once I decided to go, it couldn’t happen fast enough, making it hard to be patient during the 12-hour wait. Airports reveal the best and worst in people, so I was expecting the worst. However, my experience was very different. At times, while in the Dakar or Paris airports, I felt like I was on a movie set, with fewer travellers, quiet terminals and sombre people keeping their distance. With the majority of people wearing forms of protective gear, a palpable sense of fear was evident but not overt.
With few exceptions, travellers were overly respectful of others and were well served by the airport employees. Although there was a heightened level of attention, the pace of activity was actually slow and intentional.
My most concerning experience occurred in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal, when the airport desk attendant provided me with my boarding pass for the flight from Dakar to Paris while advising me that the Air Canada flight from Paris to Toronto had been cancelled. The most joyous part was seeing the Air Canada plane arrive at the Paris airport and knowing I would be back in Canada in 10 hours.
The three days between deciding to return home and getting home went by quite slowly, but not as slowly as the 14-day self-isolation that I experienced upon my return. However, I was happier working through the certainty of a quarantine in Canada than any other alternative.
There is no doubt that most people are in a rush to have our world return to the comfort of normalcy. I am, like everyone else, questioning what normal will look like next year or even a month from now. I knew my travels in Africa would change and enrich my perspective, but never could I have imagined how deeply it would alter my outlook.