Stranded abroad: Rwandan pastor’s ordeal amid COVID-19 outbreak

The pastor and his wife found themselves stranded at the airport,/ Courtesy photo

At a time when everyone was escaping the ravaging coronavirus, Dr Simon Pierre Rwaramba, a pastor at the Church of the Nazarene International, found himself stranded at an airport in Arkansas, a US state.

With his wife, they were among thousands of other travellers abroad scrambling to get home before travel bans went into effect. It was mid-March and the coronavirus was at the height of its spread.


The pastor had embarked on an evangelical trip abroad earlier in February that was cut short because of the virus. They were to come home in April but when he heard that Rwanda was about to halt its passenger flights, he knew they had to return immediately.



The pastor and his wife had embarked on an evangelical trip abroad earlier in February. They later found themselves stranded at airports, flights cancelled, due to coronavirus outbreak. Courtesy photo

They had their belongings packed very fast and were now at the airport hoping to get home safe, but the shock of the situation had spread to lounges and terminals at the airport, there was a lot of panic as everyone rushed to board special flights heading back home—fleeing the unrest caused by the virus.

For Rwaramba and others who were stranded, however, time seemed to move very fast yet slow, and for a moment, everything seemed like a blur. They had not seen this coming.

In a spun of hours, airports were apparently shutting down and flights were being cancelled. It was a whirlwind of confusion and fear.

Everything seemed so uncertain. The strangeness of a foreign country and the danger in their exposure to the virus didn’t make things any easier, especially at a time when no one knew how bad it was going to get or how long it was even going to take.

Were they ever going to get home?

At this point, the couple had bought more than four tickets, all of which were cancelled.

“It was really crazy, we would buy a ticket and after a few hours they would cancel it. We would then buy a different one and they cancel the flight, till now they haven’t refunded,” Rwaramba narrates.

Things were getting tough but they had a family and a church ministry to attend to, and by whatever means, they had to come home, the pastor says. With a lot of exhaustion and desperation they rummaged through the airport back and forth.

All of this was happening when they were still in Arkansas. They later somehow managed to get a ticket with South African Airways and were scheduled to go through Washington DC, fly to Accra-Ghana and eventually back to Rwanda.

But when they arrived in Washington DC, they were told that Ghana had banned transit flights from landing in their country. And just like that, their hope vanished along with their money and it was a maze all over again.

Their only option was to go back to Arkansas City and stay in the US.

“But this was risky, we were concerned with what would happened if we got sick. We didn’t have any health insurance and in the US it is not easy to access medical services without insurance, we could die, so we said we have to go back,” Rwaramba recounts.

But just when they were about to turn into total despair, a young man approached them and offered to help them.

Many travellers had to ‘race’ home amid worldwide border closures and flight warnings. Net  photo

‘Muraho’ (hello) he greeted them. The young man was a Rwandan who had recognised his own. “He worked at the airport and was indeed an angel who was sent by God to rescue us,” the pastor says.

“We were really happy, he took our luggage and we ran with him as he led us to the Turkish Airlines’ office. He helped us secure a ticket that helped us get back home.”

On 21st March, they landed safely back home. Rwaramba says their flight was the last one to land as the country enforced a complete lockdown for all arriving and departing commercial passenger flights.

Lessons learned

Dr Rwaramba says he has learnt so much with what he experienced, noting that what became clear to him is that life can change at any time.

“I have learnt that things can change any time, and also, every human being is vulnerable, what we need as humans is to be humble and flexible when changes come,” he says.

“The other thing is discipline, we had to keep ourselves safe right from our flight to many more days after we got home. It wasn’t easy because no one was allowed to come in contact with us, we couldn’t even see our grandchild, it was hard but we had to do it.”

He observes that some circumstances come when you least expect them, noting that people need to understand that they sometimes have to depend on others, “implying that we need each other. I have learnt to think more about other people when things are not going well.”

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