Kirsten Johnson, who graduated from Belle Plaine High School in 2013, was about six months away from finishing her stint in Namibia with the United States Peace Corps, when the coronavirus began closing airports and international borders.
On Monday, March 16, Johnson was informed that her time in Namibia was going to be cut short, forcing her to pack just a fraction of the possessions she had accrued over a year and a half into her luggage and to give away about 75% of the rest. By that Wednesday, Johnson was held up in a hotel in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, with the 14 other Peace Corps volunteers who had to take a 14-hour overnight flight to get there.
In Windhoek, 130 Peace Corps volunteers stationed in southern Africa convened, unsure of how or if they were getting home. By Wednesday, March 18, borders around the world began closing, including Ethiopia, the group’s targeted destination. The closure forced Peace Corps leaders to charter a special plane out of the country, which finally took flight after a four-hour delay at the airport, Johnson said.
When the group landed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, they convened with a larger group of Peace Corps volunteers who needed to be placed on a larger chartered plane.
Johnson then flew to Ghana and then to Washington Dulles Airport, essentially nonstop. By Monday, March 23, just one week after finding out she needed to leave her teaching position in rural Namibia, Johnson was home in Le Sueur with her mother, Melissa, and stepfather, Kevin.
“The biggest thing for me is the fact that I didn’t get to say goodbye to my students,” Johnson said. “It was hard to process all of that. They’re going to come back, and I won’t be there. Who knows if they’ll be taught anymore this year because of that.”
While in Namibia, Johnson and her fellow volunteers agreed to adhere to the Peace Corps commandment which required them to consider themselves at work at all times. This attitudinal backdrop kept Johnson busy as she worked to integrate herself into Namibian society over the course of a year and a half. Johnson even got a cat she named Ngana, which means “intelligence” in Namibia’s siLozi language. With little more than a moment’s notice, Johnson was forced to uproot her life, without saying goodbye to many of her friends and colleagues. The jarring news also forced her to give Ngana to a friend. Landlords around the world were told that the Peace Corps will eventually pay their tenants' would-be rent, Johnson said.
After leaving her village, Johnson joined her fellow Peace Corps volunteers stationed in Namibia, a group that calls themselves a “Namily,” which combines the words Namibia and family. The group and other volunteers held a pinning ceremony, closing off their service terms, and without much time to reflect, Johnson’s time with the Peace Corps ended.
“It was a nice kind of all-volunteer get-together but just in really bad circumstances,” Johnson said.
Without so much as their temperatures being taken upon landing in the United States, the group of volunteers was told to self-quarantine at home, which Johnson has done since landing.
Johnson re-entered a United States placed on pause. Stores are empty; streets run scarce of vehicles; schools are closed. Johnson chooses to see the silver lining in the relative shutdown of society as she continues to adjust to life back at home.
If she would have returned home under normal circumstances, she likely would have been asked by friends and family to tell them about her travels. Coming home to a world on hold has allowed Johnson to decompress. Some may have asked her what her plans were in regards to her education. The fact that any grad school Johnson might like to apply to is either closed or has already accepted next year’s students means that Johnson has no reason to be in a rush. The same rule applies to getting a job, Johnson said.
Now, Johnson’s jetlag has worn off, and she’s getting as used to this new COVID life as anyone could get.
She hopes she’ll get a chance to communicate with her Namibian colleagues and maybe even her students sometime in the future. She maintains her confidence both in the systems in place in Namibia as well as in the Peace Corps, whom she said assisted her and others tremendously in the journey home.
When asked whether she would consider joining the Peace Corps again when her life under lockdown ceases, Johnson said it’s possible.
“I would maybe think about it more towards retirement age,” Johnson said.