Tag Archives: Cape Town

Coronavirus In South Africa: A Westporter’s View

In this all-COVID, all-the-time world, we hear stories from across the US, and places like China, Italy, Spain and the UK.

But the coronavirus is truly a global pandemic. Today, Michelle Wilson checks in from South Africa. She says:

I am writing to you from Cape Town, although I call Westport home. I spend most of the year overseas, and as the crisis came into focus in March, I contemplated where I would spend the pandemic.

Michelle Wilson in Westport …

It’s not like deciding where to go for the holidays. But South Africa is about 2 months behind the US on the epidemic curve. (We had only 5 deaths here when I was considering my choices.)

After consulting with wise mentors in both hemispheres, I decided to stay put in South Africa, and avoid the risk of exposure during travel and back in Westport at the very height of the outbreak.

In one sense, I was already stuck here. All commercial flights in or out of this country came to an abrupt halt on March 31.

Complicating the decision though was word from the US State Department. They planned to evacuate any American who wanted to get home.

… and with a friend in South Africa.

When I got the email, an irrational fear welled up in me. If my government is willing to evacuate me, shouldn’t I go? What do they know that I don’t?

After an unsettling 24 hours of debate, I decided not to take the flight. About 300 people would be leaving from Cape Town, on chartered Air Ethiopian Airlines planes.  They would fly to Swaziland to pick up other stranded Americans, then to Togo to refuel, and finally on to Dulles in Washington.

This would take 30 hours. No one would be tested for the virus before departing. They would be given a mask and gloves. However, there is no chance of social distancing on a plane.  Those plans were more unnerving to me than taking my chances here.

Three evacuation flights left South Africa by Friday, April 10, with 1,000 Americans on board. I am happy with my decision, as I am quite isolated in a low density farming area (the beautiful wine lands of Stellenbosch and Franchhoek).

The gorgeous wine region.

South Africa is in total lockdown. We are confined to our homes, allowed to shop only for groceries and medicine. We are not allowed to even walk the dog. Police can stop anyone, ask for ID and demand proof of your need to be out.

Another feature of the lockdown is that no alcohol or cigarettes are allowed to be sold. These undemocratic and highly restrictive measures have bought the country some time to flatten the curve (and encouraged a thriving black market in booze and cigarettes).

I spend time in South Africa because it is the most vibrant, crazy place full of contrasts, with abundant natural beauty. I have been involved with the preservation of endangered species in South Africa (terrestrial) and Mozambique (marine), an incredible life journey.

Camps Bay, beneath Lion’s Head, usually brims with tourists. During the pandemic, the streets are deserted.

Most people I meet here are fascinated with American culture. Television here provides all the American channels, including Netflix, so everyone is aware of cultural curiosities like the Tiger King series, Judge Judy and America’s Got Talent.

So while I am an ocean away from Westport, I am bombarded by popular American culture on a regular basis. That said, I have loved learning some Zulu, a language with no short words. The word for “blue,” for example, is oluhlazaokwesibhakabhaka (loosely translated as “the color that the sky is”).

Getting home to Westport is still a priority for me. Like everyone else, I await some good news that will allow me to make firm plans.

I send my best to all Westporters at home, or far flung like me. And thank you to “06880,” for giving us a small window into the lives of the people who call such a wonderful town home.

Cape Town, locked down.

Finding Miss Malbin

In July 2014, Hazel Malbin had just retired. She’d been a teacher for 35 years. The last 24 were in Westport. The 4th graders and their parents at Long Lots School loved her, and gave her a great sendoff. She was ready for the next stage of life.

Now, Hazel had time for things like Facebook. One Saturday morning she idly checked out a page for Greenfield Girls’ Primary School in Cape Town. She’d grown up in the South African city, and that’s where she started her teaching career.

Miss Malbin with her Grade 5 class, in 1975.

Miss Malbin with her Grade 5 class, in 1975.

One post caught her eye. “Does anyone know what happened to Miss Malbin?” asked Tanya Baron.

“Here I am!” she replied.

The response was immediate. Former Grade 5 students flooded the page with responses. Among the most intriguing was one from Tanya. A high school English teacher herself, she thanked her long-ago instructor for inspiring her life’s work.

Hazel and her husband had already planned their 1st big post-retirement trip. The following April, they’d head to South Africa. She’d never forgotten her native country. All during her Westport career, she’d included lessons about growing up with white privilege during apartheid. Her Long Lots retirement gift was a butterfly garden bench, with a quote from Nelson Mandela.

When she retired in 2014, Hazel Malbin was honored with a bench in Long Lots' butterfly garden. The plaque includes a quote from Nelson Mandela.

When she retired in 2014, Hazel Malbin was honored with a bench in Long Lots’ butterfly garden. The plaque includes a quote from Nelson Mandela.

On Facebook, she told her former students about her upcoming trip. That was all they needed to hear.

“One of my ‘little girls’ said they’d make a party for me,” Hazel says. So a few months ago, she headed home. She left a week before her husband, to immerse herself in memories.

The party was wonderful. More than 25 women came. Her former students were now in their 50s. One brought her mother. She’d been Hazel’s “room mother.”

Another flew in from 1000 miles away. She’s a teacher now, and a writer. She said, “I had to be here.”

Today, Hazel Malbin looks the same age as her former "girls." She's standing, 4th from left. The proteas are South Africa's national flower.

Today, Hazel Malbin looks the same age as her former “girls.” She’s standing, 4th from left. The proteas are South Africa’s national flower.

Hazel was just 21 when she started teaching. Looking back, she feels amazed.

“In Westport we have paraprofessionals, support services, help for everything,” she says. “In Cape Town I had 38 girls, all by myself. And this was a top school! I apologized to them if I had not given them everything they needed. They said they loved having me. We were all so young!”

The “girls” — who Hazel says now look indistinguishable from herself — shared stories of their year together. Some remembered lines from Shakespeare she’d recited. Others recalled her platform heels, and the perfume she’d worn.

“Their life stories were etched on their faces,” Hazel notes. “Yet I could still see the little 10-year-olds hidden in those sunny smiles.”

After the party, one woman insisted Hazel come to her house. She wanted her former teacher to meet her husband, children and mother.

“It was all so special to me,” Hazel says. “I’d just closed a chapter in Westport. Then I had this lovely party in South Africa. I never expected anything like that. It was so unplanned, meeting these girls from 1975. Now we’re friends on Facebook.”

One woman brought her Grade 5 report card to the party. Hazel says, "How simple it was!" She adds, "I am utterly embarrassed by the comments I wrote."

One woman brought her Grade 5 report card to the party. Hazel says, “How simple it was!” She is also “utterly embarrassed” at the comments she wrote.

Hazel calls teaching “an incredible journey. If you’re fortunate, you affect people’s lives for years to come. They, in turn, enrich you in so many ways. But to be transported literally fast forward across a continent, and be immersed in a gathering of your classroom 40 years earlier is surreal.”

Hazel says that Westport offered “such a rewarding career. I worked with brilliant colleagues, and made lifelong friends with parents as well. But even those relationships, and being nominated for Teacher of the Year, can’t compare with finding my original class. There’s nothing like being 21, straight out of Teachers’ College, armed only with a piece of chalk, a smile, enthusiasm, and the excitement of a classroom to call your own.”

Soon, Hazel heads back to South Africa. She’ll travel with her daughter — and see her “girls” again. When she returns, she’ll go back to her post-retirement life — which includes tutoring elementary and middle schoolers in reading and writing.

But none of the stories she uses with her current students can match the one she recently relived, with her oldest ones.

(Former student  Tanya Baron Matthews offered her perspective of the reunion on her own blog, “Making a Difference.” Click here for that story. Hat tip: Kerstin Rao)

Hazel Malbin, in a South African vineyard. She returns to her native country next week.

Hazel Malbin, in a South African vineyard. She returns to her native country next week.