Tag Archives: South Africa

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.

Arete: The Post Road/Madagascar Connection

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries on earth.

The main economic resources of the beautiful Indian Ocean island, 250 miles off the coast of Africa, are tourism, agriculture, textiles and mining.

Textiles are the most important when it comes to creating much needed jobs quickly. That’s Eugene Havemann’s business. And — from his new base in Westport — the South Africa native is doing all he can to give the nation a boost.

Eugene Havemann inside Arete, his new store at 123 Post Road East.

Years ago at university in Pietermaritzburg, Havemann made money by selling t-shirts on campus. That led to a career in the garment industry. He started a company, and has helped build one of the largest factories in Madagascar.

Three years ago, he focused on the US market. As that business grew, he realized he needed a physical presence here.

He and his wife Debby researched the best places to live. They looked at the West Coast, Colorado, Texas and Georgia.

But Havemann realized it was important to be near New York. With 4 kids though, they did not want to live in the city.

The Princeton area was beautiful. Realtor Janice McGrath took them all over New York state and Connecticut.

When they came to Westport, Eugene and Debby knew they’d found the right spot.

Compo Beach, Longshore and the Saugatuck River were all attractive. But the schools really amazed them. They were particularly intrigued that Staples High sponsors teams in rugby, water polo and field hockey — all sports their children were familiar with from South Africa.

“This is the place,” the couple decided.

In addition to the core business (www.madagarments.com) and his online www.arete-retail.com, the Havemanns opened a brick-and-mortar shop here. Westport, they believe, complements their brand identities.

Inside Arete.

Arete — the Greek word means “excellence of any kind” — just popped up at 123 Post Road East, across from Bank of America. It’s filled with intriguing baskets, bags, smock dresses and hats. Towels, home decor and leather belts will be added soon. Most bags and hats are made of raffia, a strong, malleable and high-end palm tree leaf indigenous to Madagascar.

In that country of 26 millions, Havemann says, only 550,000 people are formally employed. Arete provides a platform for women artisans to market their goods in the US.

Every basket sold provides enough money for a woman to feed a family of 6 for a week.

Response to the Westport store has been excellent. At least half of the people who walk in buy something. Most don’t even know that their purchase supports people halfway around the globe.

The Havemanns have only been here a few months. But they’re building a business. The schools are wonderful. The family has met other South Africans in town, and people from all over the world.

Plus, Havemann — who has lived in two gorgeous countries — says of his new home town, “Westport is one of the most beautiful places on earth.”