For months on end, consecutive lockdowns and a summer of disrupted travel made it difficult for the Black diaspora in the UK to travel to African countries.
But when the UK traffic light system was scrapped on October 4, hopes of a sunny Christmas “back home” were restored. And then came Omicron.
Omicron first became a variant of global concern at the end of November when health experts confirmed that Covid had mutated again, with the first cases detected in Botswana. Subsequent cases were soon found in the UK, since when public health measures have been re-introduced and several African countries have been added to the travel red list.
South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia were put on the red list on Friday November 26, while Nigeria was added on December 6. This is despite protestations from the Nigerian high commissioner to London, Sarafa Tunji Isola, that blanket measures imposed against African nations amount to “travel apartheid”.
Anyone returning from these countries will now have to quarantine in a hotel, making the trip very hard for those who can’t afford the extra cost or time.
But what is a disappointment for anyone who was planning a holiday over the Christmas break is an even bigger blow for those hoping to visit family.
Natty Kasambala, a 25-year old writer from London, is one of them. Her family is from Malawi, but her parents moved to South Africa during the pandemic.
“Growing up far away from your family and people who you’re connected to through can be super isolating,” she tells HuffPost UK, “so I’ve always found returning to Malawi a really comforting and affirming experience.
“Since spending time in South Africa with my parents, where I also have a good amount of family, the same has felt true there, too.
Kasambala places huge importance on making the trip at least every two years, especially as she grew up in a predominantly white area in the UK.
“Going home for Christmas and feeling connected to somewhere other than the UK has been such a key part of my understanding of my identity and heritage,” she says. Kasambala last visited her parents in South Africa in December 2020 and the winter lockdown meant she couldn’t get back to the UK afterwards.
“I was stuck in South Africa for months and had to do hotel quarantine to return to London,” she says. “So I knew that risking it wasn’t an option, as it’s expensive, impractical and super anxiety-inducing.
Kasambala booked her new flights to South Africa three days before the country was added to the red list and says the news didn’t hit her properly for a week.
“It’s still not quite computing that the government are once again taking this opportunity to alienate and exclude Africa with no scientific basis,” she says.
Lewis Semakula, 27, who works in finance and investment management, is also set to miss out on spending Christmas with his grandparents in Zimbabwe.
Semakula lives in Greenwich, but was raised as a young boy by his grandparents in Zimbabwe, who he hasn’t been able to visit since 2017.
“It’s so hard to negotiate a substantial amount of time off in December, and after four years of trying, I had finally found a firm who understood how much this journey meant to me,” he says, adding: “My grandfather turned 88 this year and my grandmother is 81.”
Semakula was supposed to be flying out today, December 7. Not only will he now miss out on seeing his grandparents, but he will lose all the time he had been saving for this special trip. His suitcases are still outside his door as he can’t bring himself to unpack them.
“What I looked forward to the most is seeing loved ones and giving them gifts on Christmas Day,” he says. “I had bought my niece a tablet and my grandparents’ new phones, it’s the little things that will keep us connected even when I am not in the country that they value the most.”
He adds: “The loneliness I feel is next to none. There is no replacement to spending Christmas with family and if anyone understands that, it’s the UK.”
The addition of Nigeria to the red list has also devastated Bimpe*, 25, a programme support manager, who preferred not to give her surname. The Londoner had been planning a trip of a lifetime to see her family in Lagos.
“I’ve only been to Nigeria once and it was during the easter 2002 break. So it has been nearly 20 years since I’ve been back home,” she tells HuffPost UK, adding that she has constantly imagined what it would feel like to be back.
“To be in the city that my parents grew up in, to see family members that I haven’t seen in over a decade, to be immersed in Nigerian culture and be completely surrounded by people that look like me – the joy of the thought alone was indescribable.”
Bimpe had made a list of things she wanted to see and do around Lagos, including beach parties, concerts, and visiting the New Afrika Shrine in Ijeka, built in memory of Nigerian musician and activist Fela Kuti. Reconnecting with her culture as well as her family was another main aim of her trip, she says.
“From the age of 16, I have found myself constantly trying to immerse myself in my Nigerian/Yoruba culture whether that’s through reading literature by Nigerian writers, listening to Nigerian music or teaching myself Yoruba by watching Nollywood films,” she says. “I feel like it makes me feel more connected to my heritage and to my lineage.”
Bimpe isn’t sure of her plans now that Omicron has disrupted them. She has yet to cancel her flights, but is weighing up leaving Lagos early to go to a green list country for 10 days to get around the long quarantine on her return.
“I’ve considered Ghana but I feel like it’s likely it may also turn red,” she says. “This has completely turned my Christmas (and birthday) plans upside down. I was really looking forward to celebrating my 26th birthday in Lagos after Christmas, but I’m not sure how likely that is anymore.”
Kasambala, meanwhile, says she’s most likely going to spend Christmas alone. “I’m not the most extroverted person and, though friends have offered to host me, I know that spending my break in a strange place with people who aren’t my family will be a lot more draining and stressful for me than just taking myself away to recoup and process on my own,” she says.
As for Semakula, he has no Plan B. “I will spend Christmas day on WhatsApp video to my grandparents,” he says. “This time last year their visas to visit the UK were accepted, but then the traffic light system was introduced. This year it is me who is unable to see them, so I feel for them the most.”