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The Struggle to Return Home; Scientist Shares Agonizing Tale

Dr Andrew Obuku left Cleveland, Ohio on March 21. At 7 a.m. the next day, he was in Addis Ababa, waiting for a connecting flight which was due at 10 a.m. However, Ethiopian Airlines rescheduled the flight to 23; 45 p.m. After more than 12 hours of waiting, the same flight was cancelled.

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Dr Andrew Obuku Ekii, returned to Uganda in mid-May after being almost 60-days of being stranded in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Obuku who works at the Uganda Virus Research Institute, says he was in transit when the government announced the closure of the airport and a prohibition of inbound traffic. 

He travelled to the United States of America in October 2019 for a research project and planned to return home in March 2020 for another research project in Uganda. By that time, some of the airports including Entebbe International Airport were still operating amidst concerns of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. 

As a result, Obuku left Cleveland, Ohio on March 21. At 7 a.m. the next day, he was in Addis Ababa, waiting for a connecting flight which was due at 10 a.m. However, Ethiopian Airlines rescheduled the flight to 23; 45 p.m. After more than 12 hours of waiting, the same flight was cancelled. 

Obuku, however, says that when the 10 a.m. flight was cancelled, he tried to get a flight to Nairobi after learning that the government would close all land borders and Entebbe International Airport effective 12:00 a.m. on March 23, 2020. To his dismay, Kenya Airways was only accepting Kenyan nationals on board. 

As a result, Obuku was quarantined in one of the private airport hotels in Ethiopia.  He was charged USD 120 (about 450,000 Shillings) every day for full board services at the hotel. After 24 days, he moved to another private hotel, which charged the same rate, and where he stayed for another 34 days.  Altogether Dr Obuku spent 25.8 million for the quarantine services in Addis Ababa.

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This was his first time in Addis Ababa and on top of all the pain of enduring a lockdown, and quarantine, he had to deal with cultural shock.

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During this time, Dr Obuku says he contacted the Uganda embassy in Addis Ababa to register as a stranded Ugandan. Afterwards, he was contacted by Captain Dr James Kanagwa, the chairperson of Ugandans in Ethiopia who was coordinating the repatriation process.   On May 15, three days before the scheduled flight, Obuku learnt, through social media that he was coming home.

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Thereafter, he says he was informed that Ethiopian Airlines had agreed to operate a flight to Entebbe. Obuku was part of the first group of Ugandans who returned on May 18, on a ‘controversial flight’ that had businessman Ben Kavuya's family on board. 

Obuku says that while they left, a number of Ugandans we're still stuck in Addis Ababa because they could not afford the airfare of USD 969.1 US Dollars (about 3.6 million Shillings) for the flight to Entebbe during the lockdown. The journey cost an average of USD 205 (about 750,000 Shillings) before the lockdown. 

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Though one of his research funders had paid United Airlines 760 British Pounds (about 3.5 million Shillings) for the trip from Ohio to Entebbe, Obuku says he got a refund of only 75 Pounds, (about 350,000 Shillings) which could not cover the airfare for the special flight to Uganda. 

When he arrived in Uganda, he spent 16 days in quarantine at Arch Apartments in Ntinda at a rate of 200,000 Shillings pert day. He paid a total of 3.4 million Shillings at the end of his quarantine. At the end of the experience, Dr Obuku had lost 78 days in transit and spent 32 million Shillings. 

Obuku said the money was paid through funders of his research projects, workmates, friends and family. "That experience has taught me the value of family and friends, otherwise I don't know how I would have managed to stay sane for over 70 days," Obuku says.

He also kept engaged throughout that period because he would attend zoom meetings for his workplace, and interact with fellow researchers in the US and Uganda.