On Campus and the Continent – How COVID has Impacted Yale’s African Community

10/28/20 Rachel Calcott

For the “Focus on Africa” newsletter fall edition, the Yale African Student Association (YASA) members share their stories on coping and contunuing to learn during the global pandemic. Read more about how they are navigating these challenging times on campus and across the continent. 

“I was going to go to Los Angeles for four days, and it turned into six months,” Fred Makolle Jr. said, his laughter filtered through a zoom screen. “I had like three shirts… I learnt to be very frugal.” Like many students from the continent, Makolle found himself stranded in the US over the summer months. Now back on campus, Makolle and other members of Yale’s African community face a very different Yale from the one we evacuated in March.

Makolle is a First-year Counselor (FroCo), a position aimed at guiding the incoming class through the difficult process of acclimating to Yale. Two of the fourteen members of Makolle’s FroCo group are from the continent, and both face challenges unique to this year. One is taking classes remotely from Kenya, and wakes up at 4 a.m. to zoom into on-campus events. Another is a member of the Yale basketball team, and had just begun practice when an outbreak amongst the student athletes resulted in a ban on team gatherings. Despite the restrictions on campus life, Makolle feels that the administration has done a good job of safe-guarding student welfare. “Testing twice a week is really huge,” Makolle said. “My family was pretty worried about me coming back, but now I’m more reassured—not just for myself, but for the community.”

For those who have chosen to enroll but remain on the continent, the challenges of academic life are amplified. “I’ve had to kind of become nocturnal,” explained Waruguru Kibuga, a sophomore from Kenya. When Yale announced that sophomores were not allowed back into on-campus residences, Kibuga decided to take class from home. “My whole family was here, and my dad told me that I might as well be here with family,” Kibuga laughed. “[My brother] is at a different uni… but now he’s right next door.”

Kibuga, who serves as the publicity chair of the Yale African Students Association (YASA), told me that she has emphasized keeping the community informed about global events. “We wanted to focus more on social justice, especially with BLM and the protests going in Nigeria and the Congo right now,” Kibuga told me. “It’s easy to access speakers through zoom… and it’s a way to connect with the African community.”

As Africa Week, the cultural highlight of YASA’s calendar, was cancelled this year along with most in-person events, the board has pivoted to advocating for the needs of its members. “We’re concerned with everyone’s well being right now,” I was told by Felix Morara, the current President of YASA. “We’re checking in on people, communicating concerns to relevant authorities.” 

Despite action taken by the administration to accommodate international students, difficulties persist. I spoke to Morara about how the community has been impacted by the pandemic. “A lot of us depend on the university for housing and food,” Morara told me. “COVID in general has put students in a much more precarious position.” One example Morara provided was accommodation over the winter break. While the university has historically provided housing for those who can’t go home, Yale recently announced that the winter break will be extended to February—making accommodation for international students uncertain. Following advocacy by the YASA board and other international student groups, the administration has now confirmed that those who can’t make the flight home will still have the option to remain on-campus over the extended winter months.

In response to the global pandemic, the administration has had to fracture the broader Yale community—sophomores are barred from campus, and first-years are partitioned amongst the residential colleges. In the midst of this upheaval, YASA has been working to sustain the African community. Morara spoke to me about the difficulties of cultivating a sense of community through a zoom screen. “Our programs have been impacted, but I think people are slowly getting used to the virtual format.” For Morara, a highlight of the semester was the first-year welcome event on zoom. “The community rallied around welcoming this new crop of first years,” he told me. “Even though COVID had fully just upended everyone’s lives.” Though COVID has disrupted traditions and scattered Yale’s African students across two continents, members of the community are finding ways to foreground advocacy and preserve connection.