VWU professor stuck in Africa

While the Virginia Wesleyan community returned to their homes in response to the coronavirus crisis, Dr. William Gibson remained abroad in Rwanda seeking a way to come back to the United States.

Amidst the pandemic that has caused the world to stop spinning, Dr. William Gibson, professor of political science at Virginia Wesleyan University, found himself in quite a unique predicament. What was supposed to be an immersive educational vacation with his family turned into a series of last-minute flights, closed borders and mountain gorillas.  Due to changes in travel due to the virus’ spread, Gibson found himself stuck in Africa.

“Much of my family lives in British Columbia, Canada. We have a family friend, Bryan Hartwick over at Simon Fraser University. He used to conduct research there before moving his operations to Kenya where he would take groups of grad students,” Gibson said. 

Gibson never made it to the Kenya portion of his trip. Instead, he landed in Rwanda and drove through the rich, beautiful countryside into Uganda where most of this tale unfolds. There’s a sense of fascination with nature and its animals. Everyone is guilty of it to some degree, including Gibson. 

His fascination lies especially with the mountain gorillas that reside deep inside in rugged territory. This is all part of a gorilla habituation force, a method of trying to combat ecoterrorism. Silverbacks, gorillas that are known for their distinctive patch of gray hairs on their backs, spend at least one to one and a half years getting reacclimated in nature in preparation for allowing tourists to visit and observe. 

“There were eight people with me including a park ranger and two heavily armed guards. Now I’ve hiked mountains, but these were extremely rugged trails. We were the first tourist group in to observe these gorillas.” Gibson explained. “We actually had a silverback charge at us once. It was maybe 20 feet away from us and with an explosive speed of power, stopped at about 3 feet away. It was quite the surge of adrenaline.” 

Recalling his adventures across the globe, Gibson reminisced on the strength of the Ugandan people. Gibson said, “Poverty has been a constant. It troubles me, disturbs me, and saddens me. But they are so resilient, and they have this ability to move ahead and continue with their lives, to grow old with families and to basically live and love. All the little kids have beautiful smiles and they wave like crazy. A smile back does wonders. These are intelligent people that could connect. You know, they’re so bent on making their system work. I loved Uganda.” 

He then continued on and spoke of Rwanda. “Rwanda is much better organized and thriving. The agriculture is amazing there. It’s mostly steep mountainous regions and they’ve figured out how to rotate crops either from advice from other countries or on their own. It’s tremendous deep physical labor that the women do, just digging in their field with their hoes.”   

“We first heard that the borders were closing when we were in Entebbe, Uganda,” Gibson continued. The most natural response to borders closing, especially if you’re a foreigner, is to book a flight home as soon as possible. However, anyone who’s flown before knows how tricky it can be to get into contact with a representative for an airline. After trying and trying, Gibson finally got into contact with a representative based in Tampa, Florida for Delta Airlines. With persistence and some luck, he was able to find a flight for his wife and daughter out of Nairobi, Kenya. The next day as he travelled eight hours to a compound along the Nile River, news broke that the airports were shutting down as well. 

With limited options and time running out, Gibson used a laptop and scoured Cheapoair for hours looking for a flight for himself and his son. Just as he found one, the internet cut out. A few seconds later, a representative from Cheapoair reached out, asking if Gibson had just been on their site looking for flights. After two hours of trying to figure out arrangements, they managed to snag the next-to-last flight out of Uganda. Currently, Gibson and his family are self-quarantining.

Freshman political science student Brian Hostetter is currently enrolled in a course taught by Gibson.  When he heard of Gibson’s situation, Hostetter was taken back. “When we found out about not going back to college due to the Coronavirus, I knew Dr. Gibson was still out of the country and was curious about his situation and how everything would work out.”

Hostetter maintained correspondence with Gibson not only about class but also about the tricky situation. “It sounds like he had a wild once-in-a-lifetime trip,” Hostetter said. “I’m glad everything worked out for him in the end.” 

In the meantime, Gibson has been adjusting to a new way of life back in the states.  When asked about how it feels to be home, Gibson said, “[It] Feels good. I would have liked to stay and travel to Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Given the circumstances of COVID-19, we were stuck at Lake Victoria View guest house. It was a small little place but the woman who ran it was great. It feels safe to be home.” 

Faith Macwana