On pandemic hold, 21-year-olds around the globe plot hopeful future

TSHEPISO MABULA KA NDONGENI/SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
Nolusindiso “Sindi” Dlambewu (right) and her partner, Bongani Mlambo, hid her pregnancy at first because of fears her family might have about the couple’s ability to support a baby financially. Particularly during the pandemic lockdowns, jobs were hard to find.

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A South African student waits out her pregnancy, studying remotely from a small rented room in pandemic isolation; an Afghan boxer gets deported from Iran in a pandemic sweep, ending his hope of settling in the West; a French entrepreneur sees his business moment stalled by pandemic shutdowns. They are three of twelve 21-year-olds the Monitor closely followed during the last three months of 2020 to offer a glimpse of how a generation is coping, in real time, with a crisis likely to define it for decades to come. 

For young people who lived through the American cholera epidemics of the mid-19th century, for instance, the experience unsettled “basic ideas about huge subjects, like science and the idea of God,” says Sari Altschuler, an associate professor of English at Northeastern University who studies health and American society in the 18th and 19th centuries.

What might be unsettled for today’s 21-year-olds is still unknown, but what’s clear from the Monitor’s 21 in ’21 project is this experience will be formative. “That’s something pandemics do: They fundamentally reorder things at all scales,” says Professor Altschuler. “They completely alter the way people see and understand the world.” 

Why We Wrote This

Paddling an Indigenous canoe in Canada, standing in a long, socially distanced South African clinic line, visiting a steamy Afghan boxing gym, 21 in ’21 project reporters spent three months with 21-year-olds around the globe to understand how the pandemic is affecting their generation’s future.

SOWETO, South Africa

Just before noon on a slate-gray October morning, Nolusindiso “Sindi” Dlambewu lay on her back on a narrow red hospital cot and listened to the sound of her baby’s heart beating beneath her stomach. It was persistent and steady, and sounded as if it were coming from underwater. Woosh-woosh-woosh

Like everything about this baby, and about this year, it was a little hard to believe this was real – that there was a tiny someone curled up against her spine. “I don’t have any words for it,” she’d say later, her voice dropping low in reverence, when her boyfriend, Bongani Mlambo, asked what it was like to hear that sound. “It’s just amazing.” 

Why We Wrote This

Paddling an Indigenous canoe in Canada, standing in a long, socially distanced South African clinic line, visiting a steamy Afghan boxing gym, 21 in ’21 project reporters spent three months with 21-year-olds around the globe to understand how the pandemic is affecting their generation’s future.

It had been nearly five hours since Sindi arrived at the Soweto clinic that October morning to join the prenatal visit line, which already at 7 a.m. snaked out of the low-slung building and into the nearby street. It was an unseasonably cold austral spring day seven months into South Africa’s coronavirus lockdown, and she pulled her jean jacket tight against her chest. 

Sindi’s phone buzzed. “Everything OK?” Bongani asked. 

“Fine,” she typed back. “Just boring.”

TSHEPISO MABULA KA NDONGENI/SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
Nolusindiso "Sindi" Dlambewu (shown in courtyard) shares a room in this complex with a cousin and the cousin's 5-year-old daughter. While taking school courses remotely from her room, Sindi babysits her younger cousin.

As she scanned the line of dozens of women already ahead of her, tugging at their face masks and being nudged apart by security guards each time they leaned in too close, she thought of how differently being 21 had turned out than she’d planned. This was supposed to be the year she finished a short course in records management and started her teaching degree – putting her on the path to be the first person in her family to go to college. She’d planned to get a job, maybe move out of the single room she shared with her cousin and the cousin’s daughter. She and Bongani were taking it slow, deciding what they wanted to be, together and apart. 

Instead, her year had been swallowed by uncertainty, and by waiting. Waiting for the right moment to tell her family about the baby. Waiting for South Africa’s president to announce new pandemic restrictions, or lift old ones. And waiting each month in this same line.

For the last three months of 2020, The Monitor asked twelve 21-year-olds around the world, including Sindi, to show us what it was like to watch the world virtually stop at the very moment their adult lives were meant to begin. 

This is the story of six of them, from six vastly different parts of the world, and the lives they led at the end of 2020. We followed them through military officer training in the Negev Desert and prenatal appointments in Johannesburg, Islamic State attacks in Kabul and middle-of-the-night college classes on Zoom in Beijing, fire-keeping ceremonies in Ontario and meetings at hip coworking spaces in Paris. 

TSHEPISO MABULA KA NDONGENI/SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
Nolusindiso "Sindi" Dlambewu, the first in her family to go to college, studies remotely at home, where she worries about power outages while taking online exams.

Together, their stories offer a glimpse of how a generation is coping, in real time, with a crisis likely to define it for decades to come. 

Indeed, like World War II for the so-called Greatest Generation, or 9/11 for millennials, this moment is likely to be crucial in shaping the values, outlook, and prospects of today’s 21-year-olds. 

“We’re seeing that this crisis is disproportionately affecting Gen Z as they’re coming of age,” says Ruth Igielnik, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center and co-author of a report on the future of Gen Z. 

“When we think about how we define generations,” says Ms. Igielnik, “we think about the kinds of world events that shape their lives – and certainly we will think of this pandemic as shaping Gen Z.”  

For young people who lived through the American cholera epidemics of the mid-19th century, for instance, the experience unsettled “basic ideas about huge subjects, like science and the idea of God,” says Sari Altschuler, an associate professor of English at Northeastern University who studies health and American society in the 18th and 19th centuries.

What might be unsettled for today’s 21-year-olds is still unknown, but what’s clear is this experience will be formative. “That’s something pandemics do: They fundamentally reorder things at all scales,” says Professor Altschuler. “They completely alter the way people see and understand the world.”

For Sindi, life was still on the cusp of changing forever as she lay still and listened again to that tiny heartbeat. Woosh-woosh-woosh. She was seven months pregnant, eight months into a pandemic, and three months from the day she’d meet the baby whose heart was thudding inside her. And all she could do was wait.

October 

PARRY SOUND, Ontario

The same day that Sindi waited in line at the clinic in Soweto, on the other side of the world, Gracie Crafts hoisted up her ribbon skirt with one hand, and placed the other on the edge of a birch-bark canoe floating on Georgian Bay, trying to hold the pressure steady to keep the boat from tilting.

LAURA CLUTHÉ/SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
Gracie Crafts at her mother’s home in Parry Sound, Ontario – 170 miles northeast of Toronto – where she took courses remotely, competing for Wi-Fi with siblings.

Like Sindi, for Gracie 2020 had been all about keeping her balance.

She’d begun the year in motion, attending protests against a pipeline that would traverse traditional Indigenous territory and beginning the second semester of her second year at Trent University in Peterborough, 90 minutes northeast of Toronto, where she studies Indigenous environmental science.

But since the coronavirus began sweeping across Canada in March, her world had shriveled. It began during spring break, when Trent’s campus abruptly shut down. She spent the rest of her semester at home in Parry Sound, competing with her mother and stepfather – both educators – and four younger siblings for a wobbly Wi-Fi connection. 

When Gracie was born, Anishinaabek elders  had given her the name Niizhogiiziskwe, meaning “two suns woman.” For her, the name symbolizes the way she straddles two worlds, because her father was Jewish, her mother Anishinaabe, from the Wasauksing First Nation.

But she’d since found her life resisted categories in other ways, too. She was in high school when she began identifying as bisexual, and later she began to think of herself as two-spirit, a term often used by LGBTQ and nonbinary members of Indigenous communities in North America. For Gracie, an important element of being two-spirit was that it meant she could occupy either men’s or women’s roles in traditional ceremonies like drum-carrying or fire-keeping.  

LAURA CLUTHÉ/SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
Gracie Crafts, a Trent University Indigenous environmental science major, takes the last paddle of the season in October 2020 in a student-built birch-bark canoe on Georgian Bay in Ontario.

And now, life itself seemed to hover in between. Her summer internship, teaching the public about this traditional canoe, a wiigwaas jiimaan, which Gracie and other Anishinaabe youth had built by hand, had turned into a summer of writing boat protocols for the coast guard. Now she was living on campus but taking her classes mostly online. 

She dipped a paddle into the glassy water. The air was brisk, threatening snow. Soon, the entire lake would be frozen over until spring, as the pandemic’s second winter rolled in. There was already talk that next semester might be online-only again.

The rhythm of her paddle strokes was a graceful balancing act.  

KABUL, Afghanistan

For Zabihullah Noori, 2020 had been the year everything was going to change. 

He’d finally saved the money to pay a smuggler for the first leg of a journey to Europe. He needed distance from his conservative family who declared boxing, Zabihullah’s first love, un-Islamic. And he wanted separation from a country that had been at war since he was a toddler.

In late 2019, when the virus was beginning its quiet spread from Wuhan, China, he’d spent 10 days traveling in cramped vehicles across Afghanistan to Iran with a group of other young Afghan men. 

ANDREW QUILTY/SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
Zabihullah Noori, warming up at a Kabul gym, says he lives to box. But his religiously conservative family considers the sport to be “un-Islamic.” And he frequently gets kicked out of his parents’ house for pursuing his passion.

In early spring, after spending months in Tehran, they marched 18 hours through the mountains near Iran’s border with Turkey. When Turkish border guards spotted the group, they ran, but it was too late. Two of the men were killed. Zabihullah and the others were sent back to Tehran, where the mysterious virus had already begun to overwhelm hospitals and shut down the city’s public spaces. 

Zabihullah was swiftly deported back to Kabul, and to his old life.

Now, like for many Afghans, the coronavirus pandemic jostled for space in his mind with much more pressing problems. Suicide attacks gripped the city. Within his family, money was tighter than ever. And they still didn’t want him to box. 

That was how he found himself lying on a thin carpet in the guards’ small quarters at the supermarket where he worked part time stacking shelves and running the till. It was the night before one of the most important days of his life – a bout to determine if he would make the Afghan national boxing team. 

ANDREW QUILTY/SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
Zabihullah Noori is a top national Afghan boxer. He keeps the medals to prove it taped to his bedroom wall.

He should be home, he knew, preparing by eating roast chicken and watching boxing videos online. And as he lay on the ground, his stomach snarling with hunger, his mind flashed back to earlier in the evening when his father had seen his hair, shaved short to competition specifications, and demanded he get out of the house. 

“It is a shame for me to have a son like you,” he’d yelled.

“That broke my heart,” Zabihullah says. 

All night, he slept fitfully, dreaming he was already fighting in the ring.  

BEIJING

Pulling an overcoat over her pajamas, Lucy Wang slid into a chair behind a small desk in her bedroom in her mother’s apartment in Beijing and clicked on the Zoom link. It was 10:30 on an autumn evening, and on the other side of the world, her math professor at Northeastern University in Boston was just about to start a morning lecture. 

She wished she could be there, watching New England’s brilliant foliage appear and impressing American friends from her program in supply chain management by teaching them about her favorite regional specialties at local Chinese restaurants. Americans always seemed willing to try new things, to take risks. She loved that. And she loved living there.

Courtesy of Lucy Wang
Lucy Wang is now back at her mother’s Beijing apartment where she attends her Northeastern University classes online. Now 13 time zones from campus, she is often "in" class in the very early morning hours.

Until COVID-19 hit, and risky American behavior lit the spread of the coronavirus like wildfire, unlike in China where it had been quickly snuffed out by hard lockdowns. In America, many people kept going to malls, eating at restaurants, walking around maskless, too close for Lucy’s comfort. 

Now, as she nibbled the sautéed potatoes and eggs, baby bok choy, and rice her mom left out for her when she had overnight classes, Lucy wondered what would happen next. She’d left Boston in the summer, as coronavirus cases surged, local intensive care units filled to capacity, and President Donald Trump accused Chinese students in the United States of being spies for their government. Between April and September, there was a 99% decline in student visas issued to Chinese students in the U.S. compared with the same period the previous year, and Lucy wondered if she’d ever be able to go back.    

But that was tomorrow’s problem. For now, she had a math class to focus on, followed by a business strategy lecture at midnight. She sipped sweetened milk for a jolt of energy and willed herself to look engaged.  

Life was inside out, and she didn’t know what would happen next. 

November 

KIBBUTZ SA’AD, Israel

Rebecca Baruch was feeling alone. 

In part, it was because of the pandemic. In September, as a second wave of cases crested over Israel, she’d been quarantined for a week after her instructor in Krav Maga, an Israeli military martial art, tested positive for the virus. And she worried often for her parents in the Netherlands, especially her mother, who has multiple sclerosis. 

But in many ways, the pandemic only made her loneliness starker. In fact, she’d been on her own for three years now, since she moved to Israel alone from the Netherlands at the age of 18 to make aliyah – or take Israeli citizenship. That meant that she, like all other young Israelis, would be conscripted into three-year service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). 

HEIDI LEVINE/SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
Rebecca Baruch (left) is known in the Israel Defense Forces as a "lone soldier" because as a Jewish Dutch immigrant, she came to Israel alone, without family. Rebecca, who leads a female intelligence unit, talks to Hila Porges (right), a member of the kibbutz that "adopted" Rebecca.

That choice had come as a shock to her parents, both secular Jews in The Hague, a lawyer and a lobbyist, for whom Friday night Sabbath dinners were less about religious tradition than they were an excuse about having interesting houseguests. 

But as a teenager, Rebecca had gone to a Zionist summer camp, where she’d seen an inspiring documentary about a Dutch girl who became an Israeli combat soldier. The idea stuck in her head: This was what she wanted to do.

Rebecca’s ancestors include Jews who fled the Spanish Inquisition for safety in the Netherlands 600 years ago. Some of her family were killed by the Nazis; others managed to survive, as she says, “mostly by good luck.”

Her decision to make Israel home was informed by that history. But it still caught her family off guard.  

“I was living the good Dutch life, getting good grades in my high school, so it was a surprise,” she says. Even to her. 

Even now, as she prepared for her graduation from officer training, which brought with it an extra year and four months in the IDF, she still often felt that she was living between two worlds. She was what is called a “lone soldier,” a foreign recruit without Israeli family. When she wasn’t on base, she stayed with a modern Orthodox host family in a kibbutz three hours away. They’d taken her in warmly, making her part of their weekly Sabbath dinners and preparing her favorite fresh salads. On one wall of her room in the kibbutz was an article about all-female field combat units like hers, over which the family had pinned a handwritten sign festooned with hearts: “We are proud of you.”

HEIDI LEVINE/SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
Rebecca Baruch calls Kibbutz Sa’ad her home in Israel. In civilian clothes, she passes the kibbutz’s cattle sheds and grain silos.

On the other side of the room were the memories of “civilian Rebecca,” who loved soccer and going to the theater. She’d taped up a small painting of ice skaters on a frozen canal and notes from family and friends in Dutch. 

But life was moving on, leaving that Rebecca behind. 

“You have been on a long path, and taking this path during the time of corona has made it even more challenging,” an IDF general reminded Rebecca and her newly commissioned fellow officers at their graduation on Nov. 3. She stood still and rigid, a beige beret balanced atop her honey-colored braid. “Go in peace, return safely and succeed.” 

In a few weeks’ time, she’d be stationed on a new base deep in the Negev Desert, leading an all-female intelligence commando unit on the Egyptian and Jordanian borders. Though most Israeli combat soldiers are men, these women’s units in field intelligence services and other combat roles are a prominent exception. And Rebecca was proud she would soon be leading one – proud to defend a country that had only just become hers. 

KABUL, Afghanistan

In Zabihullah’s life, things were changing quickly, too. He’d lost the bout the day after his exhausting night in the supermarket. But he’d won another the next day, with a knockout in 18 seconds, and he was invited to join a team sponsored by the Ministry of Higher Education. He’d been scraping together his salary – about $4 a day – to pay his fees for the upcoming semester at a local private university, where he is studying medical technology. He had another big match coming up in late November on the campus of Kabul University.

He was still preparing for that bout in early November when he heard an explosion crack over his family house from the direction of campus. When he climbed onto the roof, he saw smoke billowing from the university’s main gate. Screams began to fill the air. 

Zabihullah knew he should stay inside. But, he says, “I couldn’t control myself.” And he ran outside toward the attack. On the other side of the campus walls, students were begging for help to escape bloody chaos inside that would reportedly claim about 35 lives. So he and a friend found ladders and climbed the stone wall. 

For the next three hours they stayed there, lifting student after student over the barrier as the pop-pop-pop of gunfire rattled across the campus. 

Later, they would find out it was ISIS gunmen. Later, Zabihullah would lie awake wondering what the reason was for the attack, why these men felt the need to kill young and innocent people.

And later, he would realize what it all meant for him.

His boxing match was canceled. 

PARIS

Willem Lombe knew the feeling of watching time seeming to lurch forward, then stop again. By November, France was in its second coronavirus lockdown, after new infections in the country reached a European record of over 40,000 a day in mid-October.

Willem felt restless. He was used to juggling a million things at once and being always in motion – studying and working, starting a new talent agency, the Be Great Company, and rolling out an e-commerce site selling beauty products. But lately he felt like a hamster on a wheel, frantic but stuck.  

MOMAR SAKANOKO/SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
Willem Lombe, the French son of Congolese refugees who came to France before he was born, owns an e-commerce beauty products website and is a partner in the Be Great Company talent agency.

Now he couldn’t go to basketball games to scout new players for the Be Great Company, because there weren’t any. He couldn’t meet with musicians in recording studios, because they were all closed. He was still studying for his degree in commercial management, but the classes had shifted online during lockdown. Even the local clothing store where he worked had temporarily closed, leaving him home – or at a friend’s apartment – watching videos of possible sports recruits or working out the kinks in the back end of his website. He was constantly busy, but it felt at times like nothing was going anywhere.

In some ways, the situation reminded him of the previous year, when he’d finally returned to France, after spending two years crossing the U.S. and Canada trying – unsuccessfully – to get recruited as a pro basketball player. He’d repeated a year of high school hoping to be scouted for either the NBA or a four-year university.   

Then, as now, life had felt wobbly. But he’d always considered himself a dream chaser, someone who only needed an idea to get him going. And his optimism remained unswerving.  

“It is kind of like faith, when you think so much is going to happen even if you don’t see it now,” he says. “With the company, our time is going to come.” 

MOMAR SAKANOKO/SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
French entrepreneur Willem Lombe says the pandemic has stalled all his business efforts. He played video games in November 2020 with friends at the suburban Paris home of his parents.

That’s what he kept telling his business partner Momar, and kept saying to himself.

Anyway, a pandemic was an obstacle, he thought, but no more so than anything he or his family had faced before. When his parents came to France from Congo 40 years earlier, his father worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant while he finished his master’s degree. Now he worked for the state treasury. His mom was a nurse’s assistant. 

“My parents always had jobs. Always,” he says. “That’s the kind of stuff you look up to. ... They came from this rough place and they had the courage to chase their dreams.”  

Willem would too – he felt it. But as the lockdown wore on, it became harder not to hear the silence. On the tree-lined sidewalk outside his friend’s apartment in a Paris suburb a few miles away from home, where he’d gone for a break from trying to work with his parents in the next room, he listened to the world outside. But the street was pin-drop quiet, like time itself had come to a halt. 

SOWETO, South Africa 

Sindi longed for silence like that as she clicked start and the exam for “managing electronic records” appeared on the screen in front of her. Already, her mind felt fuzzy and unfocused in the early summer heat. 

As she tried to read the directions for the test, her mind raced: What if the power went off? 

It had been happening a lot lately. South Africa’s power utility was broke, a situation made worse by the economic crisis now swamping the country because of COVID-19. And her laptop only worked if it was plugged in. She needed this exam to get her diploma, which she needed to start her teaching program. Her back ached. She was eight months pregnant now, and sitting balanced on a stool with no support hurt. 

“Aunty?” The small voice cut through Sindi’s racing thoughts. Her 5-year-old cousin Hlelo was calling her from the bed in their small shared room, where she was sitting with a stack of coloring books. “Aunty, I’m bored.” 

“Baby, I’m writing,” Sindi said, trying to focus on the screen. “Give me a few minutes.”

Since South Africa’s lockdown had started in late March, Sindi had barely left this small room, where she shared a double bed with Hlelo and Hlelo’s mother, who worked at a local supermarket. In the opposite corner, beside a hot plate and a microwave, they’d crammed the small desk where she now sat and worked. 

“I’m hungry,” Hlelo tried again. Sindi sighed, scanning the room for a distraction to keep the child busy. Her eyes landed on her own preferred method of passing time – her smartphone. 

“Come here,” she said, gesturing for Hlelo to follow her outside. “If you sit still here, you can play with this till I’m done.” The girl’s eyes lit up. Sindi handed her the phone and slipped quietly back inside. She just had to finish before anything else got in the way. 

Dylan Wilson/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

December

NEGEV DESERT, Israel

In December in the Negev Desert, the coldest hour was the one just before dawn.

That was something Rebecca had learned in her earliest days as an officer, leading her first field trainings. They consisted of two days in the desert under full-moon night skies and pink sunrises, lugging her M16, plus a backpack and gear that weighed 60% of her bodyweight, as she and her all-female team of soldiers raced to take over mountaintops. The exercises were preparation for missions in which units like Rebecca’s would survey for would-be infiltrators along the Egyptian and Jordanian borders. 

“There was a lot of adrenaline,” she says of the trainings. And a lot of walking without much to eat – just some pita bread, a few cans of corn, chickpeas, and tuna. The extreme nature of the task also seemed to sharpen every emotion, including her own sense of isolation.

“In my day-to-day life in officer training, I can’t talk about certain topics with my soldiers and cannot talk with my fellow officers about my soldiers, because some issues are private,” she says. 

Still, she often felt euphoric. The pandemic had made the gulf between her old life and her new more striking, sure, but it had also underscored that she was where she was meant to be.

“I believe in attracting your own good luck,” she says. 

All these years after watching that documentary about the Dutch girl who made aliyah and became an Israeli intelligence commander, Rebecca had done the same. She was the woman she’d dreamed of becoming.

SHANGHAI

When Lucy’s father told her he was coming to visit her in Beijing in December, she felt thankful. 

Since her parents divorced, he’d lived in Chengdu in Sichuan province, more than 1,100 miles from Beijing, and she saw him rarely, especially now that she was studying in the U.S. 

But in many ways, he was who she aspired to be. A slightly rotund, short figure in his black business suit, her dad stood about 5 feet, 6 inches, the same as Lucy. He’d grown up in a poor village in Sichuan during Mao’s 1966-76 Cultural Revolution. But he’d risen far – scoring high in university entrance exams and ultimately attending the prestigious Peking University. 

Courtesy of Lucy Wang
Lucy Wang, shown here in a hutong in Beijing in November 2020, idolizes her dad's rags-to-riches business career. She's told him she's not confident about getting into American business schools for graduate work, but is determined to try.

Now that she was trying to get into business herself, she idolized his career. So when he surprised her by offering to take her along to an investment conference in Shanghai, Lucy quickly agreed.

It made her feel grown up, roaming the conference halls with her dad, networking with his business associates. Between sessions, they took long walks and ate leisurely meals, catching up on the strange details of the year.

Lucy told her dad that she was determined to get back to the U.S. and to apply to American business schools. 

“I am not quite confident I can get into those schools,” she confided to him. “I’m still pretty nervous.” 

Still, she told him, she was going to try. 

PETERBOROUGH, Ontario

For Gracie, the term drew to a close in the same place she’d spent much of the semester, inside the campus tepee at Trent, where she was the head fire-keeper. 

Most of campus was still in a coronavirus lockdown. In the dining halls, communal tables had been replaced with single tables. Many students simply ate alone in their rooms. Classes were online, and Gracie struggled to stay present as she stared for hours at her computer screen. 

But in the tepee, Gracie and other Indigenous students had a rare opportunity to be with each other, face to face, with masks off (seated and apart). “I think that’s why it’s changed so much for us – the ability to be outside and away from screens,” she says. 

The role of fire-keeper is traditionally occupied by a man, and Gracie had relished the chance to make a part of her cultural history her own. 

Building fires, she knew, was an exercise in nurture. At the center of the fire were paper-thin ribbons of cedar that caught the spark but couldn’t hold it. Around them, she placed twigs and then bigger branches. Under campus COVID-19 protocols, up to seven people could be in the tepee during a fire ceremony, more than were allowed to gather almost anywhere else in Gracie’s life. 

And the tepee seemed to need them too. When she’d come back to campus in the fall after a semester in lockdown, and then summer vacation, it had sprung a series of small cracks and tears. Many Indigenous students living on reserves had gone home and stayed there, afraid of bringing the coronavirus to their remote communities if they traveled back and forth to campus. Like anything, she realized, the tepee needed to be tended to, and when it wasn’t, the canvas began to warp at the edges. 

“That’s a space that needs to be used,” she says. And it was a big part of the reason she’d decided she was coming back to campus in January, even though classes would be all online.

She had a life to tend to, and she needed to be here to do it. 

2021

SOWETO, South Africa 

The final days of Sindi’s pregnancy ticked by listlessly in the dry summer heat. She and Bongani bickered about their baby’s name. He wanted Nkazimulo, which meant “brightness.” She liked Zazi, “to know yourself.” Meanwhile, her due date – Jan. 4 – came and went. 

“She doesn’t want to come into the world when things are like this,” Sindi joked, but she was growing impatient. The hospital where she was due to give birth promised to induce labor if she was overdue. But now, with a second wave of coronavirus cases sweeping South Africa, they were too short-staffed to do it.   

TSHEPISO MABULA KA NDONGENI/SPECIAL TO THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
Tiny newborn Nkazimulo is welcomed by her parents, Bongani Mlambo (left) and Nolusindiso "Sindi" Dlambewu. “This year is going to be different,” Sindi said of the couple's baby.

In its first year, the coronavirus pandemic had exposed many of the world’s fault lines, and as it entered its second, the consequences were becoming clear. In Israel, Canada, China, and France, mass vaccination campaigns had already begun, with hopes that most of the population would be immune to the disease by mid-year, and life might slowly return to normal. But in South Africa and Afghanistan, health authorities were scrambling alongside other developing countries for access to whatever doses were left. 

The first doses of the vaccine had not yet arrived in Soweto when Sindi went into labor late on Jan. 14. She was alone – fathers weren’t allowed in the hospital now – and wore a mask, which kept slipping off her face when she cried out. Each time, the midwife pushed it gently back into place. 

At 2:30 a.m., Jan. 16, Sindi pushed a final time and then there she was. Her daughter Nkazimulo, wailing and clawing at the air. And when Sindi saw her, she at last felt sure. 

“This year is going to be different,” she said. “It’s already different.”

Colette Davidson reported from Paris; Dina Kraft from Tel Aviv and Kibbutz Sa’ad, Israel; Sara Miller Llana from Peterborough and Parry Sound, Ontario; Hidayatullah Noorzai from Kabul, Afghanistan; Scott Peterson from London; and Ann Scott Tyson from Seattle.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.