Two Children, One Closed Border: How Australian Lockdowns Affected One Big International Family

When the COVID-19 pandemic ground her globe-trotting life to a halt, writer Sisonke Msimang learned deeper truths about travel.

Illustrated header for Sisonke Msimang's piece "A Big Family"

When Australian borders closed during lockdowns, Sisonke Msimang wondered how those policies would affect her very international family.

Illustrations by Yolande Mutale

I am the child of a freedom fighter and an accountant. My idealistic father left South Africa when he was 19 due to his anti-apartheid actions. My pragmatic mother was the top student in her newly independent country of Swaziland, now named Eswatini. I was born there, grew up in Lusaka, Nairobi, and Ottawa, and as an adult have spent most of my time living in major cities, including New York and Johannesburg. I see myself as a blend of my parents: a pragmatic idealist. I travel for practical reasons—and also because I love the bustle of chaotic streets, the rhythms of markets, and the feeling of limitless possibility.

And yet, for the last eight years, I have found myself living in Western Australia, in Perth, where there is little bustle, there are few markets, and daily life is very, well, predictable. Here, the idealist in me often feels defeated by the pragmatist.

Johannesburg is an energetic, fast-paced city, but for all its merits, it doesn’t sit on a body of water. So, though my husband and I both feel deeply connected to South Africa, by the time our daughter was five and our son two, in 2013, we also felt exhausted and frazzled. My husband was born and raised in Perth, where he spent his childhood clambering on the idyllic sand dunes across the street from his family’s house. He was pining for home. And so we went.

In the beginning, our life in Perth was great. We bought an early 1900s cottage less than 15 minutes from the beach where my husband grew up. Our children became as comfortable in the water as they were on land, and when they rode their bikes around the neighborhood, we never worried about their safety. Still, it didn’t take long to realize that living in a remote, majority-white city had downsides I hadn’t fully anticipated.

Although my children now have Australian accents and play sports, some people consider them outsiders since their skin is brown. They have been commended for speaking English so well and constantly face the question “Where are you from?” Within a couple of years of arriving, it became clear that, for their emotional health, our kids needed to know that the world was far noisier and more complex than Perth. So we watched the news together and talked about earthquakes and elections. I bought them a globe and spun it, calling out the names of places our fingers landed. I wanted them to know that the world was big and there were places where they were not the minority. I wanted them to know there were places where history loomed large and majestic. I wanted them to know they belonged in all these places as much as anyone. I wanted them to be comfortable everywhere.

Travel had played a big role in shaping my identity, in enabling me to see my surroundings in new ways, to understand the long, proud histories of people and places that I now realize weren’t featured in my children’s school textbooks. My husband and I were convinced that travel would teach our kids to be curious and compassionate, that they would learn how to navigate discomfort and celebrate difference. When we went on family vacations, I asked my children what they observed about the streets of Ubud, Bali, or about the landscape on the drive from Johannesburg to Durban, South Africa.

My daughter would focus on the trees in every new destination and observe how different they were from trees in Perth. In Ubud, the trees were greener, with much larger leaves. Johannesburg had majestic jacarandas that reached across the city’s old streets. My six-year-old son insisted on picking up all the trash on the beach in Bali. His class had been learning about the impact of plastic on the environment, and he told us he wanted to “make Bali as clean as Perth to save the turtles.” When we traveled as a family, I felt the idealistic part of my identity take over. Every trip was an opportunity to learn out loud, to take pleasure in our connections and differences with others.

Illustration of three people holding the globe

With a family split across the globe, lockdowns affected how Msimang could celebrate—and grieve—with her family.

Illustration by Yolande Mutale

Then the pandemic hit. Western Australia closed its borders in March 2020 and enacted one of the strictest quarantine regimes and travel bans in the world. Suddenly, my husband and I were able to complete work contracts virtually. I didn’t have to get on planes, since there was this tool called videoconferencing that had never felt compelling and soon became the only option.

The bans were highly successful from a public health perspective. We lived in splendid isolation, with near-zero community transmission of COVID-19. Our mask mandates were lax, we did not get sick, and we did not experience the lockdowns that defined the pandemic for so many people. The mining industry and generous government benefits buoyed the economy, and when shots were rolled out, Western Australia achieved a remarkable 98.1 percent double vaccination rate.

It was joyous at first, but the novelty soon wore off. The continuing border closures grew to be especially tough on those of us who had family overseas. When a beloved uncle died in South Africa, I couldn’t risk leaving Perth, because there was no guarantee I would be let back in again. As others got back to “normal,” our borders remained firmly closed. We weren’t locked down, but we were most definitely shut in.

My children had last visited South Africa in 2017, when they were nine and six years old. I worried about how all this time without travel would alter their connection to the country and how it would make them less global. My children grew so sheltered that when we went into Perth’s Chinatown, they were frightened by the sight of a homeless man stretched out on the sidewalk. I had imagined raising fearless little beings who would brave their way through the world. Instead, they’d begun to seem fragile, insular, and unaware of their privilege. They were turning into little pragmatists before my eyes, playing life safe.

In March 2022, after 697 days, Western Australia reopened its border. I recall listening to the announcement on the radio, and then falling into a seated position on the coffee table, weeping.

I flew to Johannesburg three weeks later, by myself. I had graves to visit and more tears to shed about loved ones COVID-19 had taken from us. I wanted to do that on my own, to have space to grieve without worrying about managing my kids, whom I suspected would need to have their hands held in new ways.

Ten days later, my husband and kids joined me for a homecoming that was nothing short of remarkable. My son had just turned 11 and my daughter would soon be 14. They spent their first 48 hours feeling anxious, constantly checking their TikTok accounts on their iPads.

But their cousins wouldn’t allow them to disappear into the digital world. Within days, my kids were pulled into the specialness of the not-quite-sibling love that defines cousin-hood. There was something solid and enduring about watching them laze around with their long limbs, looking alike and different all at the same time. It was a marvel to observe.

In South Africa, my children were exactly who they are in Australia: respectful, kind, and patient kids who know how to make their aunties laugh and who give their grandfather the hugs he needs. No great cultural divide separated them from their cousins. They watched the same shows, listened to similar music, and played the same games. There were local variations and lots of teasing about accents, but their connection to family was durable and their relationship with the world secure.

As I watched these sweet family moments unfold, I realized that I had once approached travel as an escape.

As I watched these sweet family moments unfold, I realized that I had once approached travel as an escape and as an opportunity to teach our kids how to live fuller, more emotionally robust lives. My husband and I wanted them to be defined by their travel experiences. On this trip, I finally understood that living emotionally robust lives is not a function of travel. Instead, my children’s identities as caring, sensitive young people will define their travel experiences; it will help them deal with the practical realities of travel while keeping their hearts open to its rewards.

One of my favorite memories of the trip was the time 20 of us—my family is large!—traveled to Kruger National Park. We drove a convoy of cars through the bush, kids in the back, guidebooks out, binoculars on. I listened to the cousins tell one another tall tales, bet on who would see a lion first (we saw no lions), and just be kids. And then we came upon a group of elephants. There could have been 20 or more. Our cars stopped and we watched them cross the road in front of us: mothers and babies and old ones and bigger ones. Marvelous and ancient. My daughter piped up from the back, “What a big family! Just like us.”

I’m hopeful that my future travels will be less fraught with the weight of what I want my kids to learn. Since returning to Perth, I’ve looked at other people with the same awe that my daughter brought to our elephant viewing. There is something important in realizing that travel is ultimately about being able to observe a distant place and people with recognition. To look at others and say, “What a big family! Just like us.”

Sisonke Msimang is a South African writer, activist, and political analyst based in Perth, Western Australia. She published her first book, Always Another Country, in 2018 and is at work on her first novel.
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