On March 16, 2020, Patrick Phiri arrived in the small Dutch village of Middelstum (population 2,419) in the far north of the Netherlands. Patrick had traveled from Malawi to spend three weeks with his fiancée, Fiona, whom he'd met when they were both working for Heifer International, a nonprofit group that supports agricultural projects. He wanted to ask her parents for permission to marry their daughter. They agreed and welcomed him with open arms. A week later Patrick popped the question and Fiona said yes. Then, pandemic travel bans hit, and Patrick's three-week visit ended up lasting seven and a half months. On Nov. 3, 2020, he returned to Malawi without his Fiona. "Leaving Middelstum was bittersweet for me," he says. "But I had to go back. There was so much I needed to attend to." To catch up with the couple, we visited Fiona at her home where we joined by Patrick (via WhatsApp).
The first thing Patrick did when he got home was hug his 3-year-old daughter, Zara, from a former relationship. It had been seven months since he saw her last. He was afraid she would not recognize him. Thankfully, she did. "She was so happy to see me. She was crying tears of joy. It was a beautiful experience as a father."
Due to his prolonged absence, Patrick's employer had terminated his contract in October 2020, and he was given a lump sum payment as compensation. Patrick used this money to buy the three-acre plot of land on which he and Fiona planned to build their house.
Having both grown up on farms, they were looking for somewhere quiet. Neither were interested in city life. "But it is close to a main road into the city for when we want to buy something in town," Patrick explains.
Back in Middelstum, Fiona continued to work as a team leader for her local health authority while finishing her studies to become an animal health specialist. Her job and her thesis keep her from thinking about the separation from her fiancé: "As soon as I am done with work or I have a day off, I miss Patrick a lot more."
For Patrick, things were tougher. He busied himself with the construction of a small house, drawing on his compensation money. He also planted more than 1,800 fruit trees on the property. Fiona is happy to leave it all up to Patrick: "I trust him 100%. I told him to do what he thinks is right."
But Patrick no longer had a job and he'd given up his house in Thyolo, a city in Southern Malawi; he wanted to live in Lilongwe full-time to keep an eye on the building project. After staying with a friend for a few months, he moved in with his brother. The stress of it all gave him stomach trouble, which doctors later diagnosed as an ulcer. "I was missing Fiona a lot, feeling lonely. Not finding a job ... it was hard."
Over time, money became tight; Patrick had spent most his savings to buy the land and build a small house where the couple would live until they are able to build a more permanent, much larger house on the same property.
Even painting, which he had so enjoyed in the Netherlands, was a challenge. "It was cheap to buy the canvas and paints in Middelstum. But in Malawi, you have to buy the cloth, and then you have to go to a carpenter to make the frame, and the paints are expensive," he says.
It was difficult for Fiona to see Patrick go through all this on his own: "He was so stressed. It was a bad time for him. I felt so powerless."
But soon she was able to help. Fiona got a promotion in January and started sending money to help with the building costs.
The two keep in close contact with messages and calls. Every evening, when Fiona gets off work, they talk for two hours. "I make sure I have no plans, and my friends all know that they won't be able to reach me. Eight to ten is my Patrick time!" Fiona laughs.
Absence makes their hearts grow closer
Fiona and Patrick feel their relationship is stronger than ever. Even though they are thousands of miles apart, they can relate to each other's experiences. "I spent time in Malawi, and Patrick spent time in Middelstum. That was really important," Fiona says.
Patrick is reflective about their current situation. "We have to accept it and we have to support each other. It's not how we want things to be, or how I visualized it was going to be, but you can never predict what the future holds. For now, it is what it is."
Fiona's parents, Rita and Aaldert, are keen for their daughter to reunite with Patrick. Not because they want her out of the house, but they know she will be happier in Malawi with her husband-to-be. "My mother can't wait for me to be there. Also, she really wants grandchildren," Fiona says.
Love Conquers Pandemic Hiccup
Hard as Fiona and Patrick might be working to reunite, their fortunes are still linked to the ebb and flow of COVID-19. As the virus spread and retreated and then spread again, the return to in-class learning was postponed. And although Fiona could now technically fly to Malawi, a visit was out of the question — she was afraid of new travel restrictions that might prevent her from returning home for her studies.
All the same, they're forging ahead with preparations for their life together. Patrick is excited about the house they are building. "In two or three months it will be finished ... an amazing feeling."
Fiona hopes to graduate in December. "I am really focused on preparing for my move as much as possible. I really can't wait."
The couple have been amazed by all the messages of support they've received since NPR first wrote about them in 2020. Says Patrick: "We hope our story continues to inspire others and that you will all stay with us till the wedding."
Nick Schonfeld is an award-winning advertising writer. In 2015, he quit his job and now divides his time between writing children's books and working on stories about affordable health care, gender equality, education and social justice.