We’ve been following the pandemic love affair of Patrick Phiri of Malawi and Fiona ten Have of the Netherlands. They first met when they were working for Heifer International, a nonprofit group that supports agricultural projects. In March of 2020 Patrick arrived in the small Dutch village of Middelstum (population 2,419) in the far north of the Netherlands to ask Fiona’s parents for permission to marry her. They said yes, but pandemic travel bans stretched his three-week visit to seven and a half months. There were further delays in their wedding plans — but this summer the couple finally wed.
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Wednesday, July 27, 2022 is a warm and beautiful blue-sky day in Middelstum, the Netherlands. Patrick Phiri stands next to me, fidgeting nervously with his violet boutonnière — the little bouquet worn on the lapel of a men’s suit jacket. I put down my recorder and notebook and give him a hand.
“This day is a dream come true for me,” he says quietly.
In about an hour, at 2pm, Patrick will marry Fiona ten Have, at Loppersum town hall. “I will spend the rest of my life with Fiona on our farm,” he announces to no one in particular.
When looking back at all the twists and turns of their relationship, you’d be forgiven for betting against Patrick and Fiona making it this far. Theirs has been a COVID-19 love-story spanning two continents and one which many couples wouldn’t have survived.
Julia Gunther for NPR
We first reported on Fiona and Patrick’s story back in October 2020. The couple’s budding relationship was being put to the test after Patrick’s three-week visit to the Netherlands ended up lasting seven and a half months because of the pandemic travel ban.
Julia Gunther for NPR
In 2021, we caught up with them again, this time to see how they were coping during a 16-month stint living apart. Fiona was busy working as a team leader for her local health authority in the Netherlands; she sent money to Patrick, so that he could continue building their farm in Malawi.
A lot has happened since then, so to catch up we sat down with the couple on their wedding day in Middelstum, the Netherlands.
In March 2022, universities in the Netherlands reopened. Fiona could finally graduate as an animal health specialist. Soon after, she flew to Malawi. “It was amazing to see each other after 16 months,” Fiona explains.
Fiona recalls how good it felt to walk around the farm she had worked so hard to finance but had only ever seen in pictures. “It was so exciting to see where my money went. This was what my future was going to look like.”
Patrick was proud to show Fiona the home he had been working on so hard while they were apart: “This is where Mr. and Mrs. Phiri-Ten Have will be staying in the years to come,” Patrick said as he and Fiona gave me a tour of the farm in April of this year.
The couple settled in to what was supposed to be a 3-month push to finish building their house and lay the groundwork for Fiona’s permanent move to Malawi later in 2022. But, just as they were rediscovering what it was like to live together, life threw them yet another curveball.
Patrick learned that he’d been awarded a one-year scholarship from the Marshall Papworth Fund to study horticulture at Writtle University College in the U.K. He’d applied for the scholarship back in 2019, but had to defer twice because of the pandemic. It felt as if it would never happen, so Patrick had given up and focussed on readying the farm in Malawi.
Patrick was excited. He’d always wanted to pursue a master’s degree abroad — in Malawi, employers often prefer hiring people who’ve studied in the U.K. or U.S. as their education systems are considered superior. A master’s would dramatically improve his chances of finding a good job.
Although Patrick and Fiona would be returning to Malawi to farm, Patrick was keen to get a contract with one of the many nonprofit groups as a project officer. The farm would take a while to be profitable, and they would have more construction costs to cover.
But Fiona had her doubts about the plan. “I was frustrated. My life was on hold, again,” she admits.
Fiona, though, understood how important this scholarship could be for their future. Also, the delay in moving to Malawi would give her time to earn more of the money the couple needed to build their family home. “I didn’t want to move into an unfinished house if we’re trying to start a family,” Fiona explains.
So, for the third time in their relationship, Patrick and Fiona decided to rearrange their life together. She would return to Middelstum, find a new job, and move back in with her parents while Patrick studied in the U.K.. If all goes well and Patrick graduates, the couple plans to return to Malawi permanently to raise a family.
They also made another, far bigger, decision: to marry in the Netherlands. “I felt that if I was going to get married, then the official part should be there,” Fiona says. Patrick adds, “Before we left, we went to my parents to ask for their blessings for this day. They gave us all their support.”
Fiona didn’t tell her mother, Rita, that Patrick was traveling with her to Middelstum. “He suddenly walked into the kitchen and my mother just stood there, speechless,” she recalls. “But my parents loved the fact that Patrick would spend the next three months with us.”
It took several hectic weeks to get all the paperwork in order for Fiona and Patrick to be allowed to marry in the Netherlands. “I even needed to get a declaration from the Malawian government to prove that I was not already married,” Patrick recounts. But everything was signed and submitted in time, and so, on July 27, on that warm blue-skied day, Fiona and Patrick tied the knot.
The wedding ceremony at Loppersum city hall lasted all of five minutes. Keen to save money, the couple had chosen the cheapest marriage package on offer: a maximum of 10 guests and a quick repeating of vows. The small wedding party was led into the room. The official said a few words; the couple exchanged rings and said “I do”, and that was that.
Patrick was a bit surprised by how matter-of-fact it all was. “In Malawi, there is more dancing. We make a lot of noise,” he says, thinking about weddings in his homeland. I would love for Fiona to experience this.” The couple hope to have a second wedding in Malawi once they’ve moved there.
Patrick also keenly felt the absence of his family. “It is really emotional to not have my parents here.” Patrick also missed his 4-year-old daughter, Zara, who lives with his ex-girlfriend in Blantyre, a city on the south of Malawi. The couple made sure to have Patrick’s parents and his brothers and sister be present for the wedding via video chat.
Fiona and Patrick have lived in Middelstum for two and a half months now, falling into the same familiar rhythms they followed during their seven-month lockdown in 2020. While Fiona is at work, Patrick tends to the garden, helps around the house and paints.
“When I get home, dinner is waiting for me, and the dishwasher and washing machine have been emptied,” Fiona adds with a smile.
Like any other couple thinking about their future together, Patrick and Fiona are not without worries. Patrick hopes his studies will help him provide for his family-to-be. “I have not been employed for two years. So I want this master’s to help me secure a better job.”
Fiona is looking for stability. “I just hope I can have my farm, my goats, my children.”
She continues, “Of course, there are times when I question whether we’re doing the right thing. But I love Patrick so much that those moments of doubt seem trivial compared to my desire to be with him.”
Although he is not looking forward to another year apart, this time around Patrick isn’t worried about the distance from his school in the U.K. “It is not far from the Netherlands. An hour and twenty minutes by plane. If I miss her, or she misses me, we can travel to see each other.”
However, Patrick is cutting it close. He only handed in his visa application on August 16, and he now faces an anxious three to six-week wait to see if he will actually be able to enter the U.K. before his school starts on September 16.
Patrick doesn’t know what will happen if his visa does not come through in time. In theory, he would have to reapply, which could take weeks or even months. But Patrick and Fiona are staying positive. Says Patrick: “We are married and together.”
Whatever the future holds, the couple are eager to start the next chapter of their love story.
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.