We used to talk about it in Dar—what it would be like when we went back. Went home. What overload we’ll feel, we said! Shopping malls, anything you want, stuff everywhere, expensive jewelry, perfume, crowded restaurants.
We thought it would be unsettling, unnerving, shocking even. But in so many ways it’s not shocking.
You just go back.
Landed at Heathrow at 4:45 p.m. on a Wednesday. Zipped through immigration, followed the helpful signs to baggage claim, picked up a trolley for my bags, grabbed a coffee at Costa, and some money at the ATM (there were three to choose from). Used the toilet, then followed the signs to the bus stop, made it just in time for the 5:30 to Oxford.
It was rush hour and the motorway was bustling but moving steadily. Out the window, the hills were soft and green and dotted with sheep. A church steeple shone in the pale yellow sun. Tidy little cars drove down tidy little roads. Ten hours earlier I’d been with Frank, my taxi driver and friend in Dar, driving up the airport road in the sweaty crush of rush hour traffic, guys streaming by the window selling bananas and water.
Of course, I thought. Of course I am back and this is how it is.
I waited for the shock, the smack, but my mind was as flat as the window I was pressed up against.
Set out the next morning, grabbed a coffee and walked down Cornmarket street. Stopped in at Boots and walked down the lotion isle, the shampoo isle, flipped through some magazines. Tried on a sweater at Topshop. Kept walking. Felt listless. It started to rain, so I ducked in to a bookstore, sat down at a table in the café, and looked around at all the people sipping lattes, nibbling on cookies and cakes, talking, and I started to cry.
I was happy with less. The struggle we have in the West—with consumption, with the ability, now back again, to gratify any desire, any time, any place, is crushing, crushing in the sense that I sometimes feel so helpless against it.
But there’s another, subtler struggle that keeps burning long after you’ve forgotten what it’s like to eat less and spend less and live, mostly happily, with less.
It’s 6pm on a Thursday in Washington, DC, where I’ve settled now some three months out of Africa. My colleague, an old development hand, is packing her bag to go home, putting on a woolen cap to guard against the January chill.
—Terrible out isn't it, I say, while a dark spatter of rain hits the window.
—Yes, she says. I can't wait to get out of here.
She tells me she’s leaving for Bali soon, to wait out the winter. She’s lived overseas for most of her career and misses the field. Life is better over there, she says.
I ask her: why do you think it is better?
I want her to explain it, to explain away the awfulness I’ve felt since I’ve been back, the longing to return.
I hadn’t wanted to leave Africa. I’d realized this gradually during my last few months living on the continent. But things were set, and when I stood on the rooftop in Dar and looked out over the city the night before flying out, I felt a sort of inevitability about it. And a strange sense of loss.
A month later I was back in Washington, walking down K Street on my wait to a meeting, when I noticed my finger: the thin silver band I had bought in Swaziland was gone.
I’d found it at a little shop just outside Mbabane. It was small—two very thin silver bands, one rough, the other polished, fused together. To me, it was perfect. I don’t wear jewelry, but when I saw it, I wanted to seize it, as if I’d finally found some little scrap that fit me. I would look down at it all the time, turn it round and round on my finger.
I ran in my high heels back to the World Bank, to the bathroom where I thought I left it while I was washing my hands, but it wasn’t there. So I ran to the reception and told them I had lost something. I was out of breath, my face was red, and I spoke in the unnatural voice that comes when you are trying to hold back tears.
The woman manning the phones sat up in her chair and asked: Have you gone back to the bathroom and looked for it?
—Yes, I said.
She frowned a little, straightening her navy blue blazer. Have you gone to lost and found?
—Yes. And now there were tears streaming down my face.
She gave her colleague an uncomfortable sideways glance. Sorry, she said. Was it your wedding ring?
—No, I said, choking out the words. But it was precious to me. I can never replace it. I have to get it back.
We searched and searched—the security folks, the people who work in the cafeteria, everyone. But it was gone.
I remember sitting around an outdoor fire one night in Lusaka with some expat aid workers. The evening was wearing thin, and while people murmured quietly and stared into their glasses, I watched the fire.
A friend, sitting directly across from me, broke the quiet murmur: Lindsay, he said, what’s your favorite thing about Zambia?
All eyes on me. “The expats,” I said. They laughed quietly.
He pressed on, no really, what is it about this place that made you want to come back?
I said: the space.
A friend of mine spent two years in Mauritania. One night in DC, over a dinner of hotdogs and red wine (if you know me then you understand how typical this is), I tell him how hard it is to be back, how unhappy I am, and unhappy I am at myself for feeling unhappy.
—What was it like for you, when you came back, I ask him?
—Everything seemed banal, he said, circumscribed.
I tell him I feel the same way but then point out the irony. I complained all the time when I lived in Dar: “And you? Life here—boring and banal? You lived in a village in rural Mauritania.”
He laughed: “Yeah, I was bored all the time there. But just being there was enough. Just going through the motions was interesting.”
He tells me about being at a party one night and thinking that every conversation was meaningless. “I felt like everyone needed to be shaken out of the routines they were living in. It was hard. And I had a hard time connecting. It was like there were people everywhere, but they were just passing each other.”
It was like what my colleague, now in Bali, eventually told me on that cold January night: “There’s too much stuff here. Over there, we were a part of each other’s lives.”
I guess the longing for Africa comes from a combination of these things. I liked having fewer choices; I was happy when I had less stuff.
I liked how involved friends were in each others lives, almost as if we were family. I liked how we saw each other all the time, stayed at each other’s houses, the sense of camaraderie, the way we felt bound together by shared experience, like refugees in a foreign land.
And I liked the sense of freedom, the vastness of the landscape, like staring out across the ocean. I liked getting on planes every other week, hopping between countries as if they were metro stops. And meeting new people who did the same thing, floating out there in space and time.
I’ve spent a lot of time looking back.
But the truth is, being expats in excruciatingly poor countries cannot be the only way to live like that, that is, to live with less stuff, to live together, and to be free. There has to be a way to make that real where ever we are.