This evening I’ll take a plane out of Africa for the first time in 11 months. Sound like a long time? It feels like a long time. And yet I immediately think of a story told by a development old-timer who did Peace Corps in the early 80s in Niger. His posting was rural but not inaccessible – a fellow volunteer, on the other hand, had been placed in the north, in an area where there were no roads, only open grasslands that one could venture across with the appropriate vehicle and, presumably, a local guide. This other volunteer, probably younger than I am now, was dropped off by such a vehicle and left there for two years until the same vehicle reappeared on the horizon to announce the end of his stay. Now perhaps this story has gained some flare over time but, regardless, two years in rural Niger without any sort of access to the outside world or the multitudes of comforts I take for granted in Kampala – now that’s tough to wrap my head around. Does it make this experience seem inadequate or any less real? No, but it does make me appreciate both the rapid, albeit limited / inequitable, development of the last 30 years and the resulting relative ease of doing business as a development professional in Africa.
My thoughts on going home? First to family and friends I’ve gone too long without seeing. And second, perhaps oddly, to the anonymity of being an American in America. You’ll all know where I’ve been these last 11 months, but, when I walk down the streets of D.C. tomorrow morning nobody else will have any idea that I’ve been abroad, that I’ve been living a life that some consider blog-worthy. What’s the appeal? In some sense the anonymity allows me to lower my guard – to know that I can walk down the street without catching a disproportionate number of eyes. To enter a gas station, café or pizza shop and receive the customary service – be it with a smile or otherwise – as if there is nothing out of the ordinary about my presence. Third, the cold. I’ve recently caught myself wearing flannel shirts and hoodies and then checking the weather to learn it’s 70* – I’m actually a bit nervous. Fourth, home cooked food and VT beer.
I can already anticipate seeing the beggars in the subways; their reminding me that I need not travel so far to find poverty, and me recalling that I’ve still never answered the question as to why I choose to venture abroad nonetheless.
I have a vivid image of driving home along the long open stretches of route 89 through New Hampshire – a nice rural road by any standards – a superhighway without comparison in the context of east Africa.
I promise I won’t complain about unloading the dishwasher this winter.
In going home I just might go an entire day without hearing a rooster crow. I work on the 5th floor of an office building in one of the nicer business / NGO districts of Kampala and I’d say with some confidence that there hasn’t been a single day in the last 300 without the sounds of chickens mixed with traffic.
In all likelihood I’ll go an entire week, or even four, without experiencing a power outage. “Power outage” isn’t even a term here. We now come into the office every morning and ask, hopefully, if power “is there today?” That’s a lie – most days the answer is made obvious by the presence or absence of a series of cheap petrol generators spewing a low rumble and noxious fumes on the small balcony of each office. Why? The continued aftermath of a government that emptied the treasury on a reelection campaign and the purchase of antiquated fighter jets. I’m ready to come home and reconnect with a place I love, and a place where such stories are simply not normal.
That said, am I ready to be done with Uganda? Not quite. Come January I suspect I’ll be ready to return. But I am certainly ready to come home now, if only for a month. Perhaps check back in 2012.