a year later: on being ‘back’

It has recently been making itself known to me that it is a year since I finished my travels on my fellowship. Perhaps it’s because it’s now getting warmer in Nairobi- and it had been a while since I was in one place long enough to see all the changes in weather over a period of time. The year after the fellowship has not been one where I have come up with all the solutions or the answers- perhaps more of the opposite! But it has been filled with lots of lessons and growings. Now as I plan to move out of my parents’ house and put into action more of the plans swirling in my head, I find myself thinking- a year, that wasn’t too bad. But when you’re living the days, hours and seconds of uncertain situations you only wonder when the fog will lift. These are some of my reflections of this rollercoaster year and why I think I am in a good place in my journey.

'Look up' A bench in Stellenbosch - photo by B. Ericksen
‘Look up’ A bench in Stellenbosch – photo by B. Ericksen

Expectations don’t always pan out: they don’t. That is all. A friend of mine from college was talking about how we are so used to going going going, and jumping onto the next thing without taking time to realise what just went past. A question one gets frequently when in college in the US is ‘Do you know what you’ll be doing….?’ where … could be this summer, next summer, after you graduate- questions which make you think you absolutely always have to know your future 4 steps ahead.

I got home and jumped into applications for graduate school, sure that that is what I wanted to do next, and after all, the plan had been graduate college + 2 years to get ‘work experience’ = graduate school. I got into the schools I applied to, but ended up deciding not to go due to funding. In that process I also found other programmes I would have loved to join even more. And I have had the opportunity to stay in Kenya for a bit longer and relearn home and the way home works which I otherwise wouldn’t have if I had been up and away no sooner than I was back.

You should have a plan A, B, Ci, Cii…: This is sage advice from my mum to me when I told her that I am usually a single plan person. Yeah….that doesn’t work. I got back home intending to go back to Tanzania to keep volunteering at the community centre I had been at. Someone on the board of directors had asked me to go back. Then after 3 months or so of waiting and now you see me, now you don’t communication that plan fell through. To be honest, I was relieved to know for sure rather than be in the grey area I had been in prior to that, but at the same time, freaked out, because having given my word to go back, I hadn’t been looking for a job. I scrambled in late December, early January to look for and find a job…and realised that those are not that easy to come by in Kenya’s economy….But I learnt that multiple plans is the way to go.

Realising my positionality: Studying abroad is great for the opportunities it brings you into contact with (all the travel I’ve done for example), but you have to do the legwork to remain relevant and keep ‘having a finger on the pulse’ of home as it were. I came back home and began to do the research to find what was out there, while simultaneously realising that my former classmates had had the chance to build those crucial connections in the 4 years I was away. And I was at ground zero. But what better place to start building from – although in the moment (and through sobs and all) I didn’t necessarily think so- hindsight is 20-20 as they say. My advice to anyone studying abroad and intending to go back home is to have this end point in mind and make plans for that ‘re-entry’. I realised for example that for many research jobs in Kenya a Masters or a PhD was the minimum requirement…or many years of experience. While I still wouldn’t have gone straight to graduate school after college, finding this out while I was looking for a job was quite the disheartener.

Balancing expectations: There is a stereotype at home (and elsewhere in Africa) that when someone goes off to the US they are expected to come back home with bags upon bags of money (because of course it grows on trees there, and didn’t so and so’s daughter come with the same) and a few cars in tow (in addition to degrees and such, but don’t forget the money!). Those were the expectations of many people around me. Why had I wasted my chance, and come back with nothing? Living with, and having those expectations and pressures not kill you get you all the way down forever was a lesson I had to learn. Self-care was/is crucial as is reminding yourself that you have worth and it is no less simply because you don’t quantify it in bags of money.

4 years away and especially when you’re young also means you come back home a different person; and I came back home a VERY different person (I grew a foot taller….jk). Some of those changes the people closest to me weren’t as ecstatic about as I was (go figure…). Which has meant some lost relationships and needing to re-inscribe a circle of like people around me. It has also meant learning how to maintain sanity and stay true to myself and my ideals while managing the reality of a place or of people who aren’t there yet.

Breathing and reflecting: What I said about self-care. So necessary.

My path is not anyone else’s: This is the piece that thanks to a few wonderful people I have been blessed to meet I continue to learn. My path is simply that, my path. And it doesn’t have to look, doesn’t need to look, and in fact probably will never look like anyone else’s. And to be fine with that. This poem by Antonio Machado is one I like to go back to- “there is no path. The path is made by walking.” And how I walk and in which directions (although I may meet fellow wayfarers) is different from anyone else’s.

Staying true (to my beat): In this year (after the fellowship but also 2015) I reminded myself that one of the key things I wanted out of my fellowship was to share my learnings, and to connect experiences from the different places I went to. So I revived my blog, began to write more regularly in order to realise what I know- and even publish in other blogs. I started teaching dance in Nairobi like I had done in Mexico (because we are the ones we have been waiting for). I have a list of volunteer and activism projects I want to and I’m excited to get involved with. I manage communications for a heritage non-profit and find it an excellent way to stay learning as well as to practise forms of teaching, since that is what I want to do eventually. And through my current workplace and personal projects I am widening my circle and in effect getting to know this place I call home (again).

After much wandering
I came back to the rock.

It looked much the same-
new bits of moss in places,
but a newness that did not
hide away the old familiarness.

Perhaps this was the problem.
The familiarness made me blind
to the newness.
I had to climb it,
and began to search for
footholds, pockets, guides
on the clamber up.

Something that would allow
re-entry into a world
formerly known.

c Dec 2013

On Piramide de la Luna

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