A Fullsoulers’ return home from Uganda…
As a part of an academic-based service-learning experience program, I found myself living in Uganda’s capital city, Kampala, for the summer of 2013. Throughout my three months in Kampala, I had met FullSoul’s very own co-founder (pre-FullSoul!) Christina, and we met up a few times to explore some of Uganda together. As the three months sped by, and my time living in the quiet(er) district of Kampala was coming to a close, I was preparing, however reluctantly, to return home to Canada— back to school and life in Southwestern Ontario.
Tearful goodbyes, and nkwagala nyo (I love you so much in Luganda!) to each of my house-mates and friends, and into the van to the Entebbe airport for the first time again in just over 100 days. After a quick move through security, we were on our first plane in a 24-hour journey home. A quick re-fuel in Rome and then a very long overnight flight forward through the time-zones that had kept me quite confused for the past 3 months, and the flight landed in Pearson International Airport in Toronto and that was that— 102 days of living abroad done, and we were back.
That first day back, with a lot of jet-lag, I stayed awake with my family, partner and excitement of another new location. The tiredness did not really dissipate for a few weeks- time-change is a very strange thing, and I was feeling groggy, nearly constantly tired and had little appetite, especially for this strange Canadian food. In the years since, I have come to see that there was more than jet-lag in this. Coming home is so much more. Even three years later, their are parts and pieces that still feel like they are returning, and some I’m quite sure will not come back to me.
Christina has told me a story of her own return that I think encompasses many pieces of my own experience; Coming back from her own 4 month co-op placement, she went right back into classes at the University of Waterloo- which also meant finding a place to live here. This meant house-searches and tours with some of the many landlords and property managers that thrive in the University-Student market in Waterloo. In the days just following those goodbyes, flight(s) and essentially time-travel, she found herself in the laundry room of a rental home in Waterloo, crying. She had spent that 4 months hand-washing her clothes- a process that I also experienced as as an often enjoyable source of bonding with my house-mates, but non-the-less difficult, especially having never experienced this before. Now, she was faced with a washing machine- and dryer- all within her home-to-be. The contrast is striking. I’m sure somewhere in that difference is a sense of relief to not be spending hours to clean one’s clothes, but like I mentioned- that was often a time of community and conversation for me in Uganda. A time where my Ugandan roommates would tease and teach me how to properly wash my clothes and shoes; a time where you could literally feel the red Kampalan dust and dirt come from your clothes, all by your own power. Now, standing stilling inanimately in front of her was a machine to take away this dirt-it would get the job done quickly, rather quietly and completely out of sight.
However, I think more impactful and what continues even three years after our first time “Coming Home”, is how much those differences separate that experience- our lives in Uganda- to what we know in Canada- perhaps in many ways changing this to what we knew…
For myself, and as documented by many fellow travellers to those ‘lesser-developed’ regions of our world, returning home brought- and continues to bring- what has been commonly termed as “reverse-culture shock”; ultimately, this is the same experience as when one enters a new, different country or area that has a different culture than what they experience as home. Reverse, therefore, is having experienced this new culture, and returning to one that is familiar, but changed, questioned or perhaps even un-relatable through the experience of the new culture. One example for me helped me to further understand this: I had been driving myself in Canada for at least 4 years, yet after 3 months in a country where traffic drove on the opposite side of the road, I was suddenly questioning which way I was supposed to do it. This did not help with taking my G test a few months after returning, and sometimes still it is something that has to be a conscious though- not instinctual, as it was before. As more time went on, I felt frustrated with this experience. Many of the things that were making me feel this aversion were questions of human interaction- why people would not share space on a bus when in Kampala folks would make room for as many people as possible. I missed the community and close connections that I experienced in the big city of Kampala.
Since coming home, I have taken to building my experience of Uganda into my every-day- I began a placement at my local HIV Organization, doing similar work to the AIDS Service Organization that I was working with in Kampala, where I had had all of my training and learning of HIV to that point. It was interesting to be in a similar space here, comforting in fact to continue to work within a topic that I had grown to love while in Uganda, yet interesting that the way stigma, HIV status and testing differs from Southwestern Ontario and Kampala, Uganda. Having these reminders, not only of the beautiful and positive parts of the trip, but also the social issues and struggles that were connected to it, can be incredibly powerful in keeping that experience alive and well. It is easy to ‘sugar-coat’ the stories when we come home, sharing the cute antidotes and fun photos with our friends and families- almost keeping on those rose-coloured sunglasses even when we move farther away from the equator’s sun. Perhaps this is ‘easier’ because that experience was ours, your own feelings and memories may not translate, for reasons more than just language differences. It can be difficult to instead share those more difficult experiences- of witnessing poverty and slums in a very real and close context, perhaps working with HIV, TB or malaria- diseases that are either rare or ignored in our own countries, striking differences in the availability of education and employment. Yet, as those who have experienced these contrasts- these details can be the most riveting, empowering to change and well, life-changing, for both those that experience them and hear of them.
Personally, I struggled greatly with this change, and ended up reaching out to a lot of counselling services in trying to manage and understand what I had experienced and was experiencing since coming home. Many folks who travel speak of their experience as life-changing, and while this is sometimes considered cliche, it often seems to be the most accurate description when coming home. Many will say things in comment to how little those that they connected with in this new country had, yet they are happier or more grateful than those familiar faces at home. Of course there is something to be said here for perspective, cultural standards and traditions, and how these travellers are interacting with those of their host country, but the point remains that a difference is noticed, often more-so in the reflections of returning home.
There is often a lot of privilege in travelling, and I question my own bias and status in this experience often. Firstly, an international experience, through University, in a country where I became a visible minority (therefore I am not usually), so even in Canada I come from a very privileged place. Then going to a country where I am viewed as even more so, I have really tried to be open to every part of understanding where this places me in the world and my experiences. Working in a social-justice, anti-oppressive service setting is something that I was already quite set on, and this experience opened infinite questions for me, all which I was trying to answer here at home. Being a part of FullSoul has been therapeutic, inspiring and life-changing in its’ own way; I remain connected to those that are also passionate about positive community-based change, the Uganda that I adore, and connecting with others that share these passions.
The most sense that I can make of coming home is this:
I have scarves bought in Uganda that still have some of that dirt-red colour to them. Those red marks were created there from walks to the market, boda-boda rides home after work, afternoons laying under the mango tree, nights cooking with my Ugandan family. They, for some time after still smelled of the busy copper and ruby streets in Kampala and the country. These scarves were strong and well-made- they made it through safaris, long work-days and a flight across the globe- yet delicate in their cloth, the fine fabric which makes them up and holds them together. They must be washed by hand, even here in Canada. I am sure that on a delicate setting, with some special detergent and fancy settings on a machine they would be okay. But I missed washing by hand, even now, but I know other ways are possible and perhaps more efficient. Now, however, I avoid this process to maintain the dirt. Sometime having those changed experiences, having some of that red dirt in my life, just seems right now, and washing, by hand, as gently as possible, keeps some of that red in my life. So I will keep hand-washing, I keep some of that dirt in the fabric, I keep working with FullSoul and finding ways to bring into my days the lush and harsh beauty, busied calm and complex simplicity of the life and love that experienced in Uganda, until I can return to my Ugandan home.
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