The struggles of coming back

It’s funny to see that, when we first arrived in our sites in-country, we were crying because we didn’t want to stay. We all cried at the end because we didn’t want to leave.

Now I’m back home and everything feels surreal.

I used to find comfort in rooftops. I spent 8 months on rooftops to admire the sky full of bright stars. After my afternoon apprenticeship, right before dinner, I would take the nat with me, go upstairs and lay down. There was always a fresh breeze, and the moon was always the first one to reveal itself. Then, stars would appear, slowly at first then all at once. I learned to recognize each stars, each constellations. They were a constant for me, and a symbol of peace. But now I live in the city and sadly, the sky is not as bright and nothing feels as right. The air is polluted by oily cars and loud bazaars, so I cannot appreciate the fresh breeze anymore. I have yet to find a place at home where I would find myself such at peace.

My mom doesn’t understand why I keep walking barefoot. Or why I didn’t eat that tasty rice she cooked yesterday. The truth is, I have eaten rice every single day for the past 8 months. I loved it back then, but for some reason my body is just not able to eat anymore of it. My appetite goes MIA just at the smell of rice. I am not used to eating meat either. I remember complaining so much about not enough proteins in my diet at the beginning of my gap year, and now I can spend days without touching that piece of chicken on the plate.

I take more care of my physical self now. I used to go around town with my “lazy dresses” and messy hair because “I’m an independent woman who can do anything that she wants”. But then, my host mom taught me that those were not appropriate behaviours in Khombole. There, women had to look good wherever they go. They always had to shower and wear beautiful dresses before going out and that, even if it was only to go to the market. Now, my sister mocks me when I put on mascara to go to the market down the street. She doesn’t understand that it was a habit that I have picked on throughout the months.

My biggest, reverse cultural shock occurred when I was walking in town in California. There, I realized that I was insignificant. No one looked at me to say hi with a big smile, nor did they wish peace upon me. People were passing next to me, rushing to get to a place only they knew. Everyone else were on their phones. Rare were those taking the time to talk to each other, or to lazily drink ataya on the porch. No one was dancing on the streets or loudly humming religious chants. I didn’t see young kids on the streets playing soccer, nor did I find my favourite shop with my favourite Cakri. People were just in their individual bubbles, and I was struggling to feel connected to any of them.

I also miss friends, those who grew with me during that significant experience. I keep thinking of those late evenings, when my two Khombole girls and I would sit and talk in front of the small restaurent in our neighbourhood. I would be singing loudly to Mamma Mia with Pawla while rapping carrots, and eating out of Nisha’s fresh fries. They would always scold me for coming late to ALL of our meetings and events, and I would justify myself by saying that “it was all part of the cultural experience”. Pawla and I were used to eating non-stop, because food was always available, everywhere we went. Not to forget my deep reflections with Phoebe on identity, politics and music. The two of us were always criticizing the colonial influence in Senegal, while wondered about our current self, and wether it would persist when we go back home.

And the truth is, I am still fighting to stay the same as I was in Khombole, but my environnement is threatening me. I want to smile and say hi to everyone, but how am I suppsed to do so when every time I look straight at a stranger, they look away? How can I explain to Western foreigners that it is wrong to volunteer in an African country “just to aid the poor and boost my resume”, without seeming pessimistic?

Now, I rest confused in a place I used to call home. I become quickly misunderstood amongst my family and friends. I have travelled the world and used to going away, but it’s always hard to come back. Because coming back has never been easy. It just gets harder the more you leave.