When you’re a stranger

It is a categorical fact that often when one part of your life is sort of spinning out of control, another piece steps up to the plate and anchors itself in the ordinary, as if to save your somewhat drowning soul from swallowing itself up completely. By last week, the universe had apparently had enough of my self-indulgent whinging and decided to head-butt me back into reality by sticking its foot in the great big giant door I had decided to slam on myself just long enough to make me turn around and peer in on what I was missing.

It was strange and had a bit of that “Alice in Wonderland” affect to it that I love — as if the world suddenly stopped and slowly fell into this perfect, genuine, colorful frozen portrait. It was almost like how they reenact taking an old-fashioned photo in a movie scene: Point. Click. Poof!, as that burst of smoke sort of mushrooms out of the camera’s flash and everyone in the picture stops in this perfectly framed shot.

I was in camp last Thursday in the late afternoon, walking towards the schools to drop of a letter for one of the headmasters. I crossed the new road that bisects one end of camp from the other and started down the clay pathway towards the Primary and further down, the Secondary school. Children were giggling and chatting as they ran out from the end of classes for the day; teachers and parents were on their way up the road to catch mini-buses home or to walk back into camp; the sky was filled with nothing but lazy afternoon sun and big blue sky on one side and slightly grumpy looking rain clouds on the other, which gave off the effect of the reddish-clay buildings with the blue framed windows and bright red flowers underneath, being super-saturated in primary colors. I literally stopped dead in my tracks. I have entered the Twilight Zone, I thought to myself, it’s a good Twilight Zone, but I have definitely shifted sideways into another reality.

That was the first thing that came to my mind. The second thing that dawned on me as I stood there, saying hello to passing children and adults, my feet and my flip-flops covered in clay mud, smiling by myself and sort of stupidly looking around was: I fit. I don’t know how or why and I don’t really even care, but right here and right now, at this very second, I fit. I am supposed to be nowhere else but here.

I write a lot about the obvious, about how it’s strange to be a Westerner in a very non-Western environment at the camp, or maybe less ostensibly about how anonymity around here is a statistical impossibility whether it be because of the color of my skin, or the fact that I am a fish out of the water of my own culture, or because in this culture, social privacy is frowned upon and considered something spoilt or rude. I don’t pretend that I “belong” here, because I don’t. I do not make assumptions that I am “one of them,” because I’m not. I am a white American woman who works at a Malawian refugee camp, which is almost a country (or many countries) unto itself. I unquestionably do not blend in, so to speak. Oddly, and I mean this in a very different way, neither do the refugees, even those who have been in this country over 15 or more years. I live in a wholly alternate reality than they do, there is no doubt about that, but on the simplest, most superficial level, all of us are just strangers in Malawi, circling around one another like little planets and moons, getting sucked into different kinds of gravity depending on what we’re running from, or where we’re going, or where or who we are trying to be.

That other day in camp was not some kind of drastic epiphany, more so it was just this comforting realization that somewhere along the way I managed to become part of the crazy background scenery of this place. I’m like the new neighbor you pass everyday on your way to work who you know nothing about but wave to anyway. Or the new kid at school who has actually been there a year but whom you still insist on calling, “the new kid.” I’m the way you know your hometown smells and looks, even if you haven’t been there in a coon’s age. I’m just…here. Around. Present. All in this mini-community halfway around the world from where I call home.

But as I write this, I’m sort of smiling, because I know that it is so blatantly the other way around – this place has found its piece in my life puzzle, it’s gone from being the new kid to old friend, from odd neighbor to comforting companion, from bizarre and foreign to my everyday thing. Strangers in a strange land? Sure, all of us are. But I am not a stranger here. And today, and maybe only for today, that is everything and the only thing I need it to be.

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