All things big and small

I’m in Dakar, Senegal sitting on a flight back to the U.S. that originated (originally) in Johannesburg via Lilongwe, as they transfer passengers and staff, restock food, fold up blankets, and get ready for yet another 8 hour trip to yet another destination. If this plane is anything, it is a metaphor for my life: Another country/city/place, everything I own packed neatly into three suitcases in the cargo hold and 2 carry-on bags in the overhead. A life lived abroad all suddenly coming to a strange and seemingly abrupt end.

The process of change and transition, no matter where one is geographically or psychically, is never easy. Moving my life from Lilongwe to California has been a series of mini battles – some good, some bad, some more complex than others, and almost all of which have been in my own head and my own heart. For almost two years, Lilongwe has been my home. And although I knew it was time to leave, even though I could feel my body and my heart telling me it was time to go, it just never felt like quite the right time. Now that I’m here, on this plane, it all seems too soon and too fast. It feels a bit like I’m about to walk into a party to which I was not necessarily invited…and one that I’m poorly prepared for (and certainly not dressed for) to boot.

My last week in Lilongwe was spent in tears: tears with my housemates, tears with my coworkers, and tears with my clients. I pulled out of camp last Thursday sobbing in the front of the Land Cruiser as a dozen of my women clients showed me off waving and crying themselves. It was heartbreaking in a way that I cannot even describe…quite honestly, I don’t really want to. Although it was a very public good-bye, on the inside it felt a lot like someone squeezing my heart until it bled.  Given the hiccupping sobs I was rocking while leaving camp that day, I’m sure this wasn’t exactly a secret to anyone within about a 1 kilometer radius.

There was simply no way to prepare for it – no matter the time or the place, that final day in camp was going to be heartbreakingly beautiful and desperately tragic, not just for me but for everyone whose lives I have become inextricably intertwined with over the past 20 months. I’m on a plane leaving Dakar in the middle of the night one week later and I’m on the brink of tears just discussing it. I get the feeling that maybe the overwhelming feeling of loss is never quite going to go away – I am, in many ways, willing it not to, like my emotional baggage is the last remaining link I have to my life in Africa which is quite literally getting farther and father away as I write.

I left Lilongwe on Tuesday, after a weekend of going-away dinners, going-away BBQs, going-aways in general. At one point I think I just stopped processing the whole thing and sort of flat-lined emotionally because the very thought that I wasn’t coming back this time was too goddamned unbearable to contemplate. Leaving Malawi was more than leaving a job that I loved:  It was leaving my people, a group of people who over the last 20 months have become my family and my support network, silly, loyal, and occasionally dysfunctional as we all are. I feel as thought I am leaving my home– and again, as I say these things typing in the middle of nowhere transatlantic-dome I am crying like a bit of a maniac and hoping that $2 Malawian valium is somewhere within arms reach for the next 8 hour leg of this trip. (Malawi lesson #252: It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. If you have a problem with that, mentally stated to the American man sitting next to me looking HORRIFICALLY uncomfortable as the woman next to him types and drips tears onto her keyboard, too bad. Pass the tissues, kids. I’ve got 14 more hours to go and I’m just getting started).

Malawi was not a “trip.” It was not “part of my travels.” I didn’t go there to party or go on adventures to the lake every weekend (although I will admit that these were all immense bonuses to the last nearly 2 years of my life). I went there to work and accidentally stumbled upon a life, one that I miss with an intensity I don’t yet know how to explain.  In many ways, Malawi made me whole again at a time when I didn’t even know how broken I really was. I found “people” in Malawi that I didn’t realize I needed until it all sort of tumbled together in this unexpected balance of f**ked up expats and life-hardened refugees. It just might be the most ridiculous faux group counseling scenario on the planet – and yet somehow, in sliding into all this, I rediscovered myself. I went to Malawi to help people put their emotional lives back together and in the process, it seems, I too ended up getting patched up along the way.

I always joke about how Malawi is like Never Never land, how even Peter Pan has to leave the island and grow up eventually. It recently occurred to me in a discussion with a friend that maybe this metaphor isn’t so accurate after all. Life in Malawi is very real, real on in-your-face levels few people in the West have to deal with on a regular basis. The last 20 months of my life has been a crash course in all things poignant: Death, dying, loss, hope, joy, love, and all sorts of in-between crazy shit I cannot even begin to explain. (Goat induced panic attacks? Three-quarter length suits? Inexplicable shortages of water, fuel, electricity, internet, and telephones occasionally all at the same time? $20 butter and the world’s most expensive processed cheese?). All of these ridiculous and amazing things, bundled into this crazy time and spread out over a refugee camp and an expat community I didn’t know I needed until I stumbled my way into all of it. And now? Now it’s over. And Peter Pan or not, it’s time for me to leave.

I know that going back to the U.S. is the right thing to do right now even if I feel like I am breaking my own heart and tearing myself away from the people I love…even if I feel like I don’t know what I’m going “home” to when home feels more like Africa than anywhere else. What scares me the most is not returning to the states, because I am looking forward to it on some level. I’m nervous about living in California for the first time in 8 years but this too is a new adventure and there is an anticipation about living in the place of my birth for the first time in what seems like eons.

What scares me the most right now, as I look west in the middle of the night over the Atlantic is facing the reality that a chapter in my life has closed for good. Malawi is over. My job is over. I have become another hole in the lives of my friends in Lilongwe and the people at Dzaleka…in time, I will just be another chapter in a story, but one that cannot be re-visited or re-opened. There will, quite simply, never be a time in any of our lives like this again.  It is so very Malawi by virtue of its beautiful tragedy – immensely joyful and sad, intriguing and terrifying, friendly and yet lonely all at the same time. And now? Now it exists in memory, like a scene in a snow globe: perfect and untouchable all at once.

I am, for once in my life, not whinging. I am not lamenting. I am not complaining. As sad as I feel right now, somewhere over the Atlantic between Africa and America, the emotions I feel are not out of angst, depression or despondency. Rather, they are out of love and immense gratitude to my friends, to my once-upon-a-time home in Africa, to my clients, and to the universe, I suppose, for taking me in, for dropping me on African soil, for making me part of a community I didn’t know I was supposed to be in until I got there.

I am not ready to say good-bye and so I won’t. I will simply say, “thank you”. To whom? Well, that is a list too long to start. You all know who you are. You know I miss you with an intensity that will probably always make me smile, and very well may always make me cry. Thank you for the blessings of the past 20 months. Thank you for teaching me to love. Thank you for gifting me back me. A million times thank you for all things big and small.

So, as they say in Malawi? Tionana. See you later, my loves. This is Meagan Demitz, a once-upon-a time Malawi expat, signing off the island for the last time.

Over and out. 

Uphill mud

Work on the international development scene moves slowly. Painfully. Dreadfully. Slower-than-mud-uphill-in-a-downpour SLOWLY. For the most part, I can testify from experience that a lot of this isn’t a whole lot different than working in nonprofit in the U.S. — There is never enough money, never enough time, and everyone could use about twice the number of staff to accomplish everything that needs to get done. It’s easy to let all of these crushing, unrelenting challenges throw you into a bit of daily spin cycle, one that oscillates between wanting to routinely punch walls and/or people in the face or the moments of near hysterical euphoria when something actually gets done. Those moments, where you really get to see a tangible end result for someone are like contemporary, enigmatic miracles. I would put it akin perhaps to witnessing the birth of your first child — an overwhelming expansion of awe, love, and gratitude made more intense by the very fact that you know moments like this in life are unique. They are special. And they are limited. They don’t happen everyday.

And that is the problem: They don’t happen everyday. In fact, sometimes they don’t happen at all.

Life for refugees in a refugee camp is a combination of bustling activity and the sheer freezing of time. People come, people go. Life happens, life stops. Wake, eat, sleep. Wake up and do it all again. Apart from the infinite seepage of days one into another, the other constant presence in camp is the sense that nothing ever actually gets accomplished. From refugees, to the implementing organizations, and back again, there is this tiring feeling that the search for help is just a fuzzy run through one big labyrinth that loops over and over again with no beginning and no end. Earlier I said that international development runs at a snails pace — here, from where I am standing at the moment, it doesn’t actually move at all. Here, it feels more like running through quicksand. Maybe even running backwards through quicksand, or doing the moonwalk through mud. Here, I sometimes get the feeling that if you were to just stop on that patch of unstable earth, it might actually swallow you whole, suck you under, and spit you out somewhere in China during the Middle Ages. How’s that for a commentary on the modern bureaucracy of international aid.

There is no possible way for any of us to truly envision what kind of nightmares force people to flee their homes and become refugees — husbands running with wives, with babies on their backs hand-in-hand in the middle of the night from a life that at one time was fruitful, peaceful and above all, happy. Think about this — I mean really, REALLY think about it. What kind of horror would it take for you to make the decision, sometimes in only a matter of minutes, to leave everything you owned, even people you loved, behind without any hope of return? And then, once you’ve lived through the seemingly unthinkable, and often, the unlivable, you find yourself marooned in a foreign land without papers, without money, without explanation, dazed and scared, unsure what the future will bring but knowing that the past is full of demons and monsters so evil you are scared to close your eyes at night for fear of what the dark may bring. So here you are, in this place you are now to call “home” — maybe you’ve been here for years at this point. And all around you, there are these groups that advertise how they are supposed to be helping you but when you reach out for assistance they tell you “no.” Not enough resources. Not enough people. Too busy. Too burned out. You said the wrong thing, now you don’t get help. You made too many waves, now you don’t get help. Come back later. Or don’t come back at all. Ask another agency. Ask another case worker. Go ask Alice. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

As aid workers, as agencies, we are all guilty. We are all accountable. No one gets to skirt responsibility or close their eyes to the blatant reality that a lot of the time, the only thing those of us in the field are doing really well is failing to do anything at all. We act as if we are all righteous and wise, sometimes behind the backs of others, sometimes to one another’s faces, when in reality, our systems are broken. The wheels churn, spit out screws, and make ear-cringing screeches and pops as metal grinds against metal. For all the good intentions the world has had for helping people forced to flee their home countries, there are some 10,000 refugees idling at a camp in the highlands of Malawi just waiting. In camps all over Africa, there are hundreds of thousands, if not MILLIONS, of displaced people simply WAITING. For what? For someone, anyone, to give them answers to prayers and simple questions alike. In any case, nothing is clear, not even to those of us who are supposed to provide a response. We tell people to walk towards these doors for assistance and when they get there they find that they’ve been padlocked. Or torn down. Or maybe those doors never actually existed at all. Pepani. Sorry. Better luck during your next 7 years in this camp, or at the next one you flee to when the civil war starts again. And again. And again.

Welcome to Frustration Nation. All of that said, when you as the humanitarian worker are not having one of those weeks where everything you hear makes you want to cry, when the operational meetings you have make you so viscerally angry you have to sit on your hands for fear that you may jump across the table and throw rabbit punches at the person sitting smugly in front of you, or when you just feel like you are a wee burned out in general, there are those moments where all of the bullshit and the murkiness suddenly vanish and the horizon looks calm and level, just as it should. You help someone heal. A child gives you a hug. You watch as someone climbs into the truck that is about to take them to the plane that is going to deliver them to their new life. These enmeshed dreams of hope you start having for your clients really do happen, even if they don’t happen often enough.

In spite of all of the uncertainty and despair, there is a vivacious, booming pulse of survival running through the camp even if it’s not always evident, and even when the systems ostensibly set up to help seem to do nothing but drag everyone down. No one seems to give up and even though the drive to move onto better circumstances often turns ugly and desperate because of the perpetual despair and all of those dead-end doors, there is something sad and wondrousabout watching it all unfold. It’s like embers of a fire as close to burning out as they are to starting a whole new flame — the human spirit never dies without fighting the good fight, even if it means running blindly through the night and through a maze with no outlets. You just can’t kill hope.

But “hope” is a charged word, one that we associate with all things positive and shinny. It is warm rather than cold. It is sunny, rather than dark. Here, however, hope sometimes looks more like a solar eclipse than the bright beating sun. Sometimes it feels like it too.