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.