By the end of my first year, I was ready to go home. My Kenyan and Ethiopian friends can confirm that I had started packing – long before my flight was confirmed – at the start of the year. I found joy in packing and unpacking my suitcase every weekend in anticipation of my trip home. I unashamedly longed for the familiar sights and sounds of home.
Few days before departure I made a purposeful stop at China Town in Singapore where I spent the last of my Singaporean dollars on gifts for friends and family members. By the time I finished I was broke (welcome to the life of a student!) but happy. I was a happy broke traveler.
Singapore – Dubai – London – Freetown.
I landed at the Lungi International Airport where I was warmly ushered by the May heat into the organized chaos that was Lungi airport. My parents and siblings were waiting for me in the arrival hall. I was overjoyed! My younger sister jumped on me like Sara the Great (local comedian) would while my older sister and mom played it cool by giving me a nice warm hug. My dad surprised me. When I was leaving, we shook hands as he bade me farewell but this time he gave me a bear hug (most Africans would agree that it’s kind of a big deal when your dad hugs you). I chatted with my sisters all the way home from the airport to mainland Freetown. It was way past my bedtime and I was verbally, emotionally and physically spent by the time we arrived in our lamp-lit home. There was no electricity. Home was still our zinc shack (pan-body) and even though our grandpa had passed, his former bedroom was too small to accommodate all three of us and so the living room still served as our bedroom. That night it was my older sister’s turn to make the ‘bed’ and soon after we arrived she moved the chairs, brought out a sponge mattress, covered it with some sheets and Wala! the ‘bed’ was ready. The cold shower I had taken before bed was no match for the May heat. I was sweating bullets and sleep completely deserted me! Word may have gone around about my arrival because all the mosquitoes from the surrounding areas came to feast on me that night and the nights after. The once-familiar sounds – the constant humming of mosquitoes, late night chatter drifting in from the streets and hooting cars – had now become repugnant to the newly arrived JC. How could I feel this way? My annoyance was tainted with feelings of guilt.
The next morning, my aunt (make that my favorite aunt) had prepared my favorite dish and had sent it along with some ‘gronsoup’ for me. This would become our welcome home tradition for all the years I lived abroad. After breakfast, as was customary, I went around to greet our neighbors. It didn’t take me long to realize that I did not meet societal expectations of a JC. My skin lacked the luster common to folks who’d lived overseas (in cold climate). In fact, I may have been a few shades darker than when I first left and my weight had pretty much stayed the same – I had not gained an ounce, let alone a pound of flesh since. Folks were clearly not impressed. How could I claim to have lived abroad and be that ‘dark’? My 15-minutes explanation about the tropical climate in Singapore – hot and humid throughout the year – did nothing for inquiring minds. Apparently, the air-conned rooms and covered walkways in Singapore hadn’t done much for my chocolate skin. It was then that I began to understand why our sisters living abroad would come back with bleached skin – some couldn’t handle the societal pressure.
My JC status expired about two days after I arrived; there were house chores to do. While I was exempt from doing laundry (I had sprained my right hand many years ago and had not been able to perform difficult tasks since), my mom reassigned the house chores and I was primarily responsible for setting the fire (using charcoal) and heating up some water, soup and whatever else was available every morning. The public tap that once served the area was no longer functional and so residents in our neighborhood were forced to fetch water from nearby areas every morning. Our journey would begin each day at about 5:15am when my sisters and I would join our neighbors to search for water. It was expedient to leave early because of the large crowds (everyone in the neighborhood had the same need) and the many containers that needed to be filled. Most days we would fill our containers at one of many compounds a few hundred metres from our house up at Congo Cross. On those days when there was water shortage in Freetown, we would go as far as Banana water (Murray Town) to fetch water from Oloshoro. After filling all our containers, my older sister and I would tote a container each while our younger sister or mom stayed behind to keep watch on the rest of the containers. Was I embarrassed about toting water? Yeaah. I was 19! Nevertheless, I was determined to not to let that muddle with my swag; I had mastered (a long time ago) the art of balancing the bucket/gallon on my head while maintaining an elegant gait at the same time. I had to – my dignity was at stake.
I must confess that there was a constant emotional battle going on within during my time at home. I loved and enjoyed being with my family but I also longed for the air-conned, mosquito-free rooms and weekly allowance I had in Singapore. On those nights when we had late night visitors who stayed too long interrupting our bedtime, I would secretly long for my bed in Singapore. As I hustled to catch a taxi, my mind would stray to the fully air-conditioned and clean taxis and trains in Singapore. What was wrong with me? I struggled with feelings of guilt and betrayal because I knew my parents were doing their very best to make my stay at home worthwhile and I was deeply grateful for their efforts. My family may have noticed my restlessness because from time to time they would ask me about how I was adjusting to being back and if I missed Singapore. I confessed that I did. When my vacation came to a close, I was ready and excited to leave. How could I be happy to leave the place I call home? The dilemmas of an African international student!
The process of reconciling both worlds was a long one but I eventually came to understand and accept that there were aspects of both worlds that appealed to me and that I equally belonged to both worlds. Sierra Leone formed the basis of my roots and like a tree I needed to spread my branches to fully develop into the person God intended me to be.
He brought me up also … out of the miry clay and set my feet upon a rock. Ps 40:2
Daughter of the King