“So how was Africa?” is the first question every relative and friend asks my children. It’s a sincere question but it makes me grind my teeth. First of all, Africa is a continent, not a country. Second of all, how do you expect a 6-year-old to sum up an entire year abroad?
The question feels to me like a trap. But to my children, it’s more like an opportunity.
“Horrible, I hated it!” Athena cries gleefully. She and her 8-year-old sister Hesperus and 3-year-old brother Etani never hesitate before they respond.
“Everything?” The relative sounds concerned now.
“Everything!” they shout.
My in-laws raise their eyebrows, look at me suspiciously. They hold my children a little closer, protecting them, soothing them, embracing them.
Every time this happens — often many times a day — it makes me feel like a bad person. I can’t help taking it personally when my kids say they hated Africa because it was too hot or too trashy or whatever they decide at the moment. I know they didn’t hate it — all three of them had a fabulous year — but this is hard to explain to Concerned Relative #27 who is wondering what kind of mother would drag her children halfway around the world to a hot, trashy country. Poor dears.
The question James and I get is a little different:
“Aren’t you glad to be home?” There’s only one right answer, of course. James nods enthusiastically — he had a difficult year and he’s truly delighted to be back. I stay quiet, hoping no one will notice and wondering if it’s too soon to refill my wine glass.
When I say I’m not happy to be home, my interlocutor takes it personally, as if I’m saying, “I’m not glad to see you,” or “I don’t want to be with you.” I can see the disappointment on an aunt’s face. Disappointment and bewilderment. “I prayed for you,” she said. “I’m so glad you’re back safe. I was so worried about you all the way over there. It must have been so dangerous…”
James and the kids have settled right back into the pace of life in America but I don’t. I feel like I left my energy, my happiness, and some part of my soul in Niger.
I want to shake every American and shout:
“Don’t you see how privileged you are?!”
“Don’t you realize what you have, what you take for granted that so many people in the world don’t have?!”
“Aren’t you glad you have enough to eat? That your daughter isn’t paralyzed because of malaria, that your wife didn’t die in childbirth?!”
I’m overwhelmed and angry at everything I see here: the gas-guzzling SUVs, the way no one smiles and greets you. (In Niamey greetings are taken very seriously. You start with “How did you sleep?” and then ask “How is your body?” “How is your tiredness?” “How are your children?” and so on. Each of these questions has a choreographed response that is full of gratitude. “I slept well,” “My body is well,” “There is no tiredness,” “We are thankful to God for our children.”) I am terrified of the sickening amount of waste that we generate on an hourly basis — from plastic bags to paper napkins to water bottles.
Behind my anger is pain. It’s not that I didn’t notice American culture before we spent a year away from it. But now that we’re back I’m blinded by it. Everything hurts me but I can’t tell where the pain is. It’s an ache that won’t go away, a longing to be where I am not.
In Niamey I worked out almost every day. I biked as fast as I could, telling myself if my legs didn’t burn I wasn’t pedaling hard enough. I zoomed past donkey carts laden with straw, flew by catcalling businessmen (“Anasara! Hey Anasara!”) and toddlers playing in the orange sand to a small gym in what felt like a ghost town: a village of apartments and businesses that were built for the Francophone Olympics and then mostly abandoned. The janitor Hamisou would grin when I arrived, we’d exchange the requisite greetings either in Hausa or in French, and I’d walk into a dinky, hot room which housed the best work-out equipment in Niamey. The friendly atmosphere, pulsing zouks and Senegalese pop music made me lift heavier weights and run faster on the treadmill. The trainer, David, as intelligent as he was handsome and always appropriate, would come over to count sets for me or talk politics. So it only makes sense that I’d look for solace at the Y.
But my legs feel like lead as I bike past the exquisitely sculpted university lawns, the tree-lined streets, and the businesses with their electricity and windowpanes intact. I inch along on my bicycle and my face is wet even though it’s not raining. The weights on the shoulder press machine move effortlessly and first I’m in awe that the machine’s not clogged with sand, that it doesn’t leave smear marks on my hands but then I’m furious. At the healthy, well to do retirees, at the young women whose bodies are more beautiful and more supple than mine will ever be again, at every American for what he has that most Nigeriens do not. But most of all I’m angry at myself. I can’t do anything right. I can’t even lift weights without thinking of my friend Katie’s host mom who has ten children and just died in Zinder, or my friend Illiasou’s aunt who’s been languishing for a week in the hospital after a car accident with no doctor to operate on her.
There’s a name for what I’m feeling: reverse culture shock. When you get back to your home country and you’re discombobulated. Nothing fits. No one understands. Life at home has marched forward without you — the Silly Rabbit candy store has opened, friends have divorced, your daughters’ circus camp has changed locations. In the meantime, you’ve been exploring the Nigerien bush, photographing hippos, riding camels, sitting in a tiny compound eating rice and sauce with friends who have no electricity or running water in their house. After a year of buying produce from vendors sitting on the ground in front of a pile of vegetables in the open air, a trip to the relatively modest food co-op (“Raspberries, Mommy! And strawberries. And, oh, can we buy kale? We haven’t had any in so long!”) totally overwhelms.
“Send this to Illiasou,” my 3-year-old son thrusts a scribbly drawing in my hand as I walk in the door from my failed trip to the gym. He sees the sad lines on my face and holds his arms out to me to pick him up. “What’s a matter Mommy?” Etani asks resting his head on my shoulder. “You don’t like my drawing?” “I love it,” I whisper into his smooth cheek that is unmarred by pox scars or the horrible skin tag disease that Bouhary’s aunt was born with and that is the reason she has never married. Illiasou calls Etani his son, he would pull all nighters at our house to do translations on our computers, he was with me in the petit marché when a little boy got hit by a car. “It’s just I miss Illiasou.” “I miss him too,” my son whispers back. Like lost love or a child’s babyhood, I know I’ll slowly stop mourning our year in Niger. But not right now. Right now it hurts like a puncture wound. I inhale the sweet smell of my son’s neck and his unwashed hair, smelling of camels and straw.