“I’m going home.”
Those words rattled in my head with every bump of the crowded bus from Kayonza to Rwamagana. They bounced with my every step up familiar sidewalks and down dirt roads until I rounded that last curve by the banana plants and saw the familiar red gate rising at the end of the path.
Home is a complicated concept—a network of small towns and rising cities and beloved people around the world—and somehow in the past six weeks, it’s expanded to include a cement and mud-brick compound on the outskirts of Rwamagana town.
It’s been a rough week. For site visit, I left the comfort of my host family with my school’s Dean of Studies, a near stranger, and travelled to a different district to spend four days learning a new town and new people.
Sometime amid the tears of fear and frustration this week, I realised culture shock had caught up with me.
The name makes it sound like a sudden surprise at clear cultural differences, but the truth is it’s less of a shock and more of a pervading exhaustion. You go along thinking you’re fine, but it builds up little by little until, out of nowhere, you’re tired beyond belief.
It’s a gradual wearing down beneath the grindstone of a million tiny things you don’t even notice in the moment.
It’s the disproportionate effort required to communicate. It’s being stared at, shouted at, and touched on the street. It’s considering starving rather than take one more bite of unseasoned beans, and then taking one more bite. It’s struggling to keep my shoes clean and knowing that no matter how dirty someone else’s feet, mine are the ones being judged. It’s having to question the cultural assumptions behind any question. It’s not knowing the fair price of anything. It’s wondering whether I’ll ever have cheese or ice cream or chocolate ever again.
It’s my fight-or-flight never resting, because I have no prior knowledge by which to predict any situation.
At the beginning of this journey, someone gave us this advice:
“Fall in love with your country as soon as possible.”
Someone else (probably on Welcome to Night Vale, to be honest) said this:
“Growing to love something is simply forgetting, slowly, what you dislike about it.”
In the moments when life here feels like a storm battering me, when I think I will break if I’m bent any further, it’s all too easy to remember what I dislike about this country and to forget all the things I love.
But there are things I love, even when I’m drowning under waves of culture shock and exhaustion.
I love the rolling hills patterned with fields of beans and rice, the dry rattle of banana leaves in the wind before a rainstorm, the music rolling out the doors of boutiques and down the street.
I love the warm greetings of shopkeepers I know and the tendency of old ladies to pull me in for a hug instead of shaking hands.
I love the uninhibited joy of children and adults alike whenever there’s a game or a song or a good conversation.
I love the goats by the side of the road and the tiny, impossibly blue swallows that dart and dive and swoop bat-like and the magpies and hawks vying for the right to circle any place that might have food.
I love the sunsets and the dark storm clouds and the vibrant dirt roads.
And today, when I knocked on that big red gate and heard a patter of feet and the bolt screeching back, I discovered I love the look of surprised delight on Simbi’s face, and I love hearing Nziza chanting my name before I ever reach the door, and I love Hiro’s silent, tight hugs.
I love walking into this place, so strange to me a month ago, and knowing I’ve come home.