I first left my home country when I was a wide-eyed sixteen-year-old and headed off to a highly selective pre-University program in South Africa that selects students it hopes will one day be a new breed of African leaders. Currently, I go to a small, liberal arts Women’s College in Northampton, Massachusetts- a college whose very foundations in the late 19th century were revolutionary- for white American women, at first, and eventually for all women to gain a world-class education. At the college, I am a Study of Women and Gender and African Studies double major, as well as one of the chairs of the African and Caribbean Students’ Association, where I have been active for the three years I’ve been there.
Because of the nature of the institutions I’ve been enrolled in over the past six years or so and the sort of involvement I’ve had in them, I’ve spent a large portion of that time talking and thinking critically about the continent. The attention I’ve had to pay to issues that are pertinent to the continent such as decolonization, development and social and political events has meant that I’ve spent long nights writing lengthy papers about why Africa is still colonized or caught up in the frenzy of heated discussions with friends about whether or not feminism as understood in the west fits into African contexts. However, beyond the critical thought and revolutionary texts, a rather unwelcome byproduct of my education has been that home has also become a mystical space that my subconscious began to paint as a static, unchanging place that was waiting for me to fix it.
Being away, it is easy to defend the continent. It is easy, when irritated at an ignorant remark made to me by a westerner, or completely frustrated by the consistent and colossal failure of the American college dining hall to season its fish fillets, to proclaim with passionate fervor that I will return home. Even more insidiously, it is easy to assume the role of expert when thinking through issues that are unfolding at home and to forget that I am firstly young, secondly a student, and thirdly, far away from the implications of any of the political, economic and social happenings that have me fired up.
I’m currently in the country of my birth, enjoying the last summer I have as a college student. Being home, these days, simultaneously brings with it a sense of groundedness and a strange new sense of loss. Loss of time with would-be friends. Loss of my synchronization with the rhythms of life in this lurid city. Loss of place, but with it, a strangely clearer sense of what my place should be.
And so, for any young African like me who is studying abroad and aspires to return, there’s nothing quite like coming home to remind you who you are- how small you are. It makes you realize that all those nights spent writing essays about this distant home in defense of it can essentialize home, romanticize it, trivialize it. Home can become this ill-spoken-of place that you constantly defend, so that in a sick and twisted way, you begin to breed, in yourself, a sort of savior mentality. Home can become this distant thing to be saved. Home can become a wild, unraveling epic in which you cast yourself as a heroine for desiring to return. But who in the world are you?
More, is the humbling realization that home has not been waiting on the edge of its seat for you to arrive, arms held out in waiting for something you could never possess to give it. Home is dynamic as ever, bending, breaking, reshaping itself and self-correcting. It is brimming with possibility. Possibility you have very little to do with. Although you had to leave, it is filled with people who never left- experts who have spent their time thriving in and in spite of all the aspects of home you hope to contribute to changing.
Remember that home is not your little project. Home is not waiting. Home is not frozen in your absence. Should you decide to do so, the home you left behind is not the one you will return to. Do not expect to be at home in all the same spaces. Feel your way in. Fall into place where you’re meant to. Home has changed, and so have you. Return as much as you need to, for as long as you must. Settle as necessary. Never count yourself greater for having left. Remember that the greatest experts are, to use this tired phrase, “on the ground”.
So, whenever it is that you come home, do so with your head bowed, with your ears sharp and attuned to listening. Take your shoes off at the door, be confident to speak and share the perspectives you’ve learned, but be quick to listen and learn how exactly it is that home needs you.