Post-Tanzania: there’s little relief in the return

“I’m just letting it all go.”

I speak those words to a dear friend, though I’m not altogether sure I understand exactly what “it” is. Nor do I feel wholly capable of such surrender. But I have been home from Tanzania for four weeks and I am tired of my moping, of wondering and longing, of being assailed by sadness at turns both expected and completely illogical.

I never imagined that after a month among my people and my comforts, in a world I inhabited with such ease and relish, that the heart would feel so raw, my sense of belonging such a cauterized thing.

I even miss walking, to and from orphanages, dala dalas, town, just about anywhere we could.
I even miss walking, to and from orphanages, dala dalas, town, just about anywhere we could.

Yet I have been drifting through the familiar in a daze, aware of a ceaseless ache that needs only the faintest acknowledgment to funnel its sorrow into more tangible expression.

When I returned from Tanzania in June, after a month of volunteer service at two separate orphanages, I knew I was not the woman who’d stepped onto that plane in late May, unable to stem the tide of joy and hope, anticipation and soulful urgency that carried her across oceans and continents. I knew I would miss those bright faces I’d spent so many hours gazing at with wondrous affection and immediately began shedding my tears over the sting of that loss at the Kilimanjaro Airport, when all I could say repeatedly as I was dropped off by my coordinator and another volunteer was “I’m not ready.”

I haven’t stopped crying since. Sometimes this feels like grief, the clank and chime that bellows through me, as I finally have the space to sift through all that I witnessed, to process the extremities of dearth and neglect. Many times, I feel unmoored, lost without the sense of purpose that tethered my days in East Africa, the aliveness that whirred through me. There is an aloneness, too, that cloaks me being able to convey only so much of what I myself am helpless to unravel, and with my projected impatience and bafflement over the ground where I stand.

During my first week back at work, I watch a colleague throw away an abundance of leftover salad after a departmental function and stand off to the side and cry.

On the Fourth of July, I walk into a sundries store at the beach, peruse the aisles picking up coloring books and bubbles, jacks and stickers and every small, easily transportable toy I can find. I imagine the children’s faces as they play with them, have to force myself to put each one back when I am mad to buy them all and hop on the first plane back.

There is guilt, too, over frivolous purchases: a food truck special at a park near my office despite having packed my lunch; two bags of coffee instead of one when I cannot decide between Sumatra or a dark roast; the new EP by one of my favorite artists though I haven’t previewed a single track.

Beatrice has such a sweet and gentle spirit.
Beatrice has such a sweet and gentle spirit.

I stalk Facebook, staring for endless moments at the photos of the kids posted by other volunteers, those who are still there, still making a difference. And my heart rejoices — and hurts. There is Serafina with his beatific smile. Abiba with her charming playfulness. Erik with that spark of mischief in his eyes. The gentle Beatrice on the new girls soccer team. There is my love…and my love.

For a week, I am fixated on adoption, painting my home with images of a baby girl and 9-year-old, slipping them into scenes with my mom and brother, with my best friend and her daughter, with the strangers I will beam proudly at when I tell them they are mine. Then I learn single women cannot adopt from Tanzania. I am stunned, by disappointment, by anger, by a hollow kind of relief. I think of countless other avenues through which I could pursue motherhood — or perhaps it is desperate rescue I seek — but with the little ones I know by name out of reach, I wonder if there is a different path meant for me, another calling still wrapped in the folds of the first that took me to that faraway land.

I want “my kids” to be loved, happy, and protected, to know how much they matter. Yet I wish this for not just the children who blessed me at Save Africa and Cradle of Love. My prayer tosses me between futility and aspiration, hopeless idealism and the faint stirrings of new possibilities.

I fill out an application for a volunteer cuddle organization, after I get an email notifying me of openings in my area and feel a rush of excitement. Then I hang onto the paperwork for days. I look up the only children’s home I know of, which turns out to be mere minutes from my house, and wonder how I could serve there, maybe even get a job.

But any step feels rash, a precipitous reaction.

So I sit with my rational and irrational thoughts, not knowing sometimes which is which. And I try to find my way into this life without leaving what felt more real behind.

I keep a spare social calendar, though it is summer, when I am always easily and happily swayed by diversion. If I meet with friends who want to hear of my time abroad, I do so selectively — not because I do not miss their company or have no interest in catching up on their lives. But to talk about Tanzania, really talk about it, will bring tears to my eyes that may not stop, make of my voice a reedy paper-thin edge. I need the space to go deep.

Erik and Lawrence: adorably up to no good.
Erik and Lawrence: adorably up to no good.

As if to free up more of it, I give things away: clothing, jewelry, shoes, books. Every day, I behold the excess around me, ponder the many extensions of my personality — as I’ve often referred to them — that strike me now as overcrowded luxury.

I do not wear makeup, except when I have to, deny my toes their requisite summer splash of color, as if to paint them would be to relinquish some part of myself I’m not ready to give up. For weeks, I don’t listen to the radio, save the blip of a traffic report that starts my day. In my car, the same CD accompanies me to and from work. With one track in particular, when the opening notes swell before I’m hit with the lyrics “Sometimes I don’t feel at home, like exodus in my own soul,” I feel a frisson of truth.

Every day I think of returning to Tanzania, because I miss the kids, yes, but also perhaps because to do so would lock into place whatever it is that feels so deeply absent, whatever I’ve yet to grasp.

It doesn’t seem like coming back should be this hard, like picking up my old life with all these new pieces to integrate should be this exhausting and challenging. I was only gone for a month, while other volunteers spent two, three, even six.

Yet I was there with a wide-open heart that gave itself every day to an onslaught of love and pain.

On a Friday I try not to count, as one more marker of the date I left Arusha to return home spins me further from that experience, I attend an event where I briefly share the weight of my re-entry. A woman sitting next to me nods her head vigorously. At the end of the night, she tells me she spent a month in Senegal several years ago. Her time in West Africa affected her so deeply she was depressed for a year upon returning to the U.S., where she couldn’t help noting our propensity for more and bigger, our isolation and insular preoccupations with fresh and wounded eyes.

This is not what I want for myself, to wander this emotional quagmire for months upon months. But I understand something of her internal landscape, feel a constant chafing at the daily bombardment of consumerism and superficiality with which I’m presented. Like her, I want none of it to stifle what I found in Africa, even if I’m still struggling to realize all that was.

Before this same event is over, we are invited to come to the front of the room to draw a piece of paper on which the facilitator has scrawled various phrases and placed each sheet on the floor. I walk by several repeatedly, dismissively, aware of my unusual resistance to the joy and lightness many prescribe. One catches my eyes:

“Trust what is being.”

Days later, I give voice to my act of surrender, though it doesn’t mean I am no longer in the throes of discomfort. Or that the tears don’t leak surreptitiously. Or that there isn’t a moment when I don’t carry my kids with me and my yearning to touch and hold them.

But something is being birthed. I am being pressed into layers unsettling for their lack of immediate revelation. And I do not want to miss the message, blunder away from a directional turn. Moving forward with nonchalance or forgetfulness is not an option. So I rest in a tenderness both exquisite and unbearable, attuned to the breaking of light.


4 thoughts on “Post-Tanzania: there’s little relief in the return

  1. Naila! I’m loving reading your blogs on your experience. Re-entry is the hardest part by far, always. I find that experience changes me profoundly but not necessarily away from who I am, it more of an enhancing. One thing I love about my work is that, always traveling to challenging places means I rarely forget to appreciate all of our advantages and that is such a gift. I’m so glad for you that you’ve had this experience. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you want to chat with someone else who had been through something like it…


    • Aahh, Rachel, thank you so much for such reassurance and affirmation. Sometimes I wonder if I am overreacting but the feelings are so real and raw. I am so grateful to have your perspective and insight. I do know I am different in ways I can’t really put into words, but it is for the better…THANK YOU for embracing my experience with such generosity and wisdom.


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