My departure from Africa has been set. Mid-June my family will leave the Bantu languages and unparalleled sunsets we have called home for six years. We are excited (and a bit daunted) for this change, and while we’re logistically preparing for the adventure ahead I am keenly aware of the adventures we are ending as well.
People say that once this continent is in your blood, it becomes an inextricable part of you, always. I’ve never heard this said with such gravitas about any other place. I’ve dreamed of living in Africa since I was a teenager, a mysterious calling that I alternately longed for and pushed against for over a decade before coming to this land. It was a relationship I did not enter into lightly.
I first arrived in Dar es Salaam, and to be honest I’ve looked for it everywhere I’ve gone since. Watching dark faces wearing kitenge prints amble past vendors selling chapatti beneath umbrellas on a crumbling sidewalk in the muggy, salty breeze is a rugged beauty to behold. But for me it was also transformative. Being alive there expanded my sense of place in a way that felt ancient, from deep underneath me. I’ve been gone four years now and yet emotionally it still grips me. The feel of this life against my skin is a lens through which I see everything now, including myself and all that I love. In certain weather I can actually feel the Dar-shaped hole in the center of me. The idea of leaving it is like trying to disconnect from a part of my very root system.
Johannesburg was different, a more intellectual struggle to be waged within the slow-turning tides of history. Here I took long hard looks at racism and shame; saw the faces of humanity’s growing pains; and attended the funeral of one of this century’s greatest men, who challenged us all to be better than we think we can be. I breathed the same air as Mandela. It is in my cells. This fact sets a tall and important task into me and every interaction I have, one that I have an obligation to carry.
I am both tied to Africa and acutely aware that I am leaving it. Last week I took a trip to Mozambique, a country I’d never been to. In the drive from the Maputo Airport my chest filled with what I can only call a physically painful nostalgia. A man was selling coconuts, a tuk tuk honked, I smelled burning trash and a fish market. Though I was a complete stranger, my heart stung with love. It was as if my twisted African roots were already there, waiting for me. I was simultaneously heartbroken and filled to the brim, knowing I’d be leaving this place too. Similarly, on the Kenya coast last May, I found myself reverentially muttering, “My God, I can’t believe I lived here,” even though I’d never been there before in my life. I couldn’t help it... something resonated.
Living in Africa has stretched my heart into a new shape. I wonder if, far from this humanity and earth that takes my breath away, will the new expanded spaces in my soul deflate? I fear that I will never be full in quite the same way again once I am gone.