Coming home

For me, coming home was a bucket filled with mixed emotions. For one, I was sad and sorry to leave the people – the kids especially – not knowing what the future holds for them. The land was still flooded, malaria rife and they’d missed the ‘small harvest’ that comes before the hunger gap. Not a promising outlook with a ‘world food shortage’ looming and still no replacement in sight.

On the other hand I was very relieved to be getting out of Ethiopia, and also Kenya. I got robbed of my few remaining possessions – my cameras, computer with all my work, my money, etc – in Nairobi, just before leaving.

This really left me with a bitter resentment as I felt I’d already given all I possibly could – physically, mentally and emotionally – and had all but managed to escape with my few remaining possessions despite being constantly asked for them by staff in a frenzied attempt at getting everything possible from me before I left.

But in the end, it was just taken anyway.

Heading home via Paris to debrief and handover, I fell into the arms of two of my beautiful friends from my last mission in Sri Lanka. They both eased me back into the normalities of bright lights, traffic, flushing toilets, hot water, fresh food and world affairs.

They allowed me the time to stand and gaze open mouthed like a goldfish in a bowl at the vibrant coloured abundance of fresh fruit and vegies at a local market. They took me home and cooked me my choice of chicken and vegies for my first home-cooked meal in seven months. It was nice to be with friends who understood where I was at. Bless their cotton socks!

I then flew back to Sydney, spent a few days with my son and had my final MSF debriefs, before flying to Melbourne and then taking the five-hour drive back to Strathdownie, a farm near the border of South Australia and Victoria where more of my blessed friends have allowed me to stay in their shearers hut.

While extremely lucky to have a free place to live in between work, mission, or whatever comes next, I found being alone on the tranquilty of the farm was not such a great place to be when I was left alone with my own thoughts. It’s crazy, very difficult to find the right balance between rest and relaxation and the effects that result.

I learnt after my first experience to be prepared for the hyper-stimulation that crowds, supermarkets and shopping centres bring. After returning from Sri Lanka, I was awaiting debrief in Sydney and excited about the prospects of shopping for some of the foods I’d missed such as wine, cheese and chocolate.

I found, however, the bright lights and constant rumbling noise of the shopping centre too overwhelming. I quickly found myself back out in the street, sitting with a drunk aboriginal lady! (This time it was an old fellow living on the street, feeding the birds with stale bread.)

After a good talking to (from myself) I did return and purchased what I wanted, although it was an anxious, rush of a shop. This continued for some six weeks before a sense of normality resumed. (Guess I still have two weeks to go.)

Unfortunately this time my return was in time for the Christmas rush. The hustle and bustle of Christmas shoppers, combined with the voiced concerns of friends discussing what to buy who, who’s making what, and the endless preparation, hype and stress of the ever looming ‘big day’ was quite frustrating.

I found myself wanting to scream: “For god’s sake who cares, just buy them a goat or a chicken through Oxfam, how about the gift of sight from the Fred Hollows Foundation, who cares, they DON’T NEED ANYTHING!” But of course I did no such thing, I just let these thoughts and feelings stew away like acid in a plastic bottle, and then soon after, washed them down with an ice cold glass of the inevitable guilt that followed. Fancy thinking such things of my dear precious ‘normal’ friends.

This time I’ve returned even more anal about wasting food, water, etc. I have literally felt physically sick at the waste. There really is enough of everything to go around. I know it’s the Christmas season and everything is in excess and all, but honestly the wastage is truly disgusting.

I can still see those hollowed-out, little man faces of the malnourished kids, feel the grip on my necklace of the little life clutching to life itself, feel the feather weight limpness of the emaciated child left too long, the urgent tugging and tapping of the mother looking for hope. It’s haunting, and revisits me, welling in ebs and rises, accentuated when I witness the needless waste.

After all it really all just comes down to where you are born, the opportunities and availabilities afforded to you, by the place you are born in.

And yes, I know it was “my choice to go there, to live and work with those people.” Honestly, I don’t need to be told that, I know, but it really is difficult watching the dogs or chooks here getting fed enough to feed a family of seven for a week in oneday’s waste, when you’ve seen the other end of the spectrum.

Coming home after mission can also be a time of trepidation, worry and insecurity. For some of us, while relieved and happy to be getting out of a difficult situation that has been your life for the past six or seven months, returning home can be just as stressful, if not more than actually staying on mission. Unsure of what the future holds between now and the next call-up and dealing with alien thoughts and feelings that make you feel guilty and make you question yourself to who you really are; and to where in this world you actually fit.

Also, the stress and guilt resulting from having to rely on friends or family to share their home and possessions, because you gave up all your belongings and security in order to work for a humanitarian organisation such as MSF, is not uncommon. And has been reiterated in many expats I’ve talked to.

How you feel about coming home also depends on how you left your mission. If the population you were caring for are safe, if your work will continue, if you made a difference and if you can rest assured that the people you have grown to care for will continue to receive the assistance they need, it balances out. If you left in unsettled circumstances, unsure of the security of the population, tasks unfinished and without a replacement to see them through, it’s tough. It leaves you to wonder ‘what was the point?’ and ‘why did I bother?’. Have we done more damage by giving hope and then taking it away, than by not offering hope in the first place?

So here I am, a month has gone by after returning home. I’m still stuck between not wanting to be left alone too long and being with the people I love. Yes it’s a fine line, I’m working through it one day at a time. And by past experience I know I will soon mould back into this land of abundance, of wealth and security. I’ll stop thinking badly of the actions of those closest to me and the guilt that follows.

If I only knew what was next for me – work somewhere here in Australia (I sure could use some money) or another MSF mission – it would help. I am still totally committed and passionate about the cause and what we do, but can’t live off my friends for much longer. Anyway, that’s the way the cookie crumbles, I’ll just have to wait and see what the New Year brings.

Thanks for listening, I hope to blog again sometime in the future,

I hope 2013 is a good one for you.



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12 Responses to Coming home

  1. Nicki says:

    Thanks for this. I have a friend who has been on several missions now, and I think her friends here at home (including myself) have become a little insensitive to her sacrifices to go on a mission, and to her difficulties when she comes home. The first time she left, there was a send-off party and care packages sent overseas. Now, we say welcome home, where were you again? We can’t possibly imagine what a mission is like, so I’m not going to pretend I can relate to that aspect. And I’m not going to apologize for my lifestyle. But I can try and be more sensitive to her re-adjustment.

  2. Kaush says:

    I believe that we are here to make life better for those around us. Whilst our efforts may make little impact on the end result, the immediate impact IS still worthwhile – rather like palliative care. Your work in Ethiopia has benefited the lives of your patients and their families. Your blog has raised awareness and motivated your readers to follow in your footsteps. You may not have solved every problem, but you have contributed to progress towards a solution. I hope that plans for your future fall into place soon. Thank you for everything you do.

  3. ChrisH says:

    Kate, thank you for telling it like it is. As a MSF expat myself, your words rings true and remind me of my return from Papua New Guinea. I hope you don’t feel entirely alone. I highly recommend reading “six months in sudan” which is what I did when I felt so shocked to see the society I had returned to. It’s a weird world we live in. Best of luck to you. Chris.

  4. Tess says:

    This captured me completely! Not only have you done something big and important in life… you also write about it in a very capturing way! I hope that you know more about what lays ahead by now. Love from Sweden.

  5. seaweedinspector says:

    Written in anger and frustration and, in the end, a telling account left unfinished. Whichever path you take, wish you satisfaction.

  6. Katherine Kaye says:

    Yes, it matters, very much. You are the hands and heart of people like me who don’t have the skills or capacity to do what you do but care deeply. I donate to MSF; my income is precarious, but a lot of things will go before my MSF donations stop. Yours is the voice of civil, human society, yours, the presence of decency in obscene situations. Thank you for what you do. It’s hard. It’s worth it.

  7. Maryam says:

    Here are some nursing jobs you may want to search:

    Also, aboard Mercy Ship:

  8. Maryam says:

    May you find peace and tranquility. I recommend you take some time for a retreat to a Zen center. I am not a Buddhist or Zen expert but I do believe it would be the best thing you could do for yourself. What you have gone through is a displacement and readjustment phase. It may take a very long time for you to get reoriented to your home environment but you never will be fully readjusted.
    What you are experiencing is similar to Loss and Grief.
    You are now mindful of waste and the lifestyle of the advanced world s.
    You see lack of appreciation for resources and frivolousness of life in your country, the world that helps the needy, but wastes.
    This may turn into anger and it will hurt you in the long run.
    Get yourself help by attending to your soul.
    I recommend reading some of the writings of Thich Nhat Hahn.
    His books are available in bookshops online and stores.
    Take care of your soul.

  9. Mike Weihman says:

    A heartfelt blog. For me your words bring to life a quote from Martin Luther King Jr,:
    “The saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.”

    Be proud of your maladjustment to the “normal” world. That feeling, and you, are very healthy because we do live among appalling waste when seen through the eyes of 3/4 of the world.

    Cheers to you and I hope you can find a way to keep doing MSF mission work. And thanks for your service.
    -Mike (USA firefighter and MSF alum)

  10. Paula says:

    I understand all your thoughts and questions. I bet I would feel the same. I’m a med student from Brazil and I have seen many things I wouldn’t like to see over and over again. But here it’s not like a movie stuck in your mind. Here, it’s reality stuck in your eyes, you know? Horrible thing do exist and people just can’t ignore them. The way you say is the same way a good person gets confused with all the madness of the world, when both arr introduced to each other. What I mean is that you have a good heart and people with good hearts will always ask themselves for the answer. We won’t find them; we won’t ever understand, but we will always try to make a difference.

  11. N says:

    Well done for surviving re-entry. It gets blunted after each mission, but it doesn’t get any easier, coming back, trying to pick up, and thinking about what you left behind, and whether what you gave and what was taken from you really made any difference. I still think it does, I still think what we do is worthwhile. Well done.