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.