A strong wind has uprooted me, and I cling to my roots, desperately trying to avoid being completely blown off into an angry sky. As I look up, a single ray of sunshine breaks through the storm clouds. Moments later, another appears. And then another. I am reminded of hope once again.
This is the best way I can describe this year of living in Swaziland.
That’s the thing about living abroad, and especially about living alone in a developing country and a culture so different from your own. There are moments of intense isolation, and then there are moments of feeling connected to others in a way you never have before. Of feeling unsurpassed happiness and joy. And there are times when you feel so despised, misunderstood, and hated that you sometimes forget for a moment who you really are outside of that context. There may be a place carved out for you in this culture, but it is a triangle and you are a square, and no amount of pushing will get you to fit into that space. You may lurk just outside of it or hover just above it, but you can never fully occupy it.
So who exactly was I this year, if I wasn’t myself and I wasn’t who Swazis wanted me to be? What makes up our identity to begin with? Is it comprised of those core parts of our personalities that will shine through no matter where we are in the world, and no matter which context we are in? Or is it in those parts of ourselves that we share only with a trusted few?Are we defined more by what we express, or what we are able to suppress in a given situation?
While I came to Swaziland independently and do not have to follow the rules of, say, the Peace Corps in terms of what I am and am not allowed to do or say, this issue is still one that I have struggled with constantly. There are so many attitudes, norms, and perceptions in Swaziland that fly directly in the face of some of my core values; attitudes towards women, children, and homosexuals, for instance. In order to be able to function in Swaziland, I have had to keep my opinions to myself on many occasions to preserve my credibility. If I were to reveal these core beliefs, I might not be accepted in Swaziland, and I would no longer be able to work.
So should I be more defined by my cultural sensitivity in keeping these thoughts to myself, or by my willingness to suppress beliefs that I consider to be at the core of who I am, and for which I want to be an activist?
There are times when I look around and think to myself, What the hell am I really doing here? Is this really worth it? There is a certain guilt that comes with leaving a place where you are rooted; of leaving behind people you love and who depend on you. Of choosing to go work with other, new people you don’t know yet, many of whom do not seem to care that you are there once you arrive. Why would anyone choose to do that? Why did I choose to do that?
Intense moments of beauty and appreciation for Swaziland come, and just as quickly, they go, slinking silently off to where they came from, to be seen again only at unpredictable moments. I leave one conversation feeling happy and energized, only to be left frustrated and angry by the next. I feel a real connection to my closest friends here in Swaziland, but have just as often felt used and taken advantage of by many others. My life is comprised of stark contrasts, conflicting attitudes, and by radically varying black-and-white emotions. This causes the entire experience to take on an indefinably muddled grey color in my mind. It makes it one big margin.
Perhaps life is always like this, but we don’t see it in our natural contexts. Maybe I came here looking for these differences, and looking for all the nuanced ways in which I do and do not fit in. And I found a deluge of them, waves which swept over me, engulfing me like a high tide.
I know, however, that there are people I have genuinely connected with here. I know this because they have told me so. There are some who care that I was here.
Of course, in any year of our lives – and not just the ones where we are removed from all that is familiar – there are good and bad things we go through. But, in fact, nothing can be as straightforward as being “good” or “bad.” It is all relative to that moment, the context, the place you are in emotionally and physically, and things that happen later. Later, when removed from the context, a different type of reflection is possible, and we can suddenly see the good that came out of something which, in that moment, seemed almost unendurable.
In the end, what I remember mostly are the good things. Sometimes, it is just a matter of surviving the worst moments so you can make it to the other side of memory.