Folks have asked me how “reentry” was, coming back from Sierra Leone to the US. And I keep wondering how to write about it here.
I’ve been stalled, to some degree, by the fact that four of the posts that I wrote while I was there are still “quarantined” – they have yet to be vetted by the PR folks at Partners In Health. Maybe you can help me, and send a message to them at firstname.lastname@example.org and lobby them to review my unpublished posts!! they don’t seem to be listening to me (nudge, nudge, PIH)!
So, a few reentry thoughts:
- the first couple of trips to the grocery store here were totally overwhelming. i was only in Sierra Leone for 6 weeks, but faced with shelves full of choices, after having very limited options, and only a gas station convenience store to shop at for snacks or extra stuff. of course, there were the local stalls, where we bought lapas (pieces of lovely cloth that many of us bought to have made into clothing to give our friends/family), CDs and DVDs (of questionable legal status), soft drinks, electronics (a surprising variety of stuff available!), and clothes, much of which were from cast-offs from the US and other western countries. but, nothing like an American grocery store. the one large store we visited in Freetown was nothing like the size and extent of stuff as you find in any grocery store here.
- being clean. in Sierra Leone, everything got dusty. and we did have lovely women working in our residences to wash our clothes, but it was all done by hand, with a washboard, and never really got clean (and was always kind of crusty from drying on a line in the sun). here are my running shoes, embedded with red dust from the roads and paths:
- and, this brings me to running…when I left for Sierra Leone, I was attempting (again) the C25K program, using an app that I’ve had for more years than I like to think about. I’ve gotten to week 5 of the 8 week program many, many times, but always given up, usually for silly reasons. When I left, in February, I had restarted, and had completed two weeks of the program. In Boston, for the week I spent in orientation with Partners In Health, before heading out to Sierra Leone, I managed to complete 2 runs on the treadmill in the Holiday Inn we were lodged at. While I was in Sierra Leone, I managed one run on the program, but I was daunted by the yelling children on the sides of the road, calling out “Apado, apado!” (which means “white person” or “foreigner” or maybe something more insidious, depending on who you ask), and asking to take my phone. Also, mid-way through my stay, I managed to strain my back to the degree that I wasn’t able to do much of anything. Let alone that running in 90+ degree weather is a little off-putting. On my return home, especially with my 21-day “quarantine” period, I have managed to complete 7 weeks, and I’m within sight of completing the training. I’m very psyched about that. And a large inspiration to me has been my brief friendship with my colleague from Oregon, who ran almost every day we were there (he is a very fit guy).
- getting re-accustomed to the “worried well”. In Sierra Leone, folks who sought medical care were often ill with infections or trauma that was life-threatening. Not only Ebola, but malaria, dysentary, tuberculosis, serious motor vehicle accidents. Death is always very close and present in developing countries, whereas here in the US, people come in worried that they have something, but really, they are suffering from somatic disorders, or anxiety, or depression, and it is exhibiting itself as pain or nausea, or headaches. Getting used, again, to offering comfort and compassion to folks who really aren’t ill, and just need to reorient their self-perception, it can be very tempting to be dismissive. Important to keep in mind that the pain is just as real, even when it’s not really life-threatening.
- Driving – we couldn’t drive anywhere in Sierra Leone, and I wouldn’t want to. I love driving, but the traffic in Sierra Leone is totally crazy, and there are no traffic signals, and no apparent rules, and anyone behind a wheel has to be daring and aggressive. I was very happy to abdicate the driving to our fleet of excellent drivers. But, getting back behind the wheel, I found myself impatient with US drivers – especially the slow ones.
- My boys – our younger son is very clingy, and I was hopeful that he would be more independent when I got home. I’m not sure he made a lot of progress in that department. But, he did manage to stay fairly positive. The older boy, who can be very independent, and often pushes away any displays of affection, has been much more ready to give and receive hugs from me, and that’s been lovely.
So, reentry is accomplished, and I feel that I will always be changed by this experience, even as the memories fade.
I am deeply grateful to my colleagues and friends with whom I worked and traveled on this adventure. I’m so glad that I went.