This past weekend marked one month in Uganda!
The time has been both long and short. In some ways I feel each day passing like it’s several, it other ways I feel like I just got here. There have been a lot of ups and downs, adjusting, making some cultural blunders and making friends.
The highlights of the trip so far are many. My first week here I had a great time getting to know the visiting medical team. My second week I really enjoyed going on an outreach clinic to a small village and getting to see more of what life is like in the village setting. My third week I had a blast traveling to different villages in the parish and meeting the VHTs, from the boda rides to the surrounding countryside, it was simply incredible. This last week I have learned a lot working at the clinic on monthly reports and compiling the data I have gathered so far for my project.
Last week had its own unique challenges. I found out that a friend of mine from home who I have known my whole life had passed away.
A caution – I’m going to share something here that I normally wouldn’t share publically. I’m not looking for a reaction, so please refrain from overly sympathetic comments. I’m sharing this because it’s part of my story, and it’s a thing that happens when you travel for extended trips. It’s a reality of life, and a hard thing to navigate when you’re alone in a new place. I’m writing to get a chance to get this off my chest, but hopefully, also to share what I’ve learned in a way that can help someone else who may someday find themselves in my shoes.
Grief is a tricky thing. When I first heard, of course I was sad, but it didn’t really hit me. I’m a friendly person, but I’m naturally introverted and keep my deepest thoughts and feelings to myself, or shared with very close friends. At home, when someone dies there are the normal outlets to process grief, swapping stories with friends and family, sharing the weight of sadness in small ways with others, attending services, and saying goodbye.
When you’re alone in a different culture you don’t have those things. Anyone who’s traveled for more than a few weeks would agree, that when you’re away from home your normal emotional processes get a little jumbled. I have friends who have told me stories of crying over things like failed recipe attempts to make a food from home, or finding a special candy bar at a store, or writing a blog post online just to have the internet crash when they tried to post it. You never know how you will react to small things when “normal” has been removed. When something bigger happens it’s always a roll of the dice for how you will respond.
It was late in the evening when I heard the news. My mind wandered to endless hours working with my friend, who I had been taught from childhood to call Sister Clarke, and her husband at our church’s food pantry when I was in high school. We spent so much of that time talking, she shared so many stories with me and so much life wisdom. I thought of her encouragement and advice she shared with me before and after every international trip, and the support and love she so generously gave. I thought of all the times she prayed for me. I thought of her stubbornness and how she stuck up for what she believed in and didn’t mind if anyone disagreed. I remembered times she gave people a run for their money when they did something she didn’t agree with. And I remembered our last conversation. I fell asleep reminiscing. It hit me the next day.
I filled the morning with work and avoided talking with people. How do you even start that conversation? I wasn’t convinced I would be able to get through the rest of the day without crying, and not wanting to lose it in front of everyone at the clinic I retreated to my house to work there for the afternoon.
When I had had my fill of being alone I wandered over to the picnic tables for supper. I was ready to talk with people, but as fate would have it, the usual dinner crowd was nowhere to be found. I ate alone and felt the weight of it. I headed back home and started to cry as I walked. There’s a unique sinking feeling when you are carrying something, are finally ready to share it, then have no one to share it with. The loneliness that comes with that is intense.
As I walked home crying I ran into my closest friend here. She thought I had fallen or was hurt or something. I explained through tears what was going on, she told me to “take courage.” I calmed down and we talked briefly, then I headed home to privately grieve.
To put it frankly I was mortified that I had lost my composure in front of my friend. I try to avoid excessive displays of emotion as a general rule. But what I learned is that grief demands to be felt. It might just hit you when you least expect it and you might be embarrassed, but that’s okay. Sharing your pain with someone is important. Getting hung up on pride and image will shoot you in the foot every time when you are living internationally. And when your emotions are jumbled and you don’t have your normal outlets, you need to give yourself grace and time.
I’m writing this from a peaceful shaded veranda at a hostel in the nearest city. I had already planned to take this weekend to get away and relax, but I didn’t know how much I would really need it until a few days ago. As I sit and enjoy the beauty of the day, the view of the surrounding hills and the light warm breeze, I know that this weekend my church family will gather to celebrate and remember the life of an incredible woman. As much as I wish I could be there, I can not.
When you are living in a different culture there is a certain amount of stress that is constantly just below the surface. A lot of times it just becomes normal and goes unnoticed. Then you wonder why you got so (insert emotion here) because of something very small, like getting ripped off by a boda guy, or when you watch a sappy movie. It’s important to realize that you need time to rest.
Taking a few days to get away and relax isn’t always an indulgence, sometimes it’s a necessity. It doesn’t make you weak or a bad traveler to admit that you need a break. In fact, taking that break will allow you to be better equipped to continue your work. It’s better for you and for the people around you if you take the time you need.
So here’s your permission, take a break for a day or two, then continue your work.