Friday, July 27, 2007

Click here for a reflection piece I wrote on the CPAR website.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Tips for Reintegration

They say that returning home after spending time in a different country can be harder than adjusting to life away in the first place. My culture shock comes in waves, alternating between experiencing pleasant surprises of ‘home’ and marveling at its deficiencies. Most significantly, I find myself asking, ‘is this it?’ as I participate in conversations and activities that don’t seem quite as vital as those I experienced in Ethiopia. One week in, here’s a list of tips for others in the same situation:

1. Don’t go home.
After a day in Toronto, I continued on to Boston where I’ll spend the last two months of the summer. Being in a new place provides excellent distraction from not being in Addis any longer, a distraction that wouldn’t be possible in a familiar city.

2. Join Facebook.
Adding the friends that you made overseas helps ease the transition away from roommates, coworkers and buddies, and into new interactions. I feel less lonely for my friends in Addis because I can keep track of their lives and converse with them on a daily basis. It makes them seem not quite so far away.

3. Stay involved.
If you were working for a company or ngo overseas, organize some tasks for yourself to do upon returning home. CPAR has asked me to do some writing for its newsletters, and I have some follow up to do with CAPAIDS. These tasks also provide a link with the life I lived in Ethiopia, and help mitigate the feelings of uselessness that comes from leaving a job I loved.

4. Link with other recent returnees.
On my first night back, I went to a bbq with some friends who I’d met in Addis. I’m afraid I might have overused their sympathetic ears, but being able to talk to someone who related was great. One of my friends hadn’t left the house since arriving back three weeks ago!

5. Channel your feelings of withdrawal.
Work on something related to your experience helps to minimize the feeling that the whole thing was a dream. Some suggestions: write an article about the country you visited for an online publication, organize a small fundraiser for an organization you became familiar with overseas, do a presentation for the organization you were overseas with…

Wednesday, July 04, 2007


My first question when I got off the plane in Toronto was, “What am I doing here?” I have repeated the question over and over again in the four days I’ve been on North American soil. People keep saying things about “home” and “safe” in their conversations with me now that I’m back, but I find that those words don’t really apply. The friends I made in Addis gave me a terrific send off, with a party on Friday night, a breakfast in my honour on Saturday morning, and finally hugs at the airport on Saturday evening. As I looked at them, I saw “home” in their faces and my surroundings: my Kazanchis neighbourhood with its busy sidewalks and characters, the blue and white taxis that populate Addis, and the ubiquitous white cloth that covers its (female) resident's heads. The city is more home to me than Toronto ever has been.

The two things that have struck me most in North America since my return have been food and safety. To generalize the first, everyone is always eating here. In the airport, everyone passed the time before their flights by snacking. I bet most of them weren’t even hungry. The evening I arrived, I attended a Canada Day BBQ, which consisted primarily of 6 hours of non-stop eating. I could barely walk out the door, because I kept eating long after I had my fill. And the things that are being consumed here are so much larger than I remembered- tomatoes the size of baseballs, meal portions bigger than my head, and jerry cans full of sugary beverages.

And safety. What is this assumption that Africa is unsafe? Sure, it has more disease and probably more car accidents than in Canada, but it’s not those things we focus on. I was struck by the constant direction given by parents (not my own), signs and PA systems instructing me on how to be ‘safe’. Like in the airport, a voice without a face told me regularly to, “Please stay to the right of the moving sidewalk so that others can pass safely on the left.” Signs in the Boston subway emphasized a safe and happy Fourth of July. People seem to be glad that I’m home safe, but I must admit that I never felt particularly unsafe in Ethiopia.

So, here I am in North America once again. They’re right when they say Africa gets under your skin. But I’m trying to count my blessings, including McDonalds cheeseburgers, speedy internet, and loved ones.