When the neurologist* told me that I would need to stay in Kampala for two weeks under observation, I didn’t know how to feel. I wasn’t particularly fond of the city and 2 weeks away from my home felt like eternity. On the other hand, I was relieved. The thought of going back to my home in the village was fine; the thought of sleeping alone, engulfed in darkness, sent me into a whirlwind of panic that was not there before. I couldn’t imagine being by myself after the accident.
I spent the first 5 days of the 2 weeks in an oxycodone** haze at the home of Nurse Betsy, who works with Peace Corps to take care of injured or ill volunteers. After a period of uncomfortable numbness, my friend Emily and I were able to move to a hostel near the Peace Corps headquarters. At the hostel, I met volunteers, teachers, doctors, students and travelers from all over the world. I engaged in conversations about literature and politics. I learned about different cultures. My friends from Peace Corps dropped by daily and I welcomed the opportunity to hang out with people in small groups. Emily and I took this opportunity to explore Kampala. We toured the Ghadaffi Mosque, we attended a show at the Ndere Cultural Center, we visited the gallery of a local artist we met at a club one night and we indulged in ice cream and pedicures.
The cuts and bruises that decorated my body were slowly fading away but I still needed someone to hold my hand when I crossed the street. Confronted with the rush of traffic, a feeling of anxiety took over my body and it only worsened when I crossed the street. My thoughts ran awry and I imagined being hit by the speeding vehicles over and over again. The fact that boda bodas drove on the sidewalk during rush hour did not help but holding the equally clammy hands of my friend next to me brought me back to life.
During this time, my Ugandan coworkers also reached out to me. “I am missing you,” they told me. “The place is lonely.” I felt guiltier with each phone call. I missed them too but I found that I didn’t want to go back. I was getting used to this life of luxury made up of free wifi, hot showers, toilets and constant company. Being able to speak and be understood was something I took for granted in the states but treasured wholeheartedly here. Life in the village was beginning to look less appealing every day and I hated that I felt that way.
The night after a breakdown over whether I would be able to readjust to village life, I sat on the hostel rooftop slightly tipsy, drinking in the city lights. I was soon joined by a German guy who also stayed at the hostel and occupied the bed opposite mine. Sharing a room had expedited the process of getting to know each other and we had reached a comfortable level in our friendship. Our conversation weaved in and out of various topics until he made a comment about life in the village that made me defensive.
Disregarding the fact that I had just bawled my eyes out not even 24 hours prior thinking about going back to the village, I heard myself tell him*** how grateful I was to be here and how much I believed in the work I was doing. I told him that life as a Peace Corps Volunteer was not easy. Nobody lives without electricity and running water for fun. Nobody moves halfway across the world, away from everything they have ever known, for two years purely for a thrill. If I wanted a comfortable life with wifi and hot showers, I would move back to America. If I wanted to be near my family, I could be. If I wanted a romantic relationship, I could have one. It’s the look on my kids’ faces when they open a book for the first time that tells me I’m in the right place. It’s their unwavering attention and hesitant questions when I talk to them about HIV and AIDS that reminds me about the impact of the work I’m doing. It’s the kindness and gratitude of my Ugandan coworkers and neighbors that comforts me when I think about all the things I sacrificed to be here and it’s in these moments that I find a deep sense of personal fulfillment that I could never get from a relationship or a more comfortable life.
My rooftop companion eventually turned to me and said “I love that you said that” and only then did I realize that I was still talking out loud. After a certain point, I had stopped trying to convince him why I was here and started reminding myself why I was here.
*Fun fact: My neurologist was the first neurologist in Uganda, and for a long time – the only one. He actually introduced the neurology program in Uganda at Makerere University.
**Side note: I am sorry for anyone who is going through something so terrible emotionally that they turn to drugs like oxycodone to numb the pain. I can’t imagine anything worse than feeling nothing. I’ll take the pain any day.
***Because sometimes (all the time) I don’t know what I’m thinking/saying until it comes out of my mouth or onto a paper.