Even as I write this title, I don’t really mean it. I think we will call the hospital guest house later and tell them that the family will be in for supper tonight (as we do every day), and we will go back to our house in staff quarters and make sure the washing is taken indoors before the dark and the dew (as we do every day.)
But the reality is, we won’t do either of those things. I am sitting on the plane, flying from Kigali to Brussels, to be back in Heathrow by morning. How can this possibly be?
This week has been one of leave-taking. Although I worked on the wards until Wednesday, the tone of the week was to prepare for our departure. We had a leaving party last Saturday afternoon for the children, and one on Saturday evening for the adults. The children had a sleep-over with their friends on Monday (in a tent – at least until midnight, when they all left to go to their respective beds!), on Tuesday there was a birthday party, on Wednesday and invitation to have supper with the Principal of the nursing school, on Thursday a ward leaving party. And in amongst all that, there has been packing and dispatching our belongings of the year to our friends or to those who could make use of them.
And then, there have been goodbyes. Often more than once to the same person. Heartfelt, with meaning, difficult because these friendships are so relatively new, and yet have become so important. Once you have shared meals with your friends every day for months, seen them from getting washed in the morning, to the last thing at night, collected their washing, chatted on the doorstep, played scrabble, tended to the same patients, been their patients, shared prayers with them, cried with them, ones lives are interwoven.
In between all this leave-taking, I’ve been trying to work out what it means to leave Bwindi, and through this, to find out what the place means in my life, and what that means about where life is taking us. But despite trying, I’ve not been able to get in touch with the feelings. It is almost as if there has been too much to feel to be able to manage. It’s felt almost impossible to understand the reality of leaving. Although the words are there, the truth of it; that Bwindi won’t be our home, it too difficult to understand. I’ve walked to the special places, spoken to the special people, and still the feelings have been locked away.
Until this evening, that is.
As previously, we chose to leave Uganda via the land border with Rwanda, then to fly from Rwanda on a stopping flight back to Europe. The road to Rwanda is shorter, and a million times more gorgeous than the route to the airport at Entebbe in Uganda as it winds through the impenetrable forest. Anyway, we reached Kigali airport and went to the check in desk. Despite our efforts to prepare (giving our possessions away, and weighing and re-weighing and checking our bags) – we hadn’t packed so well, and our the bags that we had were too heavy for the baggage allowance. Only by a kilo or two, but enough to be noticed. The lady at the desk eyed us sternly and said we would have to pay for our overweight baggage. We offered to re-pack, (we had an extra bag tucked away,) but she wouldn’t allow it – the extra bag had already passed through her check-in process and couldn’t be recalled. An officious impasse. And at that, I burst into uncontrollable sobbing. Tired out by the hectic-ness of recent days, and the lack of unbroken sleep, and completely un-done by this example of an inflexible, rule-bound system, driven by an agenda that I don’t understand and values that weren’t mine…. I couldn’t hold back the tears. This interaction was in such contrast to the life we were leaving where people matter more than rules, where we look to find solutions rather than barriers, and where things happen on a human scale.
The flood gates of feeling had opened, and the sense of what we were leaving behind – the community, the shared values, the work built on relationships – it all came cascading out and I sat there, on the suitcase with my head in my hands and tears pouring down my cheeks.
How on earth could I move on from here?
For now, I think the answer is for me is to be patient and to be still. For now what I need to do is nothing more than to watch an in-flight movie and see what emerges once we are back in our ‘other’ home.
(ps; The airline lady was actually more than OK in the end. She called her boss at our request. He was equally firm but said they would let it go this once. Brian apologised to him after for the drama of our check-in, and he was pleasant and helpful, so it was all good in the end, though none of this made a difference to the volume of tears shed!)
I wrote the above just as we were leaving, on the plane. In fact, a few hours later, there was a twist to our departure. On leaving Rwanda, our plane struck a bird, and whilst the plane was repaired we were grounded in Entebbe (the city with Uganda’s main airport)… So with the loveliest of irony, we found ourselves back in Uganda. After some chaos as we were disembarked in the early hours, we were placed in a sumptuous hotel and had a sun-warmed 48 hours of time-out-of-time exploring and resting and being family. That was a gentle blessing.
Since then, I haven’t had the courage to write. I have been waking each morning with a profound sense of grief and loss. We’ve come somewhere else for a short while to try and start making sense of our experiences. To help me, I’ve been reading books about other people who have worked or explored in Uganda, or in Africa. Thor Hanson was a Peace Corps worker in Bwindi in the 1990s. He was involved in the establishment of the national park and the development of gorilla based tourism in the area. In his book, ‘’The Impenetrable Forest’’ he writes about leaving; ‘’ The conclusion of my time in Uganda left me with a strange mixture of release and regret complicated by the …..wrenching stress of parting from friends. I needed a transitional landscape, a foreign, anonymous place where I could restore myself before moving back home.’’ Henry Morton Stanley, the explorer, described his feeling at a journey’s end. ‘’When a man returns home and finds himself for a moment with nothing to struggle against, the vast resolve which has sustained himself through a long enterprise dies away, burning as it sinks in the heart… and [this is] accompanied by a peculiar melancholy.’’
Both writers describe the feeling much better than I. I just hope for me it will pass into a phase that is less acutely painful and more creative soon.