This weekend I went camping on the plateau in the town I’m living in (Zomba, Malawi) and seriously FROZE…winter in Africa is not a joke y’all. Three layers of clothes and I was still so cold at night! Still, I LOVE camping and it was nice to do something that really makes me feel like my regular self, to really feel “in my element” for a weekend. Anyway, that was a side note.
The camping trip was with a group of expats in Zomba and it was mainly a goodbye trip as the coming months are a huge turnover in people “going home” or moving onto to new jobs in different countries. People who have been in Zomba for years are moving on and getting ready to start life over. For those that are staying, there has been a lot of moaning about having to make all new friends. And the people moving on are saying much the same! It’s one of the things I’ve been thinking a lot about expat life. Constant changes in friends and colleagues. Far from the rough roads, bugs, blackouts, slow pace of life and lack of access to activities and products I can get easily in Canada, the things I think I would struggle with the most is being far from home and having a constantly shifting support system in country.
It’s been making me question a bit if it’s something I actually can or want to do long term. I have aways maintained that after getting my degree I want to live and work in the Global South, for the majority, if not all, of my career. And in fact, this internship was partly to make sure it’s something I can actually handle. I’m pretty easy going and adaptable so I wasn’t too concerned but better to try it for three months before I’ve signed a one or two year contract and suddenly realize I can’t deal with xyz, whatever that may be.
And to be honest, I am really, really enjoying it and have gotten to the point where I want to hit pause as time is going by too quickly (less than 5 weeks left, whattttt). 3 months just isn’t long enough! But how much time would be too long? It’s easy to deal when I’ll be back in Ottawa in a few short weeks, back with my friends, back to my hobbies, my church community, back to doing things other than work, reading and going out to eat with friends once a week. After 2 years or 5 years or 10 years would I still be okay away from the people I love the most? Would I get bored without my hobbies and extracurriculars? Would I be okay with leaving my life in Canada behind permanently?
Yesterday as we walked down the mountain I fell into step with a guy who has just arrived in Zomba to work with an INGO. I had only met him once before this weekend and so we had the typical conversation here: how long are you here, where were you before, what do you do, where are you from, etc. Eventually somehow we ended up on the topic of pros and cons of living abroad. He said it frustrated him when people live in the developing world for a short time and decide it’s not “convenient” for them, i.e. the things like the blackouts or the rough roads or eating the same foods again and again make them leave. On the other hand, he talked about his desire to return home to the states permanently in the next year or so, after 7+ years of living abroad in the developing world. His reasoning was two-fold: he wants to be closer to friends and family, to be truly “home” and secondly, to have a life beyond work which is the reason he is here and the thing his life mostly revolves around. He talked about feeling like he gave up more than convenience to live in Africa, he gave up his hobbies like theatre and certain outdoor adventures as well as “regular” face to face relationships with friends and family. To be fair, I think he has really enjoyed and continues to enjoy his life here. I’m just relaying this conversation because it’s stuck with me and has me thinking. It’s true that here (from what I have seen), life is basically work and then some socializing but it’s less full than back home, where personally, I am involved in many different things. I like to live diversely and energetically and I have a lot going on at any given time. Here, that is not really possible (although it would maybe be different in the capital or a bigger city).
Maybe these are selfish things to worry about. Maybe it’s just a different type of convenience I’m desiring. But this conversation, and others like it with the many friends who are heading truly home and those who will be in Zomba longer have had me considering the actual implications of pursing long term work abroad. It would mean giving up a lot of things I genuinely love. Not just my ability to easily go for all you can eat sushi but things that I define myself by, things that truly give me life. This summer for example I have so missed my yearly canoe trips…its’ just not a thing here and it’s something that usually consumes my summer evenings and weekends. It’s something that is part of my identity. Living abroad would also mean long stretches between seeing my family and my dearest friends. It might be mean lots of friends in my life for short seasons and maybe moving every few years. This summer back home there have been weddings and babies being born and friends graduating and the FOMO has been real.
I’m not saying all this has turned me off living abroad long term. It hasn’t. It’s just had me thinking about it seriously and being honest with myself about what it could look like. Beyond my career goals and the excitement that comes with living abroad, what do I value in life and what do I want my life to look like? What am I willing to sacrifice? What are the things I truly need to live a life I love? Can I get those things while working in the Global South? Where? For how long? What type of city or geographical situation would set me up for success living abroad for long periods?
I don’t have all the answers but I think they are important questions to be asking myself.
Wishing each of you all the best from chilly Malawi,
P.s. Enjoy the random collection of photos from the last coupe of weeks below!