By Silas Nyanchwani
A Ugandan friend currently studying in an exclusively White college in the North East of the United States wrote me a long Facebook message complaining of the loneliness and isolation at the University.
The letter had a painfully sincere ring that I’m familiar with. For I have lived away from home and I know what such kind of loneliness is.
Twice in my life, I have stayed out of my home country for close to a year; in 2012 I lived in South Sudan and from the summer of 2015 to the summer of 2016, I lived in the United States, spending my days in New York and nights in New Jersey before moving to New York altogether for six months.
In both instances, I suffered homesickness to the point of breaking down, and no, I’m not being dramatic. But the South Sudanese homesickness was different from the American homesickness. In South Sudan, the anxiety was mostly due to the uncertainty of living in a volatile country, ever on the brink of a civil war. The harsh weather and the limited dietary options (we were limited to rice/chapatti, beans/meat), didn’t make the situation any better. Besides, the South Sudanese people, while friendly and kind, had started the usual latent xenophobia by questioning of our holding to the jobs that locals could do, and you could sense that beneath the surface, the time was up for the foreigners. Hardly the best working environment.
In America, it was a different ball game together. It is a country where the dynamics are different. Besides being a different country away from home, there was also the issue of racism. Being black in a country that is largely white is a challenge, because you are painstakingly aware of your place in such a society, despite its claim to equality and justice. I will not say that I suffered any form of racism, at least not directly, but I did suffer a lot of loneliness and isolation.
And it was not just me, most foreign students did and for Africans, the situation was doubly worse. The few African friends I visited at their homes, I could smell their loneliness from a mile off. It was so palpable, you could empathize. Yet, it is not just them, the entire Western civilization is a lonely experience.
The entire Western Civilization cultural DNA is informed by the scarcity mentality that breeds an impossibly competitive culture that cannibalizes on the human soul, rendering them so individualistic; people are busy working, rushing from one job to the next to make ends meet. It is not uncommon for people to hold up to three jobs to sustain their lifestyle. The quality of life while undoubtedly better than Africa in many cases, it comes at an extremely high price.
For an Africa moving from a continent that is laid back, where people get by with one job or no job at all, there is always a culture shock on how maddeningly busy and how serious the people in the West take life. It is necessary for survival. I never understood why coffee was so popular with the Western societies, but living in New York and seeing how busy everyone was, I came to know why. It was their attempt at remaining sober in a zombie world. Ditto, the usage of drugs. People used to drugs to escape the harsh reality of the unforgiving life that hardly offers people second or third chances that we often take for granted back at home in Africa.
Things like meeting for regular drinks over stories are unheard off. If you meet with someone for a drink, they are always on the move. You scarcely settle before they tell you they have to rush to the next job.
To live abroad is to be caught in unending dilemma. The convenient life and the endless opportunities on one hand and then you have the silent suffering, the depression the loneliness that many must contend to with. Spouses are ever busy at work, children always at school or busy with something else, relatives busy too dealing with the same problems, there is hardly time for social life.
That is why when the Diasporites come back home, they do everything excessively. They want to party like there is no tomorrow, want to be regaled with stories and are always jittery with the shortness of the time, before they go back to the rat-race. And once they live abroad long enough, life back in Africa becomes a bit of slow for their liking.
But to each his own. We are all where we are mostly not because of our personal choices, but more to do with prevailing circumstances. For those in the diaspora, the loneliness can be cancerous, but they have limited options, coming back home, they will never adapt, especially if they have been living there for a long period.
The truth is, cultures are different. And to adjust into another man’s culture is never easy. I saw even this among African-Americans; despite living in America for more than four centuries, they were lost in dealing with the white-man’s culture.
When you come down to it, the older you grow, the lonelier you are likely to be. So, if you can get married to a good partner, adjusting and balancing between the rat race and family time will go a long way. For it is only our spouses and children who make life worth living. And only family can stick around as we grow older and lonelier.
Also, investing back home, with hopes of coming back helps a greater deal so that should the going get tough, you can always come back home, adjust and live like your fellow countrymen and women. Another man’s country is like a borrowed steak, my people say, you never know when they may want it back as Brexit and Trump’s election have taught us.