There and Back Again

(Um, yes, that’s a Hobbit/LOTR reference. Throwback to my first love, Tolkien).

(Ok, nah, I’m lying. It was Aragorn, son of Arathorn).

In May 2012, I graduated from high school and I never thought I could be so happy. I was positively delighted to be heading to university abroad, to Georgetown University in Qatar (GU).

Keeping in mind that my university search involved any country that was not my own (Seriously, the search went from Mexico, to Malaysia, to Slovakia, to Cyprus and many many more), it may seem a little weird that I ended up back in Kenya after my undergrad, and… (wait for it) …back at my high school for work.

I had a really great time at university: met lots of amazing people, took inspiring classes, got involved in lots of activities and projects and was blessed with lots of opportunities along the way. However, one of the questions which had been bugging me for so long was: How do I make a positive change in society?

Considering the view of politicians back home, I didn’t think government was the way to go. I thought, surely, humanitarian work is the way. It’s what everyone needs to do.

Boy did reality slap me in the face when I took a class called “Intro to Justice and Peace” with the amazing Professor Elizabeth Andretta. That class seriously messed me up mentally and emotionally because everything that I’d taken to be fact about the world of humanitarian aid was revealed to be full of cracks. I had to come to terms with the idea that simply having good intentions and being impartial does not mean that justice is being served. This is actually such a hard thing to deal with because I’d come to believe that in most situations, I could act as an impartial outsider and be able to mediate the conflict (I still have issues trying to deal with this).

I remember having a conversation with Uday Rosario, one of the Student Affairs staff at GU about this. I was so frustrated. I wanted to do something about the things which were going wrong in society. How could I do that if all the ways which had some sort of power were all flawed and corrupt in their own way?

He told me something that day which helped me regain my confidence in my ability to make a change. He referred to the starfish analogy (the one where the child runs along the beach throwing starfish that had been washed ashore back into the sea, saying that even saving one starfish would be worth all the effort) and said that maybe making a large-scale change was not necessary, perhaps all that was needed was a “degree-change” which, when added together, would make a larger change.

This conversation, and many others around the same topic led me to realize that wherever I was trying to enact change, I had to understand the community’s context and needs before putting in place any program or making any sort of change.

At around the same time, I took an African History class with Professor Musandu. That class made me realize how home sick I was and how much I wanted to be back in Kenya or at least on the continent. It really struck home to me that that’s where I wanted to work in the long-term and that’s where I wanted to contribute my life’s work to (whatever that was going to be).

So all these ideas, plus another level of homesickness for my family and general greenery (How I missed green, leafy trees! I almost got poked in the eye with a thorn tree that was being carefully cultivated in Education City for some reason. I know right?! Wth), led me to feel that going home for a while to work seemed like a really really good idea. If the African continent is where I felt like I could contribute, what better place than my own country and hometown. I had to examine my community (whatever I understood that to mean) with the fresh intellectual lens that I had acquired and only after understanding the needs better, could I work on creating “degree change”.

However, the word “home” is seen by people in very different ways. When you live in a place that’s full of expats who have moved from “home” for better opportunities whether it be for work or education, “home” starts to sound like a visitor who has overstayed their welcome.

I’m not even kidding.

“Oh, you’re going back home?”

Later, “Oh, are you still at home

God, get over yourself. Not everyone sees things like you and OMG there is such a thing as LIFE “back home”. And… it’s not of any lesser quality than wherever you are or would prefer to be.

To be perfectly honest, I can’t say that I don’t feel like Frodo sometimes — changed irreversibly by the journey to Mount Doom (Sorry GU, I don’t mean you. Econ…yeah, maybe you) and back, caught between staying in the Shire or going across the sea to the Grey Havens. I don’t think either one is better than the other. I believe that I’ll probably spend a long time swinging between the two options because 1) the world has so much to offer that I haven’t seen and experienced yet and 2) Home is beautiful and sometimes I want to stay and make it much better for the next tenants.

In any case, work is never easy (It has never been. For anyone. Why lie?), but every day that I interact with students and perhaps help them see themselves in a new light or help them out with something, I feel that I am making that “degree-change” which will add up to something incredible. Just you wait and see.

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Identity, personality and relationships: works-in-progress. Join me in the unearthing of myself through my writing. Karibuni!

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Aleesha Suleman

Aleesha Suleman

Identity, personality and relationships: works-in-progress. Join me in the unearthing of myself through my writing. Karibuni!

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