‘There’s a lot to digest when returning’

Prudence Ukwishatse is an African development expert and professional, who has recently returned to Kenya to pursue a career in governance, leadership and youth development.
I’m Rwandan by birth, Kenyan by association and American by choice. I moved to Kenya when I was one years old from Rwanda and lived in Kericho (Western Kenya) and Nairobi (Central Kenya) until I was 10 years old.

My family relocated to the US when I was 10 years old; an age where it was easy for me to navigate through the American culture without completely forgetting my African mix of cultures. I had parents who constantly reminded us that we’re only here for 5 years, so don’t get comfortable. So, 5 years pass, and it’s another 2 years–5 more years, okay maybe 10. They played with our emotions because no one knew the month, day, or hour. No one knew whether you’d return from school to find your bags packed, furniture sold, a change of nice church clothes waiting for you to take a “trip” back home. So in a sense this kept us connected to the motherland.
To give my parents some credit, they made an effort to keep us connected to home. We kept in touch with our friends and family, ate home cooked traditional meals, spoke the language(s) at home. They always emphasized our need to move back home and reminded us that “America is not your home”.
Let us fast-forward about 15 years because living as a young African in America and the topic of finding identity is a blog and probably a novel in it of itself. Inspired by my parents and the work they did on the continent, I became more aware of the social and economic disparities and injustices on the continent and wanted to be part of the “fixing it” generation. I chose to pursue a career in international relations with a focus on African development.
After about 7 years of my academic awakening on “African development” my anger and frustrations with this field motivated me to get to the continent as quickly as possible. I moved to Washington DC knowing I needed to gain as much professional experience in this field before I could relocate.
In January of 2015, after about 4 years of being stuck in the strange twilight zone called DC, I decided to move back “home”. When people asked “which home?” is when I realized how complicated this question is. You realize as apart of the diaspora, you’ve made an effort to belong to all your “homes” but in reality, you may have shot yourself in the foot and not truly belong to any one country or place, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
After I had this realization, the nerves kicked in. Am I going to be a stranger/foreigner in my own “home”. Is there another word to use other than home? Will I fit in, will I blend in, and will I be frustrated? How long will it take to settle? Will I ever settle? Will I find myself flying back to my real home? A lot of insecurity and doubt set in, but due to a strange cocktail feeling of drive, calling, nostalgia and frustration it pushes you to take that leap of faith. To become a returnee. No longer a diaspora, but like a child who’s come back home.
There is a lot to digest when returning – a reverse culture shock.

There is a strange sense being accepted but not belonging. How do you respond when someone says they love your American accent? Do you know how much effort I’ve put in not acquiring this accent? How do you answer such questions like, where are you from? No, where are you really from? What are you doing here? How long will you be here? Are you actually staying? Why did you move? The reality of being labeled as an expat and foreigner in your own home or what you thought to be your home. Memories of the 10-year old girl immigrant come as I make new friends, try to change my accent, try to fit in.

Sometimes things and places feel familiar, like I never left. I love that feeling. Then at times everything feels foreign, as if you’re a stranger meeting everyone and everything for the first time. It’s frustrating because it is not what you expected. I, like many other returnees have moved back with grand dreams, ideas and expectations. We constantly remind ourselves of why we left, what we left, whom we left and we use whatever pushed us to move back, to navigate through the many changes.

Source: Reign in the City

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