Sitting at gate 82, awaiting a flight to Belfast City, I feel adrift and alien. It’s the swift singsong accents, every person similar enough to a person I know in Belfast that I double take – did I go to university with her? Is he the father of my friend? The one chair space between every group, all of us ellipsised by social discomfort. Many people are talking on the phone to the very family members or friends who will be picking them in Belfast, lest they have to interact with someone who doesn’t inhabit their tiny, cosy comfort zone.
I didn’t expect culture shock. I’ve been gone a literal handful of months, and before that, I lived in the UK for four years. But I’m back now and everything is –
Everything’s about the same, I’m just seeing it with new eyes. You can walk into any shop and find something beautiful, fashionable, functional, sparkling. It’s all lit with flattering light. There’s a greater variety of light-refracting, pore-reducing, chameleonic-adjusting makeup for women than ever before. And a part of me loves this, loves that I can own a forget-me-not teapot or multi-coloured glass wine bottles or a bowl of white flowers or a strawberry husker or iridescent peacock eye shadow or caviar nail polish or a lampshade that will cast flowery shadows on my wallpaper. I could go on.
But I ask myself, how can I live in a place where so much is available to me, and be unhappy? How can you?
I have a life with a gecko that poos in the exact same spot on my bedroom floor every night, and a house that floods every time it rains, with three plain meatless meals we rotate through the week, in eternal summer. I earn less for a month of teaching than I did for a week of waitressing. And I have a life where I’ve got leftover gift bags stashed, because if you give someone a present, they must get a decorated piece of cardboard too, and I’ve got ornaments on my bedside table, and a shining beloved car.
The contrast is jarring.
You might think I’m happier in the place where I’m richest, and where I’m most surrounded by comfort. Or you might know better. What about you, anyway? Is the place where you’re richest and most comfortable the place you’re happiest by default? Have you lived in a place where you are neither of those things? Would you be prepared to risk loneliness and constant sweat for the sunsets?
In Kisumu, my skin is always visible, tangible. I know what temperature my shoulder-blades are, and the texture of the skin at the back of my knees. Here, in the woollen, duffel, duvets to protect me from cold, I am already losing contact with myself. I feel like I could float away, dandelion fluff in the breeze, if I forget the subtleties of my body.
We become sanitised. We begin to lose our humanity, and with it, our humility. When’s the last time I saw my own blood? When’s the last time sweat gathered behind my knee, and skipped down my leg? When’s the last time I welcomed the wind beating against my heart?
I could judge Belfast if I wanted to. I could say that life in this land of plenty and sorrow is wrong, that something fundamental is lost here that I can still find in Kenya. But that isn’t true. There is just as much joy and sin and humanity here as there is in Kenya.
We live with our own demons, griefs and deaths, we walk alongside them every day, regardless of how near we are to the Equator, regardless whether we wear our skins like a second-hand coat or a full-skirted dress. We live with them. God walks with us.
Western world or East Africa, the sun rises, the sun sets, we walk on. We walk on.