For Laura, an old church buddy during my college years, wherever she may be today. Laura wanted to be a missionary more than anything, but asked, “Please, God, anywhere but Africa!” As they say, God has a sense of humor. She ended up going to Botswana, where she found her home, and her heart.
How do you say goodbye to an entire continent? I’ve been asking myself this question for awhile now, but still don’t have a good answer. Leaving North America almost nine and a half years ago was challenging, but it wasn’t painful. We knew we’d be back frequently, and, most likely, ultimately. And we were leaving it for such an adventure! So it wasn’t hard at all. But Congo, and Africa overall — it’s gotten under my skin, and I don’t wanna say goodbye. Nor do I have any guarantee that I’ll ever have the opportunity to return.
Just last week I overheard Seb telling someone in French that he’s never lived in one single place this long in his adult life. His usual routine is a couple years here, a couple years there. The same is true for me; I usually craved a change after a year or two in one spot. We didn’t get married until our late thirties, when we sold or stored or shipped everything we owned, and “settled down” here in Congo. This place has truly become home in every sense of the word. And while living here, we’ve taken advantage of the opportunity to see as many different parts of the continent as we could. Seven safaris and fifteen countries later, I’ve totally fallen under its spell.
So, first things first: what happened. You may remember that not too long ago, sometime during year seven maybe, we decided we might as well go for ten. We liked living here, it was treating us well, and we couldn’t think of anything better, really! But earlier this year, after the change in company management set in, management who have a very different strategy and way of doing business, we soon found ourselves as THE LAST expat couple on site, and Seb as ONE OF TWO remaining North American expat employees overall. The squeeze was on, and communication with upper management was becoming more and more difficult, and more and more irrelevant. We kind of had no choice but to call the ball.
The good news is, we’re not leaving without a plan. Seb will continue to work for the company but from afar, and not from the corporate office in Beijing but from an international technical service office back in Phoenix. It’s a promotion for him, and a great way for us to bridge this gap back to our old home. Most importantly, he can continue to support his Congolese staff, who are having a hard time accepting his coming absence. Or at least he can attempt to, in a way that may be even more effective than he was starting to be able to do in person.
I’m sorry, I know I’m practically speaking in code. That’s the only bad news here; I can’t be perfectly clear! However, if you’re ever passing through Phoenix and want to know more, it will only cost you a glass or two of wine to find out. (Yes, that’s an invitation. Or a bribe, depending on how you look at it.)
So that’s sort of what happened and is happening. Now, back to the question of how to say goodbye. How to leave with a heart full of peace, love, and gratitude. My first plan of attack was to make a list of all the things I look forward to doing again. Number one on that list, by far, is to grocery shop with abandon! Maybe even in a car, and one that’s not a rental! And oh yes, I will also take that car to the mountains, to trailheads, to join a hiking club that I’m holding out hope is half as cool as the one I had in Tucson. Maybe I will get to join a few other groups, get out of the house a little more often than I’m used to. Somewhere there’s an Alliance Française with an extra seat for me, and maybe I’ll give piano lessons another shot. Or something like that.
Another stratagem is to go for the total opposite lifestyle of what we’ve gotten accustomed to. Instead of the peace and quiet of nature and a green backyard full of birds and monkeys — since the desert can’t quite compete with that anyway — we’re aiming for an ultra-modern condo lifestyle, straight up downtown. If we have to be in a city, let’s be IN the city! Something close enough for Seb to walk or bike or take the light rail to the office. (It’ll be just me who needs that car, the mountains aren’t very close to downtown!) We’ve also promised ourselves not to become complacent about what a big city offers, with its endless events and all those museums we never visited back when we had the chance. Not to mention enjoying frequent visits with the family and friends we still have in Phoenix, and the ability to stay in touch better with the ones a few states (or a close northern country) away.
And the final strategy we could come up with, in order to say goodbye to this beautiful, special place, was also the most nerve-wracking one. A few months ago when the majority of expats were leaving, the company made a new rule: no more goodbye parties. Not sure if the dictum was due to noise, or expense, or what, but we thought it was a real kick in the pants to people who’d been here a long time. We witnessed a woman who’d been working here for twelve years get told on a Tuesday that she was out on the Friday plane. Her retirement gift, her goodbye and thank you for spending twelve years away from family, friends, and home, was an uncomfortable dinner at the company restaurant for four, including her boss who had just fired her, and his translator. We knew then that we’d do anything to make our exit a little less painful.
Luckily Seb’s staff already had the same idea. The day after he announced that he would be leaving, one of his head guys, Jean-Pierre, came into his office and asked if it would be alright if he planned a party for him. Nothing to do with the company, this would be in town, and at his own private property (he happens to own a hotel and conference center). He offered to take up a collection from the department to pay for it, and Seb said, no, no, no, I’ll pay for all of it, and happily so. We wanted to go out with a bang! And Jean-Pierre delivered. You’ve heard me talk about Congolese weddings, right? How they are super organized, choreographed, and over the top? That’s how this one turned out, except it also started on time! There was food, music, dancing, gifts, paparazzi, and endless speeches, programmed to the minute. And the super-nice bow that tied up this Congolese gift was that we shared top billing with Papa Toto and his wife, who are celebrating his retirement at the end of this year. The same Papa Toto who drove us the 3-hour journey from Lubumbashi to site when I first arrived in 2010, the same Papa Toto who laughed at my antics when I marveled at the sights I saw out the window, when I practiced my ten words of French, and when a stranger mistook me for a nun, thanks to my lack of makeup and hairspray. It was a perfect night of celebration, electricity outages and all — it couldn’t have worked out better if we’d planned it ourselves. And it’s Jean-Pierre, not only a geology department team leader and local entrepreneur extraordinaire, but also a veterinarian by training, who generously agreed to take our precious Zawadi, our Congolese cat whose name means “gift” in Swahili, as his own.
And so finally, as for the question, how do you say goodbye? You can’t. I can’t, anyway. Not really, not sufficiently. As I said, Africa has gotten under my skin. From very early on, it felt like moving there was in a way, coming home. I may be getting overly sentimental or even a little mystic here, but I truly believe that it feels that way because Africa is the original home for all of us. Humankind itself came from there, we all have our roots there. You realize it’s true when you touch the ground there. It’s very special ground, it feels like a place you know deep down, or even deeper, a place you once knew. Promise me that if you haven’t yet visited, you will. Like me and my friend Laura before me, I promise you that if you go, you will discover your home, and your heart.
P.S. I wrote this on the plane (where I’m always overly sentimental, by the way), so if you’re reading this, it means that we landed safely, in Phoenix. Come visit us, anytime, please, and we’ll share that bottle of wine!