When we first arrived at our guest house in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the housekeeper greeted us at the gate and showed us to our room. I remember I laid my sleeping seven-week-old baby down on the bed and nodded and pretended to listen as the housekeeper chattered away, and as soon as she closed the door, when I was finally alone, I sat in a chair in the corner and cried, looking out the window at my new life. Although I had my husband and my son with me, in that moment I felt not just completely alone but empty. And afraid. Looking out the window all I could think was ‘I do not want to be here. I want to go home.’ I remember thinking that if my husband had said right there, ‘Never mind, let’s go,’ I would have gotten up and gone home right then. Despite months of planning for this big move, months of packing, selling and giving away furniture and clothes, despite a sixteen hour flight across the Atlantic Ocean, despite looking down at the Sahara Desert at sunrise from my plane window, it didn’t hit me until the moment I sat down in that room that I had agreed to spend the next two years of my life in a place completely foreign to me. A country and a continent I had only ever seen on maps.
My husband and I began talking about moving when I was pregnant. Then it had seemed like an adventure. With the exception of a year of wandering after Hurricane Katrina, I had never lived outside my hometown. Why not go? We were young; we had nothing holding us back. We knew if we didn’t go then, we would likely never go. Friends and family suggested we wait until our son was older, but we knew if we waited until then we would find every reason not to go.
After our baby was born I was too busy trying to remember who I was and how to do the most basic things that I didn’t think much about the move. I packed up my life like it wasn’t my own, like I was a factory worker watching boxes of myself roll by. I was too tired and confused to even think about what was about to happen to my life.
In my defense, I was very tired when we touched down in Ethiopia. With a colicky, constantly breastfeeding baby, I didn’t get any sleep, and that is not an exaggeration. Sitting in that cramped corner for sixteen hours (plus major time difference), there were times when I felt like I was going to explode. I was so ready to get off that plane I would have knocked somebody down to get off. So I know some of those tears were just plain old exhaustion. After I cried I laid down next to my son and slept like Rip Van Winkle.
I wrote “How to Survive” on a good day about four months later. I remember that day as the day I turned over a new leaf. I determined I was not going to keep crying every day and feeling sad and lonely. I was going to be productive and happy. I was going to write, since writing always made me happy. I wish I could I say from that day on things got better and I was a happy, healthy mama but the reality is that weeks after writing that blog I was booked on a flight back to the U.S.—without my husband. I had thrown in the towel.
It was a decision that still affects me greatly. I will never know how things might have been different had I stayed and toughed it out. Maybe it was a good decision, maybe not. I learned a very important lesson though. I flew home to be with my family, thinking that was just what I needed to be happy. But back home without my husband, I felt more alone than I did in Ethiopia. I knew that first night back, my son sleeping next to me, that I wasn’t home if my husband wasn’t with me. It only then dawned on me that I was not a child anymore. I still had my siblings and my parents, but my husband and my son were my family now. And without my husband there was a huge chunk of me missing. When I flew back to Ethiopia to be reunited with my husband four months later, I knew then that home was wherever he was. When I left the country I was a mess, but I came back confident and calm.
In retrospect I feel that I was restless and confused not so much because I was in a different country—although that was no small thing in itself—but because I had this new role that I wasn’t prepared for. I wasn’t the person I had been all my life, I was now a mother. I was responsible for someone other than myself. And that’s a big deal. After the baby was born, I didn’t know who I was anymore. When we first came home from the hospital, I looked around the house like I had never been there before. I walked from room to room, reacquainting myself with everything. Okay, this is the bathroom, this is the kitchen, this is the bedroom… My first time attempting to cook dinner post-baby, I had to stand in the kitchen for a few minutes trying to remember how that was done. Mentally I walked around like that for a while, never feeling like I was fully present. I was a shell of the person I once was, my old self standing in the shadow of this new person called mother. It was almost a year before my old self began to merge with this new self.
Now that I’m back home in New Orleans, of course I miss Ethiopia often. My experience from a distance is glossed with nostalgia. I don’t miss big city life (the population in Addis Ababa alone is somewhere around six million people) but I do miss the feeling of freedom I had there. It’s hard to explain, but when you grow up a person of color in America, it’s refreshing to be somewhere where your skin color and your features are the norm. I took it as a big compliment when locals would tell me, “You look like us!” I also miss being somewhere where religion and spirituality are part of daily life, where people don’t react with fear or hatred because you wear a scarf on your head. I hope Ethiopia was only the beginning of our adventures abroad because I’ve learned there is so much more to the world than just the U.S., and I know I can be anywhere in the world as long as I have my two loves with me.
Ambata Kazi-Nance is a freelance writer and full-time mother. She lives in her hometown of New Orleans with her husband and son. Ms. Kazi-Nance is a candidate for the Master’s degree in English from the University of New Orleans and is an aspiring fiction writer. She blogs occasionally at MORmama.wordpress.com.