Goodbye, Nigeria…

Loveth by her daddy's okada

Can you believe it? Can you believe I’m going back to Oregon in two days? Well, if you’ve only been reading my blogs, you probably can’t. But if you’ve been a listening ear (either here in Nigeria or back at home), you probably can. And if there were a window to my heart and mind, you most certainly could.

I agonized over a three-page blog about why I was leaving: writing, rewriting, and editing for about 12 hours in total. I scrapped it. Then I slaved over another one, trying to be really honest and accurate. I scrapped that, too. I can’t find a way to publicly share exactly what happened because there are too many feelings, thoughts, opinions, and other people involved to really expose on the worldwide web. If you’d like to email me privately to get more of the scoop, please feel free! I don’t mind sharing, I just can’t do it via a public blog.

So here goes nothing!

———————————————

Within days of arriving at my small town placement in Kwara State, I struggled. I struggled with isolation, I struggled with missing my parents and friends, I struggled with the not so far-fetched thought that each time I boarded a vehicle – be it bus, taxi, van, or okada – it could be my last. I struggled with the fear that if anything happened to my family or to me while I was gone, I would never forgive myself. Barely a day went by in the first couple months where I didn’t cry or feel like crying. It. Was. Tough.

And then there were things I didn’t exactly struggle with, but that pulled the tension wires just a bit tighter. These were the expected nuisances like schizophrenic electrical supply, being greeted every 14.2 seconds when out in public, being stared at, being expected to offer money and gifts, sociological beliefs I didn’t agree with, and the heat. (Surprisingly, I didn’t fret too much about having no running water, no refrigeration, taking bucket baths, or sweeping wall-to-wall carpeting with a Nigerian broom).

But the biggest concern was my job at the College of Education and my personal relationship with the work I was supposed to be doing. If I had felt emotionally satisfied or at peace with the work, and if I had felt supported by the College (which had been a ghost town for 2/3 of my time spent in Oro due to on/off strikes), I know I could have worked through all the other struggles and tensions. In many ways I was much tougher than I thought, and was able to pick myself up and forge ahead, despite the hardship. But even with the guidance and support of organizations like VSO and ESSPIN, I couldn’t seem to wrap my mind around the seemingly hopeless work at the College, and I couldn’t wrap my heart around anything solid to help motivate me. So this was the main issue I had, not the hardships of living in Nigeria, not the isolation, not the culture shock or national security issues.

And after a bit over six months, signs dropped like bombs, both literal and figurative, telling me it was time to go home.

August 25: Fifteen armed robbers stormed into a bank in a very nearby town and murdered three people. This had happened in another town close in proximity just one month before. Locals feared Oro was next.

August 26: A suicide bomber, purportedly from the growing Islamic fundamentalist group in Nigeria called Boko Haram, detonated a bomb at the UN building in Abuja, killing 23 people.

August 27: A personal relationship I was in completely dissolved. This relationship had been wonderful in so many ways and had given me a lot of incentive to stay. It was like my glue. When this disappeared, I wasn’t emotional; I simply looked around and saw that there were precious few reasons for staying, particularly when weighing the risks involved in living here.

But let me clarify. Having “precious few reasons for staying” by no means indicates there weren’t amazing things happening. In fact, the most profound, life-changing, heartfelt, significant experiences of my entire life have happened here in this country. That is no exaggeration and I’ll try to blog on it later. These experiences have come mostly in the form of personal relationships. But when here to do a job, when I’m supposed to be spending the majority of my daytime hours doing a specific task, and that task is not working out for various reasons, it’s really hard to justify staying (especially considering all the struggles and safety issues), despite the wonderful people I have met here. I couldn’t just stay simply to hang out during the evenings on a friend’s porch while she cooked stew. I couldn’t just live here 24 hours a day for one and a half more years because my presence gave the neighbors joy. I couldn’t rationalize suffering during the workweek simply because I enjoyed the company and friendship of other VSO volunteers and expats during the weekends.

I came here to do some soul-searching. I came here to find myself, to gain strength and confidence, to have an impact, to acquire new perspectives on life. I accomplished all of these things and SO much more. I have changed the lives of others for the better. I have made connections and friends which will alter my life forever. I have left a legacy and have been an ambassador of not only my country but of the West. I have discovered more about what I want in life, and even more about what I don’t want. I have finally found peace with who I am and where I’m from. I know that the journey will continue, and I’m looking forward to every moment.

I am not leaving Nigeria because of safety and security issues. I am not leaving because of the relationship falling apart. I am not leaving because I miss my family and friends. I am not leaving because of my job. I am not leaving because a lizard once fell on my head or because the weather gives me zits. There is no singular event that has pushed me to this. I am leaving because a voice inside of me, which I’m starting to trust more and more, whispered to me that it was time. It hadn’t been the right time before, not even when I was crying every day for weeks straight. The voice didn’t really speak to me then, which is why I stayed. But now it has spoken and it’s time to go.

And the way I can know that this is true is because I feel at peace in my heart. I feel this strange sense of contentedness which one only finds after making the right choice or when one has completely finished a project. Despite the four days of crying while saying my goodbyes to my neighbors and friends, and despite the fact that there are many things about Nigeria that I will deeply miss, and despite the fact that this experience has changed me forever, my work here is done.

And to completely affirm my decision, a couple of days ago, a volunteer friend of mine called me with some very sad news. She was visiting her homeland to celebrate her mother’s 65th birthday. Several days after the birthday celebration while my friend was still visiting, her mother died unexpectedly from cardiac arrest. I. Can’t. Imagine. And this has been a fear of mine, varying in intensity, from the start of this trip: that something would happen to me or my family while I was gone. How I interpret this fear is that I love my home, I love my family, I love my life in America. And I know this is such a cliche, but I have to say it: I absolutely had to leave home to appreciate it. And who knows, I may have to leave again somewhere down the road. Life is funny like that.

But when weighing the pros and cons, which I painstakingly did at the end, I have found that the reasons for staying here no longer outweigh the reasons for going back home. And that’s the end of it.

I feel terrible that I’ve broken my promise to CUSO-VSO, VSO, ESSPIN, and the people I’ve met and am leaving behind, and even for the College. I promised two years and I gave them six and a half months. But when considering intensity of impact rather than longevity of stay, I would say that my VSO placement was beyond 110% successful (wink to those who read my last blog post!).

VSO’s motto is “Sharing Skills, Changing Lives.” I did that to the max. However, my skills had little to do with “teacher training” and everything to do with just being me. For example, I gave one family love, hope, and quite a bit of financial support, which will give them the opportunity to start a business and pull themselves out of poverty. I offered a young boy a new standard of what it means to be treated well when he cried and told me, “Julie, nobody has ever been as good to me as you have.” I gave neighborhood children time and space to express their creativity by inviting them to color and play at my house, and soon I’ll be selling their bookmark artwork in the States and wiring the money back so they can have new art supplies, school uniforms, and support with school fees. I had a short but powerful relationship with someone which helped both of us heal to become stronger and better people. The sheer number of tears shed and sad words shared (my own included) on account of my departure proved to me that lasting impressions were made.

It’s not like I came to hurt people or myself by this coming-and-going. I came to feel more alive. Nigeria and its people will make you feel alive.

This blog post is long enough. Sorry it’s not as well written as some of my others. My brain is just tired. I will write some more on the bookmark project, lessons I’ve learned, and more stories as I recall them, especially about the potential culture shock I may experience from going back home!

And for those curious, my plan now is to temporarily move back home with my parents, then find a lovely little house in Lake Oswego, a good job, perhaps a partner, certainly a cat, and live with appreciation and joy for my life. Until the next bug gets me and I have to stir it all up again. Such is life.

I can’t thank all of you readers enough for joining me on this journey. Knowing you have been here, graciously allowing me to share my ups and downs, has been such a blessing. You have inspired me to dig deeply into myself and uncover both the jewels and the junk. In fact, when I recently compiled my (weighted) pros and cons list to help in my decision-making, I found that writing this blog and receiving your responses in the form of emails, comments, and phone calls was one of the highly-rated pros. So thank you, thank you, thank you.

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14 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kari Misegades
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 10:16:48

    Holy Moley Julie, You rock!
    I so can compleatly understand and support your knowing what is right for you. I know I sound like an “old Auntie” when I say that I am proud of you and the spiritually wise woman you have become. I look forward to giving you a big hug upon your return!
    Aunt Carolyn’s friend,
    Kari

    Reply

  2. Anonymous
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 12:09:07

    Hi Julie – I am glad you are listening to your heart. I wish you peace with your decision and much good luck in Oregon! You have made a difference for some people there and you will make a difference back home too!
    Love
    Sara

    Reply

  3. heartinoregon
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 12:26:44

    Hi Julie:

    Glad you are coming home and I’m sure there is some growing experiences this has brought. Call me or email me when you get back, we’ll get together and talk

    Reply

  4. Abigail
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 14:42:49

    hello J baby..am happy for you, one day I hope I will be able to say all what you have said with assurance in my heart….we will keep in touch..love you ..xxxx.

    Reply

  5. Aunt Suzanne
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 14:48:36

    Wow! I will continue to pray for you and your journey. xo Aunt Suzanne

    Reply

  6. Annie Otley
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 17:04:40

    Julie- that was clearly a tough decision. I admire you so much for all that you have done during your stay in Nigeria. I look forward to hearing more about it when you return! Have a safe journey home, and I’ll see you soon. Love you!

    Reply

  7. Julie Surface Johnson
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 18:24:25

    Ah Julie, you have learned much in Nigeria. And I know you will continue to learn wherever you go. May God bring you safely home and may He continue to direct you in your search for truth.

    Reply

  8. Anonymous
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 18:43:57

    Julie,
    I welcome you home. Call me and perhaps we can have a cup together.

    Safe trip!

    Reply

  9. DAVID CICERCHI
    Sep 07, 2011 @ 22:41:10

    No wahala 😉

    Reply

  10. annacurtisyoga
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 00:26:37

    I love you, you’re awesome. Safe travels and see you … .soon? … in dc! 🙂

    Reply

  11. Anonymous
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 01:21:14

    Waiting here for your very welcome return with arms wide opoen.

    Love you bunches,

    Aunty Carolyn

    Reply

  12. Lula Chance
    Sep 08, 2011 @ 20:53:00

    WELCOME HOME JULIE! Exactly where you are supposed to be ;o))…

    Reply

  13. Mary Bankhead
    Sep 09, 2011 @ 01:31:49

    Julie, I can’t thank you enough for sharing your experiences with us through your blog. The love and energy (and bravery!) you’ve showed has touched us here back home, and helped nudge me to being a better person. Welcome back, and congratulations on your discoveries! -Mary B.

    Reply

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