It’s been a long time since my last blog post. This is mostly because I honestly didn’t have anything to write about during the second cohort. I often discussed the blog with the rest of the team, and we tried to come up with ideas, but nothing really stuck. It seems ridiculous that it’s possible to live in a foreign country and not find anything to blog about. But I’m not a storyteller, and the truth is that Burkina Faso is a large and vibrant country full of remote villages, of which I only saw one. The strict travel restrictions meant that I only left Loumbila a handful of times over six months, and that was mainly to go to hospital. So, while seeing the same people and the same places every day leads to a sense of community and routine, it does not make for an exciting blog.
I cannot fault our second cohort of volunteers, they were fantastic from day one. The work didn’t really vary from the first cohort, so I won’t go into detail here. Maybe just a few pictures to give you a sense of what we spent 8 hours a day, six days a week doing.
What I really want to write about is what it has been like to come home. I remember sitting in my initial training and raising an eyebrow at the concept of reverse culture shock- surely that couldn’t be a big issue. It would be easy, indeed blissful, to come back to the land of constant electricity and excellent food, where everything makes sense. The most worrying aspect was the 35 degree temperature drop. And I certainly wouldn’t ever become that idiot who starts every sentence with “when I was in Burkina…”. Right?
Our decompression/rehabilitation started in Burkina, with a week spent with the other team leaders. We may have found an illicit swimming pool and pizza restaurant that I would never have let the volunteers go to.. it was definitely worth it for a brief taste of normality. You can see from my face just what a bit of cheese can do for one’s sanity.
To be honest that week really did drag, especially when an airport mix-up extended it by 24 hours. When we finally landed in Heathrow we were hit by the full force of Christmas Eve in the UK. That was the point at which I realised I had absolutely no idea how to readjust to life at home. So, mostly for my colleagues in the same situation (and my future self) here is my take on “reverse culture shock”.
1. You will feel like a dick a lot of the time. I felt like a dick for bathing in gallons of what is essentially hot drinking water. And for having access to a washing machine. And a fridge full of Christmas excess. I found myself feeling sorry for the people I knew in Burkina because they didn’t have these things. And then I felt like a dick because they neither need nor want my sympathy. Basically, it’s a no-win situation.
2. It takes time to fix your body. There’s no getting away from the damage it does to live in a very unfamiliar environment for an extended period of time. The weight I’d lost was easily located over Christmas, but I found myself necking multivitamins, probiotics, and every other “health food” I’ve ever been dubious about, hoping it would make me feel normal. I threw myself on the mercy of a friendly pharmacist who set about fixing the side effects of doxycycline that I’d been living with for months. And I spent a eye-watering amount of money on having a proper hair cut, whilst feeling guilty about every penny.
3. Use your teammates as your support network. They were there with you, they had very similar experiences, and they probably feel just like you do now. But lean on your friends and family as well- they haven’t seen you in ages, you’re not an inconvenience, most people are happy to lend a listening ear to a (limited) number of anecdotes.
4. It is important to take time to reflect on your time away. It’s normal to feel restless when you get home, like you’re no longer doing anything useful. But it’s not helpful to rush into something else without properly recovering and readjusting. When I’m asked if I’d do it again, the honest answer is “no”. I would do something similar, but to repeat the exact experience? I would definitely decline. But I also say that about my midwifery training. The hardest experiences are the most useful, and if you always knew what was ahead you probably wouldn’t do anything!
In summary, I’ve come back tougher, slightly anaemic, ever so slightly tanned and with a small vocabulary of very rude French. So, six months well spent. But in all seriousness, the whole experience was made completely worthwhile by the people I worked with and the friends I made. A couple more months of decent food and tea with milk and I might be ready for whatever comes next.