I hopped onto my bike and started to ride. It was half past 7 in the morning but it was still very dark outside.
I pedalled enthusiastically, hoping that I would warm up quickly. Each vigorous push of the pedal only seemed to invite the cold wind my way. At this point, what I really wanted was my bed plus a nice cup of tea. But I had to quickly banish such thoughts because I wasn’t going to be getting any. “This 20 minute ride had better go quickly”, I thought. I pedalled harder. I needed to get into work on time.
The ride seemed unachievable. What about my bed? And that nice cup of tea? Argh! I could faintly hear them calling. If only teleportation were possible, I would’ve been at my desk instantly, freeing myself from the cold.
But if the dark wintry morning was enough to discourage me from cycling that day, then the thought of the glorious January sun 7,000km away in Zambia was enough to send me into mild depression. Here I was on the south coast of England cycling to work in the cold and dark whilst people in my homeland – friends, family, visitors, strangers – basked in mid-20 degree temperatures. I could even visualise the market women selling their wares whilst trying to keep cool underneath multi-coloured umbrellas. This simple thought bred envy and all sorts of evil inside me!
I have to say, this was not the first time I’d felt this way. I’d been here before and the solution always seemed simple: “Move back home, enjoy the sun and be where you belong.” But that seemingly-easy decision couldn’t just be taken like that; on a whim. Surely not? I’ve come to understand that there are times and seasons in life. Upping sticks and moving abruptly is rarely advisable.
And so my dilemma deepened.
Living abroad has been wonderful. There have been new and interesting people to meet, foods to try and places to visit. But like the celebrated Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie said (she was speaking about America) ‘I like Britain, but it isn’t mine.’
And so on cold wintry mornings, all I want is some sun and the chance to go outside without worrying about taking my gloves and coat. But even though the British weather isn’t always hostile (I’ve experienced some wonderful summers here), there is often a deeper desire for my homeland – not just its fine weather but something deeper; the promise and expectation of belonging.
I’m often reminded of my “Zambianness” when I look at my passport, or when I hear someone mispronounce my name. I’m also reminded of my foreignness when I read the newspapers and hear debates on TV. I’m reminded that even though I understand the culture and confidently speak the language, I don’t quite belong here. But all that raises the vital question: would moving back to Zambia, with its promise of sure identity and belonging, cure me of my mini identity crises? Is searching for identity and belonging in national cultures wise? Adichie once said in an interview: “Being away from home made me both see more of Nigeria’s flaws and also made me more emotionally attached to Nigeria.” I can relate.
Living abroad may have its challenges particularly around identity and belonging. But I’ve loved it and will forever treasure it. It’s helped me develop qualities that I have come to hold dear. It’s also helped me look at my homeland more critically, forcing me to question some of the assumptions I make about life. This means I ask more questions, not just of British culture but of Zambian culture too.
As young Zambians we are often told to remember our culture. But because cultures are created by flawed people there are aspects to our culture that we should not be remembering; aspects that we should be discarding. This inevitably raises accusations of being “uncultured” – whatever that may mean.
And so I ask – what happens when you don’t neatly fit into the two societies you hold dearest? They say home is where the heart is. But what if your heart is in more than one place? The Christian God promises a home where I’ll fit in and that is the home where I’ll truly belong.