By Raliat Oluyemisi Sunmonu
"How long have you been away?"
"Fifteen years?! How can you stand it? Don't you miss it? Aren't you ever going back?"
"Yes, I miss it, but you do what you have to. When I first came here, I told myself I would be back home in five years or less. Now here I am almost two decades and still counting. Am I ever going back? I don't know. Twelve years ago I could have given you a definite answer. Ten, five years ago, I would have told you yes without hesitation. Now? I just don't know."
The words send a chill down my spine. He is someone I respect very much. He's intelligent. He's articulate. He's very passionate about his beliefs. He unfailingly optimistic about things…in short, he could have been me. Actually, to be more precise, I AM him; fifteen years ago. I am his ghost of Christmas Past.
Everyone has their reasons for leaving their home country--better education, the promise of a better life, political expediency, etc. It doesn't matter because when we get here (wherever "here" happens to be), we are all exiles of some sort. For some, it makes no difference since they have no intention of going back to their countries. They embrace their new lives to the fullest, infused with self-congratulation and gratitude at the rare moments when they spare a thought for the people and country they left behind; thankful to have escaped the horrors that continue to plague the unfortunate in their homelands.
And then there are those like me, who, even as they build a life in their country of exile, even as they dig deeper and more solid foundations in other lands, cast a longing eye to the homes of their hearts. We are the "keyboard activists", who follow every event in our homelands with breathless anticipation, fingers poised over keyboards to send words of praise, of chiding, of encouragement, of displeasure, to the numerous newsgroups of fellow exiles. We are the perennial protesters and demonstrators, who camp out at our embassies to protest our governments' policies, who refuse to patronize companies whose operations in our homelands are detrimental to the welfare of our fellow citizens. We are the student activists, who organize our fellow students and encourage them to share in our vision of a better future for our nations. We are the doctors, the engineers, the computer scientists, the lawyers, the students, the accountants, who, even as we sit behind a desk at work or in class or in a research laboratory, ponder on how we can use our knowledge and expertise to benefit our countries.
Yet, tinged with the hope and the desire to return is the mouth-drying, nausea-inducing Fear. The dread of finding out that we don't fit in anymore with "our" people and in "our" society (how many friends do we have left? How many people can we relate to?). The fright of realizing that we've been gone too long and everything has changed beyond our ability to cope. The terror of acknowledging that we have become too used to the customs and conveniences of our adopted nations. The horror of giving in to the panicky little voice inside us that says we can't make a difference. The more we desire to achieve a level where we can affect the outcome of things in our countries, the deeper we find ourselves enmeshed into the fabric of life in the lands of our exile.
And always, accompanying this maze of terrors, is the bigger, less acknowledged fear that in a decade, in two decades, we will be the ones having the conversation at the beginning of this article; that when a newly-arrived traveler bursting with irrepressible optimism and an unquenchable spirit asks us, "are you going back? How can you stand it", we, of the repressed spirit and the quenched optimism, will reply, "I don't know."
Raliat Oluyemisi Sunmonu is a software engineer. She is a voracious reader who devours books by Stephen King, J.K Rowling, Jeffery Deaver, etc with as much relish as those by Ngugi, Sembene, Garcia Marquez and others. I am committed to not only the idea but the reality of an Africa that is able to transcend famine, war, disease, dictators, incompetent and corrupt "leaders" and every other plague to become what all those who fought for her independence dreamed she could be. I don't expect it to happen in my lifetime but I hope to contribute to the process.