I’m retracing my steps; my village, to Gede, to Mombasa, to Loitokitok, to Nairobi, and from there to Jomo Kenyatta, pass through customs, mount the steps of an airplane … a video cassette playing in reverse. (Remember those? Video cassettes? Be kind, please rewind? No?)

The gate to my host family’s little compound, nestled in the foothills of Mt. Kilimanaro.

Mama’s sitting room

Lunch: a stew of
matoke (local plantains) and tomatoes, with half an avocado as garnish. All picked fresh that morning from the shamba [farm/plot].

I spent the weekend with my host family, who greeted me with laughter and bone-crushing hugs and inside jokes and TWO (!!!!) huge chickens slaughtered in my honor. My first evening, I was sitting on my host mother’s eye-bleedingly busy couch – a narrow cushioned bench with a coverlet of burnished gold, patterned in blue roses and red fruit, that manages to be stately rather than tacky in the flickering light of a kerosene lamp – when I discovered I couldn’t breathe. The air was stuck in my lungs. My chest was an immovable mass. All I could do was stare mindlessly ahead and robotically pat the cat sharpening itself on my doughy lap. One thought: the end.

I’ve written about the curious cognitive-emotional experience of returning to the Dusty Training Town of olde, as well as the general fog of ennui that has shrouded my general packing and departure process as it begins to sink in that “Oh, right, this adventure is ending.” But it never felt 110% real. It felt odd, certainly, and a little sad, but I never expected to completely connect my preparations with the fact that I’m about to be gone, probably forever (for some peoples), until I landed in Addis on Friday night.

I was wrong. I walked into my host family’s cold, quiet compound, took my usual seat in the cooking hut, gazed at my host mama through a haze of woodsmoke, and boom. Hit me like a brick to the face: it’s over.

It’s over, and is irreplicable, irreplaceable.

It gets quite cold up in the hills, so it pays to have a designated lap-warming device, even for someone (like me) who doesn’t like cats.

Mama making tea

Meat is considered a luxury here, so the fact that we had it TWICE in as many days made me feel really special and appreciated.

Consider this the “before” picture, if you will.

The ferocious family guard dogs, which spend three days courageously defending the village from the fringe tassels of my
kikoi wrap.

Moo time two – we have twice as many cows as we did the last time I was in Loitokitok

The family
choo [pit latrine] – ok, there are plenty of things I definitely WON’T miss.

Instead of slapping a knife in my hand and pointing me at a pile of tomatoes as she would have two years ago, my host mama shooed me out with strict instructions to rest until dinner. I sat on the edge of my bed and stared at the wall, reconstructing what it had been: my map there, a decorative leso gifted to me before I left here, my three pairs of shoes lined up at the bottom, next to my jerry cans of drinking water and a stack of Swahili language manuals. But it’s not my room now, and my stuff is gone. A goat bleated outside my window, two generations removed from the ones I once feared I had accidentally poisoned by leaving my laundry water uncovered while I went to the choo. My phone buzzed until it fell off the stool by the bed; not my best friend texting me to meet in a cornfield equidistant from our houses so we could get samosas during a weekend break from training, but instead an office staffer reminding me he hasn’t seen my draft Description of Completed Service yet. My host sister called out to me in Kiswahili, and I answer without thinking, instead of tripping over the words and obsessing over grammar.

It’s over, and I’ve come so, so far in ways uncountable.

Helluva ride, you know?

Mt. Kibo, peeking through the trees

Mt. Kilimanjaro, as viewed from my host family’s corn field.

My host sister Periwan and I

My host mama and I