The year I moved to Somaliland from the Midwest, I began the painful process of letting go. I let go all of a sudden, the immediate abandonment of everything comfortable and familiar within the space of a 30-hour airplane flight. I am still letting go, more of a slipping and grasping, as over the last 11 years the full impact of that initial release sinks deeper. I knew this drastic of a move would require changing many surface things — the way I dressed and spoke and spent my holidays. But I didn’t realize how those things are rooted deep, connected to my sense of identity, the way I viewed people in the developing world, my values, even my sense of humor. I didn’t realize that letting go of what I knew, to embrace mystery, would happen every single day and that it would change me to the core.
In our first apartment in Minneapolis, my husband and I were surrounded by Somali neighbors. We heard stories and rumors, met broken people and healing people. We both came from middle class families, had good educations and health, and carried a deep conviction that we had been blessed with much in order to give away much. A suburban life of white-picket fences and manicured lawns held little appeal. Compelled to step outside our comfort zone, the more we heard about Somalia, the more our interest was piqued. What could be further from a midwestern, Christian upbringing than Somalia? Land of terrorists and suicide bombers, anarchy and AK-47s. Famine, poverty, female genital mutilation. People turned glassy-eyed and frowned when I told them where my husband and I were moving. When I was 24. With two-year-old twins. “Aren’t there, like, Muslims there?” But, but, but, we weren’t moving to Somalia. We were moving to Somaliland. North of terrorists and suicide bombers and anarchy and famine. And we were moving with purpose. Through relationships formed in our Somali apartment building, my husband had been invited to teach English and Physics at the only functioning university.
Here was an opportunity to give, to invest in the future leaders of a nation. People often ask if I felt afraid, if the decision was a hard one to make. I struggle to answer, because I don’t remember feeling afraid. I look back and see a 24-year-old who felt invincible, who because of her faith was drawn to living a life of love and service, who wanted to see the world and not just the pretty, easy parts of it, who believed she had an obligation to give out the riches she had been given. I look back and see a young woman who didn’t know how hard it would be in the long-term. I also believed we were giving ourselves and our children a gift. At two years old, they didn’t have a choice and were happy wherever mom and dad were. Though two can be a challenging age, it felt like a relatively simple age to move them overseas. Thoughts about their education hovered in the back of my mind, but school seemed light-years down the road. Like Scarlet O’Hara, I would think about it tomorrow.
People also often ask if we felt safe or if we thought about safety. I did think about safety, but “safe” wasn’t a word I wanted to describe my life. A safe life felt too controlled, too predictable, too inward. Getting involved with people, being part of a developing nation, taking risks, and (hopefully) seeing those risks pay off in terms of development, character, and faith, were more important. And so we packed our bags.
As soon as my feet hit the tarmac in Hargeisa, capitol of the north, the reality of our choice sank in. All at once, my flimsy headscarf slipped around on my curly blond hair, and the twins started crying because they thought the swarming flies were bees and I realized I couldn’t carry them both, plus the carry-ons, plus keep my hair covered. My attempt at greeting the man at the visa desk (a make-shift counter set up exclusively for us) came out like a whispered croak, and there really were guns everywhere and it hit me that I knew exactly three people in the entire country (married to one, practically still attached via umbilical cord to two). I felt naked. No, past naked. Stripped to the bone, utterly vulnerable and exposed.
I was going to have to let go of everything I knew and learn a whole new way to live.
All thoughts of courage and choosing risk over safety and the value of building cross-cultural and cross-religious relationships now felt ridiculously foolish. I hadn’t planned on turning weak-kneed at the airport. I had failed to grasp how profoundly this move to the Horn of Africa would put me on even footing with my toddlers. I had to relearn basic skills. Figure out how to dress myself in vast swaths of cloth. Learn to walk over uneven ground without rolling an ankle. Practice not oozing greasy spaghetti sauce down my front while eating with my right hand instead of a fork. Build relationships through dynamic gestures and miming. Don’t know the word for vomit? Act it out. Not sure how to say dog? Bark and crawl around on all fours. Except Somali dogs don’t bark, they waahwaah.
Everything felt like a mystery, and I felt like a helpless alien. Somehow my desire to serve hadn’t included the desire to first be broken and stripped. Now, 11 years after that arrival in Hargeisa, I know that brokenness and stripping are required for service. I know that without them, I would still be holding onto my own ideas about how to eat and dress and talk and live and love. Now, I know that though it is humiliating to crawl around like a dog while trying to learn a new language, it also creates long-lasting bonds. Now I know that releasing my ideas of development and leaning into a new culture’s values and ways of life, adapting when possible, and standing my ground (with grace) when I need to, are what make the expatriate experience not ridiculously foolish but wildly beautiful.
I think that’s what letting go is, what faith is for. Learning how to be comfortable with mystery and uncertainty, learning to live without having everything under control. Embracing the wild and beautiful. Casting myself into the prickly cacti (okay, that was an accident) of a not-yet-for-real country and trusting I could make a difference. And, after getting over fear, intimidation, culture shock, trusting that this country could make a difference in me, too.
*Look out for my follow-up to this post: When Letting Go Is Right But Still Breaks Your Heart, an essay about emergency evacuations, health issues where there is no doctor, and choosing a boarding school.