Why I Left West Africa: A Prologue

Why I Left West Africa
Mont-Korhogo, Côte d’Ivoire

I’m not happy here in West Africa. 

In 2016, I spent a summer as an independent researcher in Guinea. It was my first time traveling alone to another continent, and it turned out to be everything I didn’t expect. It was jarring. It was psychologically and physically challenging. At least for me, it was (if I can appropriately use the word) traumatic.

But I wanted to believe that I could find something beautiful here. How could I, an aspiring development professional interested in “working alongside and empowering local communities”, fail at thriving in a different country? It was also a privilege for me to come here on a fully-funded grant, let alone a U.S. American passport. If I didn’t somehow get over my own culture shock and learn to live abroad, it meant that I would be failing everyone who helped me get here. It meant that I would have failed as the global citizen I always wanted to be. 

This is a major reason why, two years ago, I moved back to the region in search of my “aha!” moment. I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it and overcome my feelings. My adventures took me across Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, and Togo. I tried so hard to integrate and ethically engage with my community: I worked on my language skills, spent time with people from many different places, and I made a lot of progress. But no matter how much I tried, there was always a sense of recurring anxiety and loneliness. It felt like an uphill battle. 

Kpalimé, Togo

By the end of last December, I was feeling so burnt out that I went home for the holidays. I remember sitting in my parents’ living room, sight-reading Christmas music on the piano, feeling warmed by the scent of fresh lumpia on the stove. And I suddenly remembered what it felt like to be in a familiar place, despite how unfamiliar I had become to myself. This is how it feels like to know joy and belonging again. This was something I hadn’t felt in so long. 

The hard truth is that I don’t enjoy living in West Africa. Even rereading that sentence seems wrong because I simultaneously feel liberated and guilty for having written it. But over time, I’ve finally realized that being authentic to myself matters more than trying to make every experience (and person and place) work for me. Some experiences are just bad, and that’s okay.

Granted, it would be unfair to call these past two years just a “bad experience.” I’ve had real moments of joy and freedom that I’ve never felt anywhere else, and I’ve met some of the kindest, most selfless, most caring people who have accepted me into their lives. The whole adventure is highly nuanced. But in short, I realized that the cost of living here— particularly to my mental health and the lack of a physical community I can heal and grow in— outweighs the benefits. 

The grand irony of this all is that the more I’ve admitted my true feelings to myself, the more I’ve started to feel more deeply connected to the earth, the air, and the people here. I’ve learned to find the humor in the everlasting ant colonies and the dry seasonal winds. I’ve bantered with motorcycle drivers and fruit vendors and random aunties on the street, even if I only understand half of what they’re saying. I’ve gained respect for the way people live and strive and improvise at all levels of society, as they try to build a fulfilling life for themselves and their families. 

As someone who has come here and will leave here by choice, I realize how privileged I am to say I’m starting a new life elsewhere. I am also so grateful for the immense privilege of coming to learn what life is really like here on this side of the world, with all its joy and pain and music and love. If I were to describe how I feel about leaving West Africa, I’d say it’s most like leaving my hometown— a place where I never felt I truly belonged, but a place which formed me nonetheless. I know already my heart will yearn for these lands long after I’ve left it.

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