Processing unexpected homesickness for Kenya

Why I’ve been buying way too many mangos

lf-alylee-chcollins

Aly Lee is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily.

Chandler Collins | Cavalier Daily

Whenever I’m homesick, I go out and buy mangos.

I usually limit myself to two or three because mangos tend to be overpriced and go bad quickly if you’re not careful. I’ll plop a few in my grocery bag, pick up another jar of peanut butter —  because I’m always running out — and then make my merry way home. As soon as I step inside, I quickly rinse the fresh mango, whip out my large, pink knife and go through the soothing, familiar task of slicing it open. 

I first make a large cut down each side, narrowly scraping the seed in the middle. I pause to gnaw any remaining mango from the seed with my teeth. Then, I take the two halves and neatly slice them such that the orange meat is cross-sectioned into little cubes. This way, you can flip out the skin and perfectly uniform cubes will pop out — ripe for consumption.

Sometimes I’ll just eat one side and save the rest for later. But most days I stand at the kitchen counter and eat the whole mango at once — first one half, then the other, then the extra pieces from the seed and sometimes a bit of the skin. My hands will get sticky from the juice, and my white shirt which will almost certainly get stained. My mouth will buzz with the sweet, tangy taste, and I will inevitably let out a sigh.

It quells the ache, but it never fully satisfies. The mango is always just a little too rubbery, a little too sour or a little too shiny. Then I’ll plop the mango carcass in the trash, rinse my hands of the juice and carry on with the rest of my day.

For much of my life, I grew up in a small town in Kenya. My family moved in pursuit of my parents’ life-long dream of providing medical care to some of the world’s neediest patients. Before that, I was just your average girl from Northern Virginia. I played violin, stayed up way too late finishing my sixth-grade science fair project and dreamed about going to Tyson’s Corner on the weekends with friends. Then one day, my parents sat my brother and I down and announced that in a few months we would all be packing our bags and moving to Africa.

You might think I would be horrified to leave behind a comfortable suburban neighborhood, but I was genuinely excited to move. I was a lot more adventurous back then.

So we moved, and I instantly loved it. I loved the red dirt roads, the baboons wandering through my yard, the way you could see the Milky Way each night in the sky –– but most of all I loved the mangos. 

My after-school mango ritual went like this. As soon as I’d get home from school, I’d shuck off my backpack, pick up my wicker basket and a few hundred shillings, then head out down to the Veggie Mama’s. Housed in a makeshift stone and wire building were the Veggie Mama’s — a dozen or so women, each with their blanket on the ground covered with a variety of freshly grown cucumbers, mangos, carrots, potatoes and onions. When you enter the building, each Mama calls out to you “Sister!” and holds up their most polished carrot for your inspection. I would respectfully look at their veggies, but I always came just for the mangos.

It’s hard to describe just how purely magnificent the mangos in Kenya are. It’s like trying to recount a fantastic dream that you yourself lack the language to capture. There, the mangos were the perfect combination of sweet and sour — tangy enough to make your mouth fizz, yet sweet enough to make you smile. They were always the perfect meaty texture — not too mushy or too hard, with just enough bite to give you a satisfying chew. And, they were always dirt cheap and always in season.

I’d pick up a load of five or six, hand over the 200 shillings and take my fresh bounty home, eager with anticipation. Then I’d whip out my large, pink knife and go through the soothing, familiar task of slicing it open. Finally, I’d plop the mango carcass in the trash, rinse my hands of the juice and carry on with the rest of my day.

Today, I went out and bought mangos.

It had been a while since I actively felt homesick for Kenya. So when I started tearing up the other day after hearing “Africa,” by Toto, I was a bit surprised.

During my first year, homesickness was like second nature. I would hate the smooth, asphalt roads of Virginia and yearn for the bumpy, red roads of Kenya. I would call my high school friends just to hear a few licks of Swahili slang. I couldn’t even bring myself to taste a mango from America because I knew it would only make me miss Kenya more.

Eventually though, I grew to love Virginia again. I love the fast internet, the abundance of restaurants and, most of all, the community I found here.

Still, every once in a while, something will remind me of Kenya and a pang of homesickness will hit. It could be as simple as a snow day that makes me miss sunny Kenyan weather, or as big as a terrorist attack in Nairobi which no one here seemed to notice. Then, I’ll find myself drowning in mango skins and watching “Lion King” on repeat.

Yes, the mangos are great, but Kenya was also a place I felt very assured. I knew who my friends were, what my identity was, who I wanted to one day be. It was a place where the world was an open possibility.

These days, I guess, it’s much harder to feel like the world is an open possibility. 

Sickness has a way of shrinking down your future. Tomorrow becomes difficult to think about, let alone 10 years from now. I entered college with an idealistic dream of becoming a doctor and one day returning to Kenya to serve the most overlooked. Then I had a stroke, and soon my future became all about monthly MRIs, doctor’s visits and constant calls with my health insurance.

In a strange way, Kenya has become a sort of ex-boyfriend to me. Just as one might wonder, “Will I ever love someone as much as I loved them? Will anyone ever love me the way they loved me?” I often think, “Will I ever be as carefree as I was in Kenya? Will I ever feel that safe again?” I’ll look at old pictures and feel just a little bit heart broken — there was the day when anything was possible.

So I guess this recent wave of homesickness felt different because it felt more like grieving than just missing home. I’ve been longing not just for a pure Kenyan mango but for an old sense of normalcy. 

But just as I grew to love Virginia again, I’m hopeful that I’ll soon grow to love — or at least accept — the sick condition I’m currently in. Already, I’ve found a certain charm in taking pills twice a day. It’s become a sort of centering daily check-in, giving me a moment to breathe. Still, there’s a lot about this situation that has me yearning for a different time. I’d much rather go for a run outside than go practice walking with the 80-year-old grandfathers at physical therapy. 

It seems that in the midst of this transition, I’ll have to weather homesickness a little bit longer. Sorry if Trader Joe’s is out of mangos next time you go. 

Aly Lee is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com.

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