Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Letter to My Seven-Year-Old Self

Note: After a great deal of procrastination, I bring to you another sample of my experiences in Africa. It might be two or three months before I write the next piece on Côte d’Ivoire, so enjoy. If you haven’t already read the initial installment, I Am Seven, I recommend you check that one out as well.
Voila, seven-year-old me at school (in Africa)
Dear Seven-Year-Old Me,

I know that it’s difficult for you, going back to Africa now that you’re older, now that you’ve had almost two years to build friendships with your fellow students here in America. Naturally, you don’t want to leave them behind for ages and ages, only to find them grown and strange when you return. But I also know that you’re excited as well because, at this point, Africa is still one of your biggest memories, and you’ve been a little lonely since none of your friends have been able to relate to your previous experiences.

Despite how eager you are to get home, you were three when you went over the first time, hardly old enough to understand or worry about the huge cultural leap you were making. And now that you have finally begun to adjust to America, you have to leave again. You have to go back to the place that rejected you like a body rejects a virus. In so many ways, you feel like a ping-pong ball, bouncing back and forth across the little net in the middle of the table. You just want to land somewhere and rest.

Soon enough, you will, but not yet. And I’m sorry that you have to go through so much in the meantime. I promise you’ll be okay.

First of all, the trip over is going to get…interesting. In Liberia, two men will board your plane, claiming to seek asylum. For whatever reason, they will rip up their papers (visas and such, I imagine), but they will get caught. It’s going to be super scary, hearing them yelling as the authorities drag them past you up to the cockpit while the plane you sit in flies through the air, suspended on two flimsy bits of metal, so breakable. At the time, you’ll be watching a movie, and the harsh transition between fiction and reality will jar you. So much so, that, by the time you finally land in Côte d’Ivoire, you’ll be shaken and wishing for the familiar.

Hang in there.

After spending the night at the home of a kindly woman (who blesses your heart because you’re so sleepy) and an extroverted man (who wears a cowboy hat and defends your luggage from thieves), you’ll find yourself packed into a hot, tight car for the long trip to Yamoussoukro (Yakro for short). Your excitement will return and then grow on that long stretch while the red dirt plains and the towering ant hills streak by in your periphery.

More than anything, you won’t be able to stop thinking about that music box you left behind the first time. You’ll remember picking it out from the Mission Barrel (a place where missionaries drop and swap). It was like digging up gold from a slag heap of old clothes and angry hornets. That music box is perhaps your most valued possession, and years down the road, you still won’t have the slightest clue why. All the while you’ve stayed in America, the fact that you didn’t rescue it earlier has eaten at you. I realize you already know this—of course you do, since your very first thought on learning you were going back to Africa was that you could reclaim that music box (your second thought, of course, centered around how much you’d miss your cousins)—but I had to say something.

So, the music box will consume your mind as you make headway to your old home, that building that still stands safe and sound, filled with all your belongings, untouched by the locals, just waiting for you. Along the way, you’ll remind your sister multiple times that, when you arrive, the music box is yours and yours alone. She can’t have it—in fact, you’ll prefer it if she didn’t even touch it. (The thought of her picking it up first will really bother you.) All you’ll think about is lifting that lid with the little glass window in it and winding the key so you can watch the flimsy plastic dancer with her raised arm and her wisp-of-lace skirt spin while the music tinkles out.

But, horror of horrors, the car you’re riding in will break down, and you’ll be forced to wait ages and ages—itching—no, dying—in anticipation while your driver (the cowboy-hat-wearing, luggage-saving, missionary man) figures out what to do. Fortunately, a flatbed tow truck will happen along and rescue you. Even though it’s probably super dangerous, after they hitch your vehicle onto the back of theirs, you’ll ride inside the car on the last stretch to Ivory Coast’s capitol city.

As an aside, here, Lizzie, it’s going to bug you when you research Côte d’Ivoire later and find that some cartographers are under the illusion that Abidjan is still the capitol of Ivory Coast. Take comfort in knowing that the presidential palace is in Yakro, not Abidjan, which means—no matter what people might say to the contrary—the official capitol is Yamoussoukro. And that’s where you live, where your music box waits for you. So let’s get back to that.

Strange though it may seem, you’ll feel a little sad when you burst through the blue gate that leads from the courtyard to your yard, as you fly down the stone path to the house you remember so well and yet don’t. For one, your faithful German shepherd won’t be there, and you’ll feel a pang at that. You miss her, so you have to remember that it isn’t your fault she’s dead, even though you can’t shake the notion that it is. Seriously, it’s not your fault that the vet gave her cow-sized shots which made her sick and sore. Of course you’d wanted to comfort her—who could blame you?—and it wasn’t your fault you petted her right on the spot where they gave her the medicine (and got chomped for your trouble). Later, after you’d left the continent, when she ran out into the street because she didn’t want to go to the vet, it wasn’t your fault the taxi killed her. So don’t beat yourself up about it.

I’m telling you this because you’ll find Africa to be a surprisingly emotional place this time around. First of all, there’ll be a weird drop from the giddy adrenaline high you’ve been riding on for the past day or so. On top of that, some of your friends from before won’t be coming back, and you’ll have to adjust to a bunch of new faces in your little missionary community. You’ll find that you won’t slide back into the old groove of things the way you expect to. You’ve grown and changed as a person since the last time you were here, so you can’t expect everything to be the same.

Sure, the walls in your house will still be peeling, (and you’ll remember—with fondness—how you would often pull the paint off and then eat the chips to hide the evidence). You’ll have some cleaning to do, since ants have built their nests in papers and under furniture. You’ll find you’re almost too big for your bike. You’ll find the dark shadows around the edges of your yard, where the trees shade the grass and the shed presses close to the wall, will frighten you far more than they did before. Nothing will seem quite so innocent anymore.

You’ll be shocked by how homesick you get. At first, it won’t be all that strong, just the normal stuff. And you’ll tell yourself it will pass. But it won’t, not really. Though you’ll enjoy spending time with your friends, even the bright spots will get lost in the gloom far too often for your taste. You’ll discover just how thick and black that strange, seemingly inexplicable loneliness will become. Unfortunately, you won’t really realize until much later that the new medication you’ll be taking to prevent malaria comes with some nasty psychological side effects. That stuff will give you vivid, vivid nightmares. It will, in fact, forever change the way you dream—even when your sleep is sweet. Though the effects aren’t as permanent, the medicine will also intensify and warp all your waking emotions. Let’s face it, you’ll be tired to begin with, and some of your dreams will feature your worst fears (like coming back to the US after being away for ten years only to find that your cousins are all grown up and singing in rock bonds and they have no clue who you are). So you need to brace yourself for that, and always remember, stuff won’t be as bad as it’s going to seem.

As much as you can, try to focus on the cool stuff, the way the mission community will play capture-the-flag in the dark—the way you’ll have potlucks—the way your best friends will be British and Northern Irish (and those won’t be the only nationalities). You’ll study French, and you’ll love it so much, you’ll try to teach it to your Dad’s African friend even though he already speaks the language fluently (rest assured, he’ll still humor you because he’s sweet like that). Though it would probably break about a thousand American safety regulations, you’ll get to play in a giant, human-sized hamster wheel in the school playground (safety is for wimps). One day, your father will bring home a dead, headless viper, and he’ll take pictures that make it look like it’s attacking him. You’ll get to visit a zoo at a gas station and a restaurant with a deer living indoors, and you’ll get to play at a pizza place that has a tree growing up through the ceiling and a stream cutting off the corner of the yard with a swing set on the other side. Could it really get much better than all that?

Unfortunately, you won’t get to bring that music box home with you, and even when you’re much older than you are now, that loss will bother you far more than it should. (In fact, you’ll probably always get the urge to cry when you see a music box.) But you’ll bring home a collection of memories and pictures instead, vivid and sure, unfading; even though sometimes you’ll wish to just forget it all, because it will hurt—it will hurt so much to let go, to look but not touch.

So please, I know you’ll be homesick and sad, and I know you’ll be scared and a lot of things won’t make sense. You’ll be growing up, and that hurts just by itself. But the clock starts when you set foot on African soil, and you’ll only have three months to reacquaint yourself with this life before you lose it again. You’ll never be able to recreate the comradery that you’ll find there—the way a bunch of different nationalities can band together, and yes, disagree about how to do the dishes and whatnot. But you have it good now, and you won’t even realize that until later, when you find that America is so much colder, in more ways than one.

Don’t be too sad. Please have fun. Take notes and remember everything. You won’t get another chance like this. Soon, all you’ll think about is wanting to leave Africa, but when it comes time to go, you’ll realize too late that you want so badly to stay.

Don’t waste the time you do have.



Note: The main bombing described in I Am Seven took place on November 6, 2004. We left the country shortly thereafter, and while we originally planned to return to Africa—this time as missionaries to Guinea—we chose to take several years off from missionary work instead. During our break, we learned of political unrest in Guinea and decided to remain permanently stateside.


  1. OMG, this is really just such an outpouring of emotion. *gives you cake* It sounds like such a wonderful if nerve-wracking experience, and just ALL OF THIS. The music box. The bike and the hamster wheel and the headless viper.

    You know what, just write a memoir.

    1. *accepts cake* It really was both wonderful and nerve-wracking, and I'm glad I was able to convey that.

      :P I may or may not write one at some point. We'll see.

  2. This seriously tugged on my heartstrings. I don't have the words to respond to this. Your seven year old self must have been so much stronger than I could ever dream to be.

    1. Thank you--I'm not sure how strong I was compared to how strong I could have been, but it's nice that you think that. And I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. Oh my goodness Liz, this is amazing. It's just... pure emotion. A deep, aching homesickness. I'm not finding the right words to respond to this properly. Thank you.

    1. Thank you. :) I wasn't sure I was communicating very well, so I'm glad I got the point across. And you're welcome.

  4. Amazing post dear! You have a wonderful blog:)
    What about following each other on Instagram, Bloglovin, Twitter?:)

    1. Thank you--I appreciate that. :)
      Sure--I'm not on Instagram at this point, but I'd be happy to follow you on Bloglovin' and Twitter. My handle is @adelethelaptop.

  5. Wow.
    Just... wow.
    This was beautifully written, and I love the part of the music box. I can't imagine doing this as a seven year old. o.o

    1. Thank you. I'm glad you liked it. :) There's this disconnect as I look back, like I'm still surprised I went through all that, so I totally know the feeling.
      Thanks for commenting! :)

  6. Wow. This gave me a lot of feels. What an experience. I just want to hug you for so many reasons. *hugs* Also so I'm glad you're on Blog Lovin' so I can keep up with your posts better!

    1. Thank you. :) *hugs you back* And I'm glad to be on Bloglovin' too!






    1. IT REALLY IS.

      I have this theory that when something bad happens, it's easier to focus on the small things, like losing a music box so the mind doesn't have to worry about trying to handle the big things. Like it thinks that if it can just get over losing the music box, then everything will be okay in the end.

      I hope your problem like the music box problem gets resolved.

      I'm glad you liked the post. :)

  8. Wow. Just... wow. I'm not sure I even have words to reply to this. You conveyed the emotion of your experience in such a brilliant and beautiful and heart-tugging way that... Yeah. I'm not sure I have any more words. It's just so amazing and beautiful and horrible and sad all at the same time, and you captured it perfectly.
    You really should just write a memoir.


    1. Why thank you--I'm glad I succeeded, and I'm glad you liked it. Maybe someday I'll write a memoir. :P