The overland vehicle comes to a halt at the end of the jarring dirt road. Overheated, it gives a sigh of relief as its passengers exit and tension is removed from its overworked suspension. The mzungus grab packs and trunks from its back. Overhead, the sun bakes down.
The mzungus continue on foot, entering the dense African jungle. Utile trees, more than 60 metres in height, block out the sun above. Wielding a machete with practiced finesse, an African chops a passage through foliage for the small entourage. A snake slithers underfoot across the freshly forged path. Overhead, curious monkeys watch the newcomers. A jungle cat takes a nap on the sturdy arm of an iron wood tree. Birds call out to each other. Insects buzz. Mosquitos hunt.
They continue for some time, the mzungus stopping every so often to drink water from canteens slung around their necks. But after a while, the foliage abruptly stops and they find themselves in a clearing. Before them stands a grouping of single-room, mud huts with thatched roofs. Children scamper through the clearing, chasing each other, naked. Women cook dinner over large fires. Men are off hunting.
The mzungus are taken to a hut at the far edge of the clearing. A couple of foot-long centipede-like insects are evicted, along with a spider, three large African crickets and a handful of ants. The mzungus step inside the hut, placing their trunks and bags on its dirt floor. Together, they stretch their arms out — the woman touches the mud wall with her fingertips and motions for the man to do the same. With fingertips on dried mud, they reach towards each other until they touch in the middle of the room, their arms spanning across the entire space of their new home…
When we told people we were moving to Africa, we got some of the craziest questions about where we would be living. We answered each patiently, knowing the strangers (and friends) were genuinely curious. They used their limited knowledge of the dark continent (which they gathered from national geographic and documentaries from school days long past) to form a worldview of what they thought we were moving to.
And while living in a mud hut in the middle of the African jungle would probably make for a much more exciting blog (assuming I had wifi to upload posts), I’m happy to report that our living conditions are a bit more familiar.
Our house is comprised of a 700 square foot (65 m²) apartment with dormitories fanning out to its sides. We have an entry room that includes a kitchen and sitting area, plus two bedrooms, shower room and toilet room.
The kitchen’s designated 3 feet of counter space for cooking prep is 2 feet more than I had in Japan.
The gas oven, at a spacious 2 feet wide by 2 feet high, is also nearly four times the size of my moven in Japan.
We have two water filtering systems — one that is used for cooking and washing, one for drinking. The drinking filter uses large bottles of water (similar to what you see in many offices) and has a cooling/heating element inside so we can select hot or cold H2O.
The tap is safe enough to use for brushing our teeth, as long as we don’t swallow any. The shower is also safe enough that we don’t have to worry about keeping our mouths sealed shut when bathing. Although I’m not sure either of us want to hear the other singing in the shower. I know Gabriel probably prefers I keep my mouth shut…
It was the school’s (and our) desire to create as many jobs as possible when building classrooms and homes. Crafted by locals, the open shelves that line our kitchen walls are absolutely beautiful. Any HGTV designer would be drooling at the opportunity to use them for staging a big reveal.
But for a minimalist like myself who hates seeing clutter and has to function with open shelves (not just use them for decor), I’m having to learn to adjust to all of my bowls and cooking utensils and food being on display, 24/7. That also means accepting that they are collecting layers of red dust, 24/7 (despite being used and hand washed daily).
Our toilet room is small and also features open storage space. But we’re OK with that. We don’t want guests getting too comfortable in there, anyways.
The shower room is spacious enough to conserve hot water by showering with your spouse (only kind of kidding). What I miss most is having a tub. While I don’t often take baths, there’s nothing like coming home from a long day of riding motorcycles on bumpy African roads and relaxing sore muscles in warm bubbles.
A personal note from Sarah: I'd like to take this opportunity and publicly apologize to the woman on HGTV's House Hunters who was so adamant about finding a home with a tub that she turned down some wonderful houses in the process. I criticized you quite harshly, throughout your episode. But after living without a tub for only 9 weeks, I get it.
Each bedroom fits a bed and wardrobe, allowing enough space between the two objects for a small walking path. We requested bunk beds in my closet — er, I mean our second bedroom — so that Gabriel might fit a desk inside to use for lesson plans. The desk certainly throws off the feng shui of my changing area, but in the end I agreed the desk could stay. After all, we are living in Africa. Some sacrifices must be made.
Is it just like our overpriced downtown loft in the States? No. Does it offer valet trash? Only when the kids are misbehaving and they earn extra chores. Does it have a pool? Rooftop lounge and patio? Gym membership? Complimentary Starbucks coffee bar? No. But surprisingly, I don’t miss those comforts much and rarely think about them.
Most importantly… has it become home?
No. It’s not that it isn’t a place we like to be (we do). It’s that we know from our years of living as expats that home will always be North Carolina. That is where our family is. It doesn’t matter if we’re called to live here 50 years (don’t worry, Grandma! We haven’t felt that’s the case). Home will always be North Carolina.
But is it a comforting space to retreat to? Yes. Do we enjoy spending time alone together within its walls? Yes. Do we enjoy welcoming others over for dinner? Absolutely. Do we receive confirmation we were called to live here for this season? Daily.
We’re slowly personalizing the space and adding to the items the school so kindly provided for us upon arrival. We might not have mud walls, but the concrete and plaster walls we do have make anchoring wall decor a bit more of a challenge. In the meantime, Gabriel found an artist in Jinja-town who has agreed to build blank canvasses for us, so we can pick up painting again.
It’s my prayer that I never forget what makes a home special — it’s not the furniture, or square footage, or decor. It’s who you share a space with, and where your heart is.