Sunday, October 18, 2015

Capabilities & Uncertainty

I've been back in the Netherlands for close to two weeks now and while I still have some serious adjusting to do with regards to the weather, I've been feeling so full of gratitude lately. Earlier this week I went for an evening run (in the cold) around a lovely lake and giant park near where I'm staying at the moment. Living in Somaliland and enduring the torture of randomly running laps around a hotel compound has left me lacking in my usual fitness. But this particular run I felt mentally and physically strong. I felt appreciative for simply having my mental sanity back and for having healthy legs and a beautiful green place to run.

About a month ago the usual Rachel came back. It hit me this week because I realized I only truly felt like myself when the combination of being busy with things I love, receiving email confirmation of my PhD contract finally, and booking my flights back to Holland all came together. In other words, for the first time in far, far too long some certainty. Friends started discussing plans to visit me, and I could feel comfortable buying things like a year museum pass for Dutch museums. Now I'm back to my usual flurry of activity. Working long hours, signing up for courses in my free time, attempting to continue studying French, and filling up my weekends with networking events and work on my business.

When I reflect on this last year (and really the last two years) it feels a bit like I was wandering through a maze in the dark. A maze that never seemed to end and one where I was constantly bumping into brick walls and taking wrong turns. There were numerous moments where I thought I saw the light and was out in the open heading somewhere. Like when I made the hard decision to come back to the Netherlands in February from Rwanda after the PhD funding was approved. Only to find out three weeks later that it was delayed. And delayed again. And I was left jobless and homeless with no certainty about the future. Or when after weeks of frantic applications, networking, emailing and accepting any work I could find in order to feed myself I finally got (a rather bad if I'm honest) job offer in Somaliland. Only for the process to be delayed until the last minute, having to cancel my flight while waiting for the visa and not fully being mentally prepared to live in a place that is so incredibly isolating and restricting for a western woman. Somaliland isn't actually a place that generally comes to mind when what you really need is some financial and physical stability and the support of friends and family... Which I learned halfway through the experience.

Throughout all of this, outwardly I kept my cool. In the occasional moments when I would explain what was going on to people around they would respond in shock, sympathy, confusion and admiration over my seemingly chilled and relaxed attitude. Well, truthfully this was a facade. Inside I was sad, frustrated, uncertain, tired, stressed and simply tired of all the rejection of the last two years after so much hard work and determination. Instead these feelings took root in my head, made me develop strange obsessions and worries and I suppose contributed to the fact that I have probably been sick more in the last year than in my entire life combined. Not to mention strange things like having half my face swell up from a pimple that got infected, getting an infected cyst under my armpit, unexplained tingling and swelling and too much weight loss :(. Stress and moving and uncertainty has a strong effect on the body, I learned.

It feels now like I'm looking down at the maze I just made it through. From a higher vantage point where I can see all the wrong turns I made, the stumbling in the dark, being completely alone and feeling lost. I can laugh at some of the crazy thoughts and obsessions I had, but unfortunately when you're in the midst of the maze you can't see the end or the  route you need to take. So I think I picked up a few bruises along the way from bumping into walls and dead ends.

Right now I'm swimming in theoretical abstract literature related to my PhD topic (maybe I will lose my mind again haha). But there was something that made me think during one of my readings. A famous development economist Amartya Sen has analyzed development from the perspective of "capabilities" and he defines it as "the expansion of human capability to lead more worthwhile and more free lives". Absence of choice and opportunity was a bit how I felt this whole year. Applying to jobs I was extremely qualified for and getting no response, putting my heart into PhD applications with the full knowledge that I would be successful at the program only to get rejected, feeling obliged to stay in the Netherlands with not the best job offer due to visa issues and worry about money. You begin feeling dejected and stuck and in the end a bit like you're a puppet being strung around in different directions. I can imagine that growing up in poverty is a similar feeling. Being unable to feed your family, having your livelihood and food supply depend on unpredictable weather. Finding joy and community in the midst of uncertainty is hard, but I'm so grateful for the random people these last few months who perhaps unknowingly kept my spirits up with their unexpected comments telling me how inspiring I am. I've always known who I am and now I also know a bit more where I'm heading which is something to be extremely grateful for. :)

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