Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Aftershock

I wanted to share how I have found the transition of moving back to the UK with my fellow missionary and expat friends in Zambia. Here is a letter to them which tries to explain my experience of reverse culture shock, or ‘aftershock’ as my sister Rhi and I used to call it when we returned from our first trips to Africa some years ago.

Rhi and I in Kenya in 2003
Dear friends,

Greetings from the UK! Hope you are all well and not feeling too chilly in the cold season. We’ve had some hot days here in England - it reached 30 degrees, but not quite like the hot season in Zambia with power cuts and lack of water! I am so grateful for your friendship, it's amazing how living in a foreign place makes you form a close community with like-minded people. It was great to be surrounded by people who supported and encouraged each other, and would do anything to help each other out regardless of their length of stay in Zambia.

Missionary/expat buddies in Ndola

You know the privilege and the wonderful experiences that come from living in another culture. But you also know the difficult and sometimes painful challenges that come with this. Having friends and 'family' in both places, frequently saying goodbye and never entirely fitting in. However much you embrace either life, you're a little torn inside. But of course, it's all totally worth it!

Having been back in the UK for two months, I've had some time to reflect on life in the UK and Zambia and my transition between the two. I know some of you will be moving back to your 'home' country in the next few months or years so I thought I would share a little of my experience of reverse culture shock, in case it helps you. Whilst everyone's experiences will be different, there may be some similarities. Hopefully sharing a few ideas based on what I have found helpful might prove useful to you in some way.

1) End well 

It really helped me to 'end' my time in Zambia well. I handed over my work to great people who share the vision for the projects I had worked on. I even had the privilege of seeing the school running without my involvement before I left. This showed me first-hand the bigger picture that I'd played a part in, and confirmed to me how important it is to always invest in those you work with. See who you want to see before you leave, and of course take lots of 'snaps' to keep as memories.

The new Kapumpe headteacher with Grade 4

2) Have something positive to go home to

It's not all about saying goodbye or leaving. As well as wanting to end well, you want to start your next journey well. Even if the future feels unknown, which it probably will, find something that you will look forward to or feel like you're moving towards - family and friends, church, a new job, a different adventure...

3) Take time out

I spent the first weekend hibernating at my parents' house, just hanging out. As well as giving me a chance to spend time with them, it also gave me a little time to get my head around being back in the UK before being thrust into a busy life, seeing lots of people and facing lots of questions. I would recommend doing this briefly if you can.

Dad, Mum and me

4) Invest in your friendships from 'that side'

I expect you've already found the value in doing this. Some people feel like others back at home forget them while they're away, but the reality is that everyone has busy lives, and so friendship requires investment on both sides. But the relationships are worth it. I have wonderful family and friends who kept in touch and supported me whilst I was out in Zambia. But this doesn't just happen, and I believe it needs to be a priority. I spent many hours writing blogs, emailing, speaking to people on Skype or chatting on WhatsApp. A lot of people kept themselves informed about my experiences and this really encouraged me.

I was a bit blown away by the welcome home I received. Some friends threw a surprise party on my first night back in Winchester, and as well as being completely surprised, I was very touched. Maybe not everyone will make the effort that you hoped they would, but it’s worth remembering that their lives have moved on too whilst you've been away. Show them a little grace (as people will do you) and over time you will know who you want to spend time with.

Some of my sneaky Winchester friends!

5) Enjoy the people and things you've missed

For my first five weeks back home I thoroughly enjoyed reunions with various friends and family, plus the benefits of living in a developed country - reliable power, water and WiFi to name but a few! This time it didn't feel like just a visit back, it felt like I was back for good even though I didn't know exactly what life was going to look like going forward. There are still lots of things to enjoy. For example, there's lots more going on and things to do here compared to Ndola (no Leeja Palace or Sunken Lake though!). I didn't find it overwhelming going to the supermarket, but instead I appreciated the convenience of being able to find whatever I was looking for. I have enjoyed doing lots more cooking and baking, walking everywhere instead of enduring sweaty journeys in the car, going running in bearable temperatures and the beautiful green scenery of the British countryside.

Salted caramel chocolate cheesecake, yum yum

'Green and pleasant land'

6) Your perspective can change

After the first initial month or so of being back, I found my thinking changing. Whilst I still felt positive overall, I began to feel more challenged about things I'd seen and learned in Zambia. I realised that there aren't tidy little conclusions to a lot of life's questions - poverty and wealth, life and death - which are things faced on a daily basis in Zambia. Whilst out there in a different culture, you tend to just get on with things and approach challenges as they come. Then back in the developed world, it can feel frustrating that these issues aren't front of mind for everyone. 

Lives facing different challenges

7) You can't fully convey your experiences 

Lots of people will ask you a lot of questions about your experiences and what you're going to do next. It's good that people are interested but it can also sometimes be difficult to know how to answer. For me, it initially felt sufficient to respond by simply saying Zambia was great, or I'd had an amazing experience. It was true, I had. But over time, I felt like that was a very simplistic answer to a question that couldn't be answered easily at all. This has been my major frustration - I love communicating with people yet I struggle to convey the complexity of what I have seen and learned. Sometimes it makes you not want to say anything at all. So don't worry if you don't want to talk about it for a while, maybe just saying it was great buys you a bit of time before you really try and delve further.

8) Go with the flow

We should all be good at this after living in Africa! Allow yourself time to adjust and experience all the emotions you may or may not encounter – laugh, cry, grieve, celebrate, smile; all of which I’ve done! Like me, you may well find yourself living in a state of limbo. I didn't expect to have two months off before getting a job (it turns out that changing your employment sector is another road to navigate) and I'm not someone who likes to sit around!

However, for me it has been an unexpected blessing. I've had proper chunks of time to visit friends, to reflect and not rush around like I used to before when I lived in the UK. Apparently one of the common effects of reverse culture shock is exhaustion. Not only do you need time to rest after what has been a physically, emotionally and spiritually demanding time, but you also need time and space to re-adjust. Cut yourself a little slack.

Visiting uni friends

9) Be frustrated and make changes

Being away has allowed me to view my own culture with a sharper focus. I see things that I think are brilliant about it. But it also means I see some of its weaknesses more clearly. I struggle with these weaknesses because I am part of the problem, it’s not just about what everyone else does. I've seen another side of the world and the poverty that the majority of the world live in, but even then I find it hard to get my head around it. I see the excess and waste that my culture (me included) produces and only now it dawns on me the effect this has on others. Nevertheless, I can't convey the weight of the responsibility that I feel those of us in the UK have. With wealth and power comes great responsibility - I just didn't realise how much wealth and power we have.


10) Culture and faith

Living overseas really showed me that culture is a way of thinking. One aspect of my culture that I have found challenging is our attitude of self-sufficiency and sometimes animosity towards God. Poverty in Zambia seemed to bring a sort of humility that made people more aware of their own limitations and need for help. Whilst here in the UK, it seems as if we think if there is a God, he needs to prove himself to his creation. We hear of and increasingly experience relationship breakdown, mental health difficulties, acts of terrorism and many other tragedies. We know individually we're not really an island and that we need help with anxiety, fear and disappointment. Most people realise that money and fame don't solve these problems. Meditation, counselling and mindfulness seem to be sought after. Perhaps because of what I’ve seen, it seems crazy to me that God and prayer is a last resort. For me, it's my faith that has got me through this time of change and will continue to, whatever the future holds. I don't know the future but I do know who does.

Fab friends

I hope you continue to enjoy your time living and working in Zambia. Although it is not always easy, it is such a privilege to have the opportunity to live in different cultures. So embrace your two lives - all the positives, challenges and everything in between!

Lots of love 



  1. Brilliant blog Ellie - You write so well and really do 'convey' our experiences here well, but I do remember that feeling of saying 'it was great' as I just didn't know where to begin to explain what I'd experienced.
    I'm sure I'll be reading this again when we are leaving Zambia.

    1. Thanks. Can't wait to see you in the UK! x

  2. Great blog, Ellie. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks for your advice about remembering other people's lives have moved on. Do hope you've had brilliant birthday celebrations in Zambia! :-)