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Visiting the Old Places, and Memory
May 23, 2023
My oldest kids made their last trip to Djibouti at Christmas this year. At least their last trip “home” while we still live here.
On our final family camping and whale sharking trip we built a small cairn of stones on a hillside that holds decades of memories. We’ve shed sweat, tears, and blood on that hillside. I’m sure the rock tower has tipped over by now. We commemorated our time in other ways that I’ll hold close, and we have plans for a few more into the future.
But, I also asked the kids, what is one more thing you’d really like to do before leaving?
My youngest wanted to revisit our old houses and her old schools. That meant we had two former houses to visit and two former schools.
We weren’t sure if the schools would let us in or what the current renters would think about us knocking on their door and asking if we could poke around inside. We did it anyway. My dad is a firm believer in, “All you can do it ask and all they can do is say no. Or yes. So ask.”
So, we asked.
We drove to what we call our “tennis court” house because it is a half block from the courts and she played there 3-4 times a week for years. The renter was home and he seemed surprised but delighted by our request to come into the yard. (He even thought we were French, which thrilled me, based on my accent). We took photos of the yard and her old tree house spot, we remembered her pushing the bunny on the swing, and learning to shoot a bb gun.
She loved this house and I did not. We talked about all the reasons why, a practice in holding each other’s memories as precious and recognizing how different each of the five Joneses’ experiences have been.
Next, we drove to the junior high and they allowed us to walk around. She reflected on the bike racks, the cement play space, the library, the walkways, the games she used to play there with her sweet friends, the garbage can where she tossed love letters from overeager boys, the space where she danced to K’naan’s Wave Your Flag (we tweeted him about her project and he responded, a great moment for a kid!)
Then we drove to our “Ambouli House,” where we were living when she was born. We lived upstairs and the landlord and family lived below us and I could not have designed a better place for us to spend our first 8 years. This Djiboutian family welcomed us with abundant generosity, affection, care, and warmth. They taught us and guided us and protected us. Our kids grew up together, like cousins. There were floods and weddings and birth and deaths and thieves and football matches and Easter egg hunts and goat feasts and so many conversations.
We walked up to the front gate which now has a khat stand next to it. The man at the khat stand said, “Hey, I remember you! You used to live here!” I explained that we would like to look inside the yard and he started to tell a bystander all about our family. “Come in, come in,” he said. It was Ramadan and the man living in the house currently was sleeping so we didn’t go inside but wandered all over the yard and talked about the trees the kids climbed, the day our landlady egged our new car and we learned about cultural blessings, my baby’s (the one graduating) afartanbax party on the rooftop, the bunnies, the kittens, the dogs, the games, the friends.
Then we drove to the old elementary school. We walked into the secretary’s office and her immediate words were, “Welcome back!” I could have cried. All the families she sees and all the years in between our last time there and she still remembered our family with joy. The guard and another employee, all Djiboutians, came at the sound of her voice, and each one remembered us and started reflecting. You started the football club! That led to the launch of the after school extra curricular programs. You joined the Somali and Afar dance group. You chaperoned field trips and sports days…
They gave us an escort, as per school guidelines, and we walked the sidewalks inside the walls, and remembered. Marbles and skinned knees, temper tantrums and favorite teachers. Then we sat in the director’s office for a bit and reflected together about our years in Djibouti.
As my daughter and I drove home, we talked about how things looked now compared to her memory of them. About how graciously people have welcomed us over all these many years, exemplified by the warmth we felt during this little tour. About the different ways we remember.
People often ask how and why we have stayed here so long. There are many answers to that question but one of the foundational answers is that we have been welcomed and received well by the local community. They have been patient with our language and cultural faux pas, they have served us when we needed help and guidance, they have laughed and cried and celebrated and mourned with us.
Teachers, administrators, neighbors, guards, classmates, tutors, coaches, doctors, landlords…
Have you ever gone back to the places you lived and loved or lived and hated? What did you find?