Written by Abigail Smyth
The idea of home has always been really tough for me. Growing up in South Sudan, where my parents worked rehabilitating refugees, I was very much a ‘free range kid’. Running barefoot across murram roads, splashing in monsoon puddles and sculpting creatures out of clay dug from the earth, I enjoyed the world around me.
So you can imagine that moving to Ireland at the age of 6 was a massive cultural shock. Outwardly, this is where I ‘fit in’ best. My parents are both from the UK and I am very much white. People assume I belong here. But as a kid, I really struggled to assimilate, refusing to wear shoes or play with the toys that other children loved. I remember once being asked to draw a house as homework and, after submitting a picture of a traditional Sudanese tukul, being told that I had done it wrong and to copy a friend.
I found it interesting how, in Ireland, the culture is to view nature as a recreation, going on hikes and picnics, while in South Sudan, most people have a direct reliance on nature, collecting food, water and firewood as a means of survival. My teacher had invalidated a mud house with a grass roof, supporting the idea of a more industrialised and less natural building. In Western cultures, we’re very quick to label people as poor or disadvantaged because their lifestyle doesn’t match our economic values while we live vastly unsustainable and destructive lives.
Growing older, and settling into life in Ireland more, these thoughts only weighed on me. Sometimes I found it hard to relate to my friends and their childhood experience. I found comfort in the fact that home was really thousands of miles away in South Sudan.
Soon, my family decided it was time to revisit where we’d once lived. I was in my teens at the time and extremely excited to finally return home. The sad thing is, we can’t chase the past. And as much as I’d relied on belonging in South Sudan, when we arrived there, what awaited wasn’t home. The idea was that people would understand me, relate to my life experience and that nothing would have changed. But the houses I remembered had been burnt to ashes, the mud I’d once played in was replaced with concrete and I stuck out like a sore thumb. There were even language barriers now, words I could no longer understand. I was lost.
Then one night, I was sitting outside on the verandah feeling incredibly lonely when I heard the calls of fruit bats. They hunted gracefully in the dark as I watched. It was just such an awesome moment, and I realised that home was always going to be in nature, not a dot on a map. It was an incredible feeling of belonging to a wider pattern of life and I finally had my place.
Now, I’m almost 20 and about to begin a Marine Biology degree, ready to advocate for conservation, for my home and the homes of everyone at risk of becoming a climate change refugee.
For more of Abigail, check out @abigail.smyth on Instagram