12,636 km away

In Return by Tine Ndhlovu


Good morning passengers. The time is 12:45 PM. I’d like to welcome everyone on board to Trad Flight2021A. We are currently cruising at an altitude of 30,000 feet. We are expecting to land in Harare, Zimbabwe, approximately 20 minutes ahead of schedule. If the weather remains decent, we should get a great view of the country as we descend. Until then, sit back, relax, and enjoy the rest of the flight.

12,636 km -from Canada to Zimbabwe is precisely how far I need to go. Canada is where I live with my family, but Zimbabwe is home. The last time I left Zimbabwe, I left with a feeling of attachment. An attachment so deep that even when I boarded the plane and took off, my body was on the plane, but my heart and soul were still on land. Closing my eyes peacefully, I could reimagine myself at my grandmother’s house, waking up to the sound of the chickens crowing. No matter how far I have travelled away from the continent, it still calls me back.

[‘I don’t want to move back home; there’s nothing left of the country. I have a better life out here’]

This sentiment is becoming all too familiar between my parents and friends who are international students. It seems like returning is not something they plan on doing. My parents initially left Zimbabwe for the United States for better employment opportunities, then moved to Canada to give me better educational opportunities. Like many other Africans in the diaspora, who emigrated from the continent, their decisions were partly due to economic factors such as looking for work, escaping financial hardships, educational pursuits, or simply searching for new opportunities. There are always push and pull factors included in that decision. 

I often find myself speaking and envisioning a point in my life when I will return to Zimbabwe and settle. However, there seems to be a gap between my vision of returning to the motherland and my parents’ vision of returning. I do not want to dismiss my parents’ sacrifices to give me better opportunities in North America. Still, I believe all the knowledge I have acquired can be re-invested into Zimbabwe or the continent at large.  

The first take-off: Leaving the continent

I question if my thoughts are different because I have never lived in Africa. When my mom left Zimbabwe in the early 90s, the country was still flourishing and had significant economic benefits. But like many of her peers, she always dreamt of moving to America. To her and my father, America was a place of endless opportunities for a better life. Not because Zimbabwe was terrible at the time, but because the opportunity was there. 

With both of my parents being well educated upon their departure, I could not help but think about their contributions towards Africa’s brain drain. The idea of the brain drain refers to the emigration of educated or skilled people from one country to another, usually to a more developed country. My parents paid the price in leaving behind their family, friends, and sense of stability to start from nothing in the hopes of establishing a new chapter abroad. Unfortunately, this seems to be the risk that many take on when deciding to leave the continent. 

Layover: A promise to my younger self

I made a promise to myself at a young age when I started to make sense of my Zimbabwean background that I would go back to my roots one day and try to make a change, as little as it might be. As I grow older, that promise is slowly making its way out of the depths, gnawing at me every day. It’s at a point where I find myself thinking about the warmth of the African sun or smelling the wood burning as a neighbor attempts to heat water.  It’s the fresh fruits, the street hawkers, the sounds of cars trying to move through some of the busiest roads, and most of all, my family. In essence, it’s home. 

The second take-off: Reimagining return

Returning to me means fully immersing myself in my culture while embracing the land my ancestors paved. It’s about my curiosity to understand my heritage first-hand and all the stories my grandmother would share about her upbringing. It’s about the optimism to envision how I could contribute to the country’s future, as well as reconnecting with the very roots my parents left behind. So, in touch with my culture, it will allow me to feel the warmth of unity and family within arm’s reach. But, it’s the sounds of my family ululating and rejoicing my safe return, which call me back to Zimbabwe the most. 

My relationship with returning is reciprocal with my thoughts on brain gain. It’s not just about those of us from the diaspora returning to fix these countries, but rather about us bringing the social, political and economic tools and resources we have gained to build better nations for all. Although, we must recognize the level of knowledge that Zimbabweans and Africans have across the continent. My return is not to dismiss their expertise but to create a synergic opportunity resulting in a greater output as a whole, rather than individually. It is about providing resources so that those who know the land best can apply them accordingly. 

Specifically, to me, brain gain is an opportunity. It is an opportunity for a country to benefit from the immigration of highly skilled individuals. Returning to the continent will be a way for me to teach a new generation and support an older generation to develop skills. Skills that may help to create new jobs across livelihoods. It’s about knowledge. It’s about empowering. It’s about innovation. Brain gain is not just about foreign nationals, but it’s also about natives. It’s about interacting and sharing our skills and knowledge so that others can benefit. It’s about forging a new future from what was and transforming the continent into what it can be. In sum, it’s time to invest in an African future.

With my interdisciplinary educational background in International Studies and African Studies, I am equipped with the necessary skills in understanding the global world, development, and innovation. I wish to apply my knowledge of governance and history to Zimbabwe by establishing a non-government organization to create programs targeting UN sustainable development goals. By targeting those goals through the skills I have acquired in the West, skills of other returnees, and the existing knowledge of native Zimbabweans, together, we can help drive the economy into a brighter future.

Descending: Recognizing barriers

As much as I want to return, I cannot dismiss the barriers that exist for returnees. Some of the most common ones center around reintegration, based on the length of time the individual spent abroad and how returnees can be perceived when they return home. As much as I want to return, I carry my fears with me. I fear seeing how much everything has changed since my last departure, in addition to how I’ve changed. Each year that I have been away, I have read and watched the economy deteriorate slowly. I fear that, after living away for so long, I’ll find it hard to fit in. For as much as I adopt the culture, my Western English accent may be too polished for the locals, and if I try to speak the traditional language, it may be too botched in comparison to others. I am afraid to return feeling like a foreigner when I know I am a local.

Each time I consume myself in such thoughts, I remind myself of the vision of return initially instilled in me when I began to learn about my roots. I tell myself that bonds will be strengthened when I go back, and although I may feel like a foreigner, I will always be loved and appreciated by those around me. Yet even though I missed out on all that has changed while I was away, I will surely be there for all the wonderful things that are yet to come. 


Regardless of the barriers, the continent will continue to move forward. From Lagos to Cairo or Nairobi to Johannesburg, the continent is home to some of the fastest-growing economies and emerging technological innovations. Africa is the future, and the future is Africa. 

Whether we return to the roots in which we were born or the ones planted through the generations before, we’ll all return to somewhere or something. So I ask, what does “return” mean to you? regardless of how we chose to return or if we chose to return, as the late Pius Adesanmi would say, “Africa is the forward that the world needs to face.