When preparing for a ten-day sojourn to my home country two weeks ago, I packed the correct garb for summery days, the perfect shoes for my bridesmaid outfit, and contentment steeped in the marrow of my bones.
It was my second return back home in one year, a rarity. The first had occurred in July, when I was more orthodox in my packing, as I joined a constellation of relatives to lay our beloved Uncle Job to rest.
December 17, 2011 was the excellent occasion of my older brother’s reaffirmation ceremony after twenty-three years of marriage. That day, I smiled at everyone, so as not to offend relatives who had slipped my memory.
Now, as circadian rhythms reset to my American time zone, cheerless admin-and-litigation hours at work have taken the place of the happy-go-lucky days in Nairobi.
I revisit photographs. I scrutinize faces, bodies, locations; they are adequate restoratives that stave off the evaporation of recent excitement, when family and friends from faraway places – Afghanistan, America, Canada, England, and Germany – temporarily intertwined in a collective embrace; immigrants with panoramic lives.
Twenty-eight years have elapsed since my first leaving home to attend Hunter College in New York City. Almost three decades, during which the narrative of my life has evolved from a focus on life in Kenya to exclusion, shifting to life in America and Kenya, in duality. My multiculturalism is my current preoccupation as I discover truths and views of life I would have shunned during my first years in America. In fact, this first-person account is an adaptation to western individualism; most people in my family still have a cultural aversion to personal revelations. However, I no longer shun autobiography; I am Mama Shujaa, after all.
I did not plan to separate myself from home for more than four years. Modest dreams carried me through, and culture shock, anxiety and loneliness soon gave way to love and comfort. I met a young man from Nigeria, the son of a career diplomat who was accustomed to uprooting and rooting. In his companionship, I began to see more clearly the place I had left; I began to understand rifts, major and minor, physical and psychological, and their convergence into systems of being, into ways of life. We fell in love, married and started a family in New York’s tri-state area.
December 17, 2011 presented the additional occasion of my husband’s first visit to my home country. Two days earlier, as the plane lifted off from U.S. soil, we sat side-by-side and watched structures fading into tiny specks, the terrain disappearing, as we ascended into the wide emptiness of altitudes of 36,000 feet above sea level.
Thousands of miles and several hours elapsed, and with minds attuned to first impressions, (his of Kenya, mine of my relatives’ opinion of my husband), we landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
“Africa is Africa,” he commented, as we proceeded through immigration, customs and baggage claim. In his mind, this brand-new rendezvous was not brand-new after all. Meanwhile, I had ascribed unique values to my home country and I rejected his valorization of this land as no different from any in Africa.
As first-born daughter of my father and mother, I bear the names of my maternal and paternal grandmothers’, respectively. For decades, I have lived in one place and remembered another. My parents have loved me from afar, their love stretching beyond the limits of geography. Which is why, my focus repeatedly turns to the photo pictured above (taken last week, when I set foot into my bedroom for the first time after twenty-eight years).
It is a photo of a wall in my bedroom after the fire that destroyed my childhood home and gallery in 1997. A fire whose flames licked relentlessly at the 100-year-old stone structure, and what remains are ruins that interestingly, have become a popular spot for photo shoots by Kenyan models.
In that room, I spent countless hours tucked under the covers of my bed on chilly wet afternoons, lost in Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys. And when I entered the sizzling phase of Mills & Boon romances, I explored awakening pubescent sensibilities, all in the safety of my bedroom.
The fire consumed my room and its contents, but left a pattern, worked out of the wall, a panel that seems to be explicit, and its content deeply symbolic; maybe an approximation of the map of America? A tracing of my adopted home, locating my existence?
Have my ancestors been keeping an eye on me, over the course of these years? Or, am I reading too much, seeking traces?
It is a beautiful piece of relief.