My Way Back Home

painting of a countryside scene

So, just a note: this post was supposed to go up at the end of December. But we’re trying to spruce up the place – you will notice bugs everywhere – so it’s going up a week into the new year. If the site behaves a bit funnily, it’s not you, it’s us. Hopefully, by the end of the year, we will be moving to a lovelier new home. Fingers crossed. Okay, now the post.

I have hated coming upcountry for years. It’s a natural reaction, I think, to my parents’ insistence that we make this arduous seven-hour journey every holiday for most of my childhood, no matter how much we protested. When we closed school in April, August and December, my classmates would be talking about all the TV they would watch, and I would be sitting there just bracing myself for the day my parents would announce our travelling dates. To make matters worse, when we did travel, they would stay with us for only a couple of days then travel back to Nairobi and leave us there for two weeks, the traitors.

It’s not that our shagz was a horrible place (we spent our days playing with our cousins and found ways to entertain ourselves well enough); it’s just that it wasn’t Nairobi. It wasn’t home.

I hated that there was no electricity and we couldn’t watch cartoons or movies; never mind that most of what we normally watched were re-runs of Cartoon Network episodes we had already watched before. I hated that there was no running water inside the house and that if I was ever pressed at night, I had to wake someone up to take me outside and stand guard so that the dogs wouldn’t startle me as I did my business. I hated that we had to wash the dishes outside and, more than that, that there was no end to the dishes because of the constant stream of visitors strolling into the compound with no notice who had to be served tea. I hated that we had to be asleep by 8:00 pm because what else was there to do? When we got older, I hated that we had to take our phones to the shopping centre to have them charged. Even when your phone was charged, you had to conserve the battery, which meant leaving the phone off for most of the day, only turning it on to reply to any messages you got from your friends. (That sinking feeling whenever I turned on my phone after a full day only to find not a single soul had texted me or tried to call me remains unmatched.) I hated that there were always visitors to greet and smile sheepishly at when they spoke to us in Nandi because we couldn’t speak the language. Truthfully, we still can’t. And, not that I’m proud of it, but I hated that there were So. Many. Old. People. I confess, old people are just as strange a demographic to me as children. I regard them with a mix of awkwardness and annoyance because I don’t understand them. It remains to be seen how I will cope when my parents and their friends turn into aforementioned old people, and my own age mates turn into parents of children running around being loud and self-centred and incorrigible.

But most of all, I hated the journey. I hated being cramped in a car for so many hours, only to arrive and be made to do chores because the house had been empty for months and how could we possibly expect my mother to sleep in a house full of dust and cobwebs? I have never enjoyed travelling, especially not by road. Not only does travelling make me feel unstable and uprooted, but also being stuck in a moving vehicle for hours,

  1. unable to stretch my legs
  2. unable to get comfortable enough to sleep
  3. unable to go to the loo until the next town
  4. unable to drink water when I’m thirsty because I can’t go to the loo until the next town
  5. unable to remain calm because people drive a lot more carelessly when going long-distance and I am constantly anxious that a truck will ram into us and wipe out my whole family

…it’s all a bit much for my sensitivities. It doesn’t even matter if I’m travelling to a five-star resort that’s just three hours away, where I will be deep in the enjoyments for a few days – I will still hate the journey. So you can imagine how much I hated travelling upcountry knowing that all that awaited me were chores and dogs I couldn’t hug because they were tick-infested.

Over time, my father fixed each problem I had with coming upcountry. Some years back we got running water inside the house, and electricity. That first time I used a hot shower inside the upcountry house was glorious! He put tiles on the floor so I would stop complaining about the red oxide floor, and the house became a lot easier to clean. He bought a TV and a sound system and hired a nice lady who helped with most of the chores we hated doing, like sweeping the compound when the trees shed their leaves, and scrubbing those sufurias that are black on the outside. He started vaccinating our dogs. He built a beautiful gate, repainted the house, redid the roof, planted a lovely hedge around the house, and installed lights everywhere in the compound so that the darkness didn’t feel so oppressive to our born-tao sensibilities.

Each time we travelled here, I had one less thing to hate about it. You would think that all these developments would make me more eager to make this trip, but I remained adamant. There was no need for us to come here, especially after my grandmother passed on fifteen years ago and we and our cousins drifted apart, I said. This didn’t faze my father. “Even if Nairobi is where you were born, this is still your home. And one day you will come here of your own volition.” I knew he was wrong, and so we remained. He kept improving our upcountry house and making us travel here at least once every year. They relaxed their hold on this tradition as we got older, and I thought the ghost of Christmas-in-Shagz was done haunting me forever. Until a few weeks ago when it became clear that my parents meant to spend this Christmas here, liwe liwalo. Naturally, I was less-than-pleased. I didn’t want to be performing labour on a holiday when I should have been doing hot girl shit like eating chicken made by someone else, drinking wine, and napping.

But then the 24th came, and as I was sitting in the verandah of this house that my father has worked so hard to turn into a home, drinking tea rich with the milk from his cows, enjoying the soft sunshine and the gentle breeze, listening to the sounds of birds and bees and livestock, relishing the stillness of it all, I thought, this is pretty great. I like it here. Maybe I will even move here permanently one day.

The shock I felt when I realised what I was thinking was unprecedented. I liked it here? Me? This year has shown me things but heh, this was truly something. The more I think about it, the more I am surprised that I never saw this coming, because I have always known that I thrive in environments quiet and green, far from the noise and demands of Nairobi. It has always been my plan to move out of Nairobi someday. It is literally in the author bio of the e-book I am publishing soon, and which I expect all of you to buy, pls and thx. But I never thought that the quiet and green place I might eventually move to might be my own home.

Because suddenly, that’s what this place I have spent so many years spurning has become. Home.

At the ripe old age of 25, I am loath to admit that my father was right; that a day is coming when I will decide fully on my own to pack my bags and come here, with no coercion, no prompting from him. That day is likely still a-ways off – my father has fixed every issue I had with travelling upcountry except the journey, which I still hate. You can’t imagine how much I envy people who say they take two hours to reach their grandparents’ home, the lucky bastards. My friend Sally literally walks a few minutes to reach her grandmother’s, and the only thing more difficult for me to understand about that is that her grandmother speaks English, asks her about boys, drives herself around, and owns a washing machine. Okay, I will admit that there is a lot that shocks me about Sally’s grandmother. I can’t help it; refer to my previous point about old people. The extent of my knowledge of them is that they have that old-people smell, speak only their mother tongue and a smattering of Kiswahili, can barely walk, and would be scandalised by at least three-quarters of my opinions and choices. Modern African grandparents are a mystery to me; it’s like my brain understands their existence but something inside me is just like, no, this goes against the natural order of things, old people should just be old people, the way God intended.

But back to my main point, I know that I am not likely to move upcountry any time soon. Even without the journey, I am too used to the comforts and conveniences Nairobi offers to live too far away from them right now. But now I know that it is a possibility in the future. Every day I sit in the verandah drinking tea and soaking in the quiet and I feel more and more at home. I think about what this year has been like for me, how a lot of it has been about me come home to myself, finding home in the most unexpected places, learning that home can be more than one place at a time.

Early this year, before the pandemic began, my life looked different. I was freshly heartbroken for the first time, learning lessons about romantic love that most people learn when they are much younger. I was stressed out at my job, learning for the first time how to deal with an overbearing boss and wondering if I had made a wrong career choice. I was living alone, learning for the first time how to be independent, and feeling overwhelmed and isolated. My social life, which has never been much to write home about, was doing worse than ever and the bouts of loneliness came frequently and painfully. Then corona came and suddenly I was unemployed, living with my family again, in a new town, still as heartbroken as ever.

It turned out that temporarily moving to Malindi with my family for four months during lockdown was just what I needed. It’s amazing what warm weather, fresh air, amazing food, laughter with family, enjoyable exercise, and a healthy severance package will do to a broken and exhausted heart. Because I didn’t need to worry about money and difficult bosses and even more difficult relationships, I could take a sabbatical from life. My days were slow, easy, full of introspection. I experienced myself in a way I hadn’t done for a long time and I could feel the healing happening inside me. I was in a new environment, but I was home.

I spent my days waking up and going to sleep when I wanted (at some points, 3:00 pm and 3:00 am respectively; yes, you read that right. I was waking up at 3:00 pm. My parents were not proud.), cooking and eating what I wanted (there was a lot of chicken and fried rice involved, and a lot of fruit. To my dismay, my attempts at baking banana bread during lockdown were not as successful as other people’s. In 2021 we try again.), exercising my body the way I wanted (yoga, long walks with my father early in the morning or in the evening, swimming with the whole family. It was incredible. I always knew exercise doesn’t have to feel like your soul is being scraped out of your body.), laughing, reading, writing…and generally revelling in my happiness.

It wasn’t all great; life rarely is. Around the middle of the year my cycle of grief decided to throw me back into anger and I spent weeks unable to sleep, crying for hours in the dead of night, wondering why it went so wrong, why I couldn’t save my relationship, what I could have done differently. But, regardless, I was home, with the people who are my home, finding home within myself. Just like I am right now.

In an ideal world, everyone who needed it could take a break from life, have time to look inward and pour love into the places that are broken, without fearing that their physical needs would go unmet. But this world, as 2020 has shown us, is far from ideal, and I am grateful every day that I could have had a year like the one I’ve had. This year has felt like finding my way back home, and because of it, I can look forward to 2021.

My next year promises to be eventful; a year of doing in the same way that this was a year of being. I am starting school in January and my mother can finally rest in the knowledge that I am not trying to kill her by ending my schooling before attaining all the degrees she decided long ago I was going to get. I may have taken two years longer than she wanted to start a masters’ degree, but at last, here I am. I started working again two months ago, juggling two jobs and freelancing, doing work that is both enjoyable and challenging, sans the overbearing boss (so far). How I balance all this is going to be an adventure by itself. Will I thrive in school and at work while still taking care of my physical and mental health and also nurturing my friendships, or will I quit everything and move upcountry to learn how to be a farmer? Stay tuned to find out! I am also determined that a year from now I will be able to speak Nandi, so that I can feel more at home here, and with my extended family. We will see how that goes. Send thoughts and prayers.

As I sit here in the verandah of this house in which I finally feel at home, drinking my third cup of tea of the day, watching the dusk set in, I am hoping that next year I remain grounded, at home in my own body, at home with who I am, at home, at home, at home. And, because you keep reading the things I write, even when I only write twice a year (I just haven’t had much to say this year, really.), I want the same for you. I wish you home in the new year, and respite from the travesty that is this pandemic so that we can go back to attending concerts and the general business of enjoyment. Happy new year.

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