Somehow I’ll Find My Way Home

I spend long times dwelling on the questions of being and belonging, in a place, in a time or within a group. And after over half a century on this earth, I realize that I relate most to people who have similar questions about belonging. I gradually drifted from people who closely identified with ideals, from a nationalistic or religious angle. My nature is a questioning one, and I feel that my personality, my likes and dislikes are not fixed. Nothing ever remains the same so why should people relate closely to identities and groups they did not even choose.

If we can rethink our choices of careers, partners, friends and favourite activities, why can’t we revise our ideas of home, culture, religion and tribe? The identities we were born with were imposed on us and we should have the power to question and change them. If I take this thinking further I can venture to say that the least interesting people I know are those who were born into certain categories of existence and spent their lives defending them and trying to tell me and others that theirs was the only way to live. When I am faced with such arguments I mostly nod my head sadly and wonder about where their convictions came from when they haven’t tried other options. The most powerful arguments of this type come from religious or nationalistic camps. It is easy to get trapped into logical fallacies when you proclaim your way as the only way, given that you have tried no other options. That is why religious propaganda and missionary work often relies on converts who have found their true saviours in Allah, Jesus or Jehovah after being failed by one of the former or by any other styles of belief or non-belief that exist in the world today.

The most compelling spiritual stories are about people who have spent a long time on their journey and altered their destination or worldview to arrive where they are. None of the inspiring people we know was born into the lifestyle and existence that inspired us. We are mostly inspired by change, by moving from one state into the next and this in essence is what we seek for our spiritual life.

I type these words now as I look outside my window into a back courtyard of a European residential building. The neighbouring buildings are hiding behind the green veil of tall trees swaying in the breeze. The oak trees are still carrying their full foliage and haven’t yet turned colour and I am looking forward to the autumn palette that I have not seen in many years.

My own journey of belonging is taking another turn, and I now live in Europe. I still feel the pain of leaving Africa. Today I re-organised some of my things, most of which are still packed in suitcases. I came across some gifts I received and items I cherished. The vibrant colours of Africa spilled out of my luggage from shirts, clothing items, kikoys, shopping bags, and masks. The ache is still there, and I miss the friendly faces of my Kenyan friends who became like family to me. But I also notice that I am slowly making this city my own. I walk the streets and see myself in many people, the crazy, the non-conformist, the woman who wears fluffy fur sandals in the mall, and the woman who sings audibly as she awaits the traffic light to change colour. I see myself in the ageing man with a pot belly wearing his socks with his sandals and in the young-looking grandma choosing her three apples carefully in the market.

I love the colourful markets and the niches of counter-culture I discover every day. I have even developed a secret admiration for graffiti artists and those who stick copies of their poems on the bridges that cross the river and its canals.

I used to identify as African, defying my son who branded me with cultural appropriation. I still relate to the simple African lifestyle, to the spirit of the good people, their patience and benevolence. How they are ready to welcome a stranger into their lives and make him or her feel at home. I felt at home in Kenya, and I believe that I shall return to visit often. But after over two decades of moving places, countries and continents, I learned that the only home I need to make for myself is within my own heart. I learned to welcome and accept myself at every stage of my life, and acknowledge that I had a blessed one. I am lucky to be where I am now, and I was lucky to stay six years in Kenya. I now know that I was even lucky for my four years in New York. In those four years I did not learn to befriend the city and its people, but now I know that it was possible to find my niche even in that wild city. I could have hidden somewhere from its blatant consumerist culture and found a space where art and counter-culture thrive on the challenge the city’s existence created.

There is always a place to call home. And it changes with time. Ten years ago, I visited South Africa for the first time after moving to New York. My friend and her children met me at Cape Town airport. They held signs that welcomed me and my son home, decorated with stars, hearts, and glitter. The childish colourful drawing and words touched me deeply, and I kept these signs for a long time. When I moved to Nairobi I stuck the welcome signs on the wall of my bedroom. The rising sun shone on them every morning, and I gazed upon them every night as I drifted to sleep. The symbolism of the sign was that I was truly home, safely in my bed, in Africa.

I gave up that symbol after six years. I now understand that a gypsy like me might always be on the lookout for a home. That the home that I am looking for might not be an actual place, just a feeling that I have when I like myself just as I am in this moment. And somehow I’ll find my way home. Somehow, I will be going somewhere.

I Wish You Knew

I would like to call you sometime. To tell you that you visited me in a dream, after a long absence. I would mention perhaps that we kissed, in the dream. I tasted your lips that remained forbidden to me in my waking life.

I would like to tell you that I am struggling to belong, in a place that you have never visited. That I feel like a stranger here, although I have been here before, I speak the language, and know how the locals operate. I wish I could tell you that this gypsy only found home in your eyes. I wish I could tell you what you meant to me, what you still mean.

I wish you knew that no matter how far I walked away, you always remain with me. I wish I could tell you that the best version of me was the woman who experienced the intensity of joy and suffering in loving you. I would tell you she was free from suffering for now, but lived in a shadowland, away from your light.

I am no longer the creature of fire and light that burned brightly in your presence. I am just a soul that soared once on the wings of angels, then crashed to the ground. But sometimes I can feel the remaining embers of that fire glowing in my innermost core, and I recall how it felt, to fly. And I still want to be gentle with every human I meet, because you walk this earth.

The Shape of My Heart

It is early morning in a smallish European capital that is laden with history, both for me and my family and for humanity. I am trying to make this city my home for the second time. Although the person who walked here over 30 years ago could have been a stranger, someone I heard about or imagined. My half-formed self has changed profoundly since then. And even the city whose existence is counted in millennia changed a lot in three decades.

I am not yet sure whether I will befriend my new place of dwelling or loathe it. I have had both good and bad times here, and I fear what the northern cold would do to me. After six years of living in temperate climate, I find this European summer a bit cooler than the tropical winters of Nairobi. I am now wearing the same light jacket that I wore there when it got cold. The rain and thunderstorms arrive with the same frequency. But Africa’s weather, just like its people’s temperament, changes quickly from dark to light, and from cold to warm. Here, it takes longer for the air to warm from a cold spell, as it takes time for people to thaw from partially frosty and stand-offish attitudes.

I admit that I what I am saying is just my heart missing the warm embrace of Africa. With the exception of one glum taxi driver, who was not even local, I have seen nothing but warm welcome from colleagues and from the city itself. I look forward to exploring it on foot and enjoying, for once, the pleasure of being a flaneur in a well-organized walkable city. Because while African populations largely prefer walking, most of their cities and towns are anything but walkable. People still walk everywhere, among fields, on dirt roads and even on city highways. There are no rules nor paths for walking, the people just make them by the tread of their feet.

Europeans only walk for pleasure, not to commute or to get themselves from point A to point B. My current city is spoiled for choice when it comes to means of commute, as it has Subways, buses and street cars. And it is a fraction of the size of Nairobi, both in terms of space and population.

My current apartment is tiny in comparison to my place in Nairobi, but is well-designed and organised in a manner that makes its size irrelevant in comparison to its convenience. But there are still things to learn. How to sort waste, in the absence of informal recyclers who would make use of all discarded items of plastic and glass. And how to choose healthy foods from supermarkets bursting with choices and temptations.

It is relatively easy to replace mangos and avocados with apples and pears, even when your preference runs to the former rather than the latter. But it is much harder to go back from coffee capsules to regular ground coffee from a pour-on filter. My preference for plain water is already challenged by a myriad of fizzy drinks that offer low sugar content but god knows how many additives and sugar substitutes. And the African definition of fresh vegetables will surely be challenged by agricultural productions practices in Europe. My next learning tasks will be how to eat clean, when I am tempted by discount grocers and fast food outlets on a daily basis. How to maintain a frugal existence when I am surrounded by elegance and style. I am now an unwilling participant in the machine of capitalism, but I am powerless to resits it. The first thing I bought when I landed here was a fancy, and expensive, new smart phone. My African sensibilities cringed at this decadence, but I still produced my credit card and swiped it, confident in my financial and professional security. I made many excuses about this, but I know it is an unnecessary luxury. There are many cheaper phones that could do the job, but it is so easy to follow the temptations of luxury and convenience here.

I will watch carefully how this move will change me, to the better or worse, and I will learn more in the process about myself and my evolution as a human. The first lesson I am working on is how to let go of people, places and things that I loved deeply, and how to love new people, places and things. I will try to adapt and keep my humanity, and stay fair to those I interact with.

And while I am here, I will acknowledge that mother Africa and its people still have a big hold on my soul. Europe has the bling, the prosperity, and the convenience, but Africa has the shape of my heart.