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.