Intelligent. Kenyan.

Published: 2 years ago

Mum’s New Place

This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s new e-book, 127.0.0.1 – Thoughts on Home, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

by Cornell Ngare

I am an IDP.

If you’ve lived in Kenya for any reasonable length of time, you don’t need me to define that acronym. My first stop when I came into this world almost three decades ago was Nairobi. Pumwani Maternity Hospital to be exact. But I find it difficult to call this city my home.

You see, I grew up and spent a significant chunk of my childhood in Eldoret, Uasin Gishu County. My family moved to Eldoret when I was just a toddler. Thanks to my dad’s job transfer decades ago, Deputy President William Ruto’s backyard is where my homing thoughts fly whenever talk of home comes up in conversation.

When we talk about home, we tend to talk about “where we come from.” This implies that this is where we return at the end of the day, or the end of our lives. Even when fathers leave their homes in search of greener pastures, they will return where they came from with the fruits of their labour; and sometimes they return for the last time in a wooden box when their labour is permanently done. But I can no longer afford to harbour thoughts of Eldoret as the harbour where this ship will dock at the end of my life.

A harsh reality negates my nostalgia because I can no longer call Eldoret my home. I am an IDP. The closest I can come to visiting the house I grew up in today is in the caresses of old photographs and the familiar fog of fading memories. I remember that dark December evening in 2007 when a young man knocked on our door and asked to speak to my mother. Unforgettable is the look of terror on my widowed mother’s face when she turned from the door and slumped into the nearest seat. I recall the tremble in her lips and the quaking in my heart as she delivered the strange instructions: “We need to be out of here in the next 10 minutes.”

My family left Eldoret in a rather undignified manner. It never once occurred to me that that strangers would come to our home and break down our doors and help themselves to my favorite t-shirt and cap. I had seen it happen in movies and in the news, when rebel armies would invade villages and loot them of every scrap of food. The only time I had seen people smashing into a peaceful home and terrorizing its residents was within the confines of a 14-inch motion-picture frame. But here was my mother telling us that we had to move out, move fast and move now.

I never packed anything that night, because something at the back of my mind told me it was all a bluff. I walked out of the only home I had ever known in slippers, never to return. It was days before I swallowed the reality that that confusing night would be the last time I would step into the place I had called home almost all my life; that it was the last time I would see the faded walls that hooked the portrait of my father embracing his dazzled bride.

The months that followed were rather difficult for us – that is me, my mother and my little sister. My teen sister had to switch high schools because the school she had attended until that time was in the heart of “enemy territory.” It was not safe to go to school. I was in college, and the University of Nairobi campus hostels would be my primary home for many months that followed.

My mother (a widow at the time) was hit the hardest, as she fumbled to regain her footing and craft new dreams in strange towns. Over the next two years, she would try moving back to Eldoret, then relocating to Kitui, then Machakos until finally finding some firm ground here in Nairobi.

My home is in Nairobi now, but even as I say that, it feels rather superficial. I don’t feel like this is my home. It is not “where I come from.” There are no memories attached to this place, no geographical reminders of the knees I scraped learning to ride a bike, or the river I unsuccessfully learnt to swim in. That tree on which my teenage girlfriend and I carved our names is hundreds of kilometers away, and I am sure I will never see it.

Whenever I visit my mother on a random weekend I don’t feel like I am going home. “I am going to mum’s place” sounds more politically correct, more honest. It is not really my home because I have never lived there. Her neighbors are not familiar and I did not grow up with their children – at least those of my age. Mum’s new place is not my home.

Every time I go to Pangani, where mom now lives (which, ironically, is just a few meters from the hospital where I was born), I am forced to confront the solid possibility that Eldoret may never be my home again; that my children may never visit where their father grew up and went to school and had his first crush.

My children will also have to do with the stories I tell them of my childhood since virtually all my baby pictures were destroyed and lost when our house was looted in the post-election violence. Every time I go to my mum’s place, I am tempted to punch the sky and curse the gods for dealing me such a cruel hand. But over the years, in few moments of stark clarity, I realize that what has happened to me and my family is neither that strange nor that unique. It happens, has happened and will happen to all of us at different points in life.

The truth is that we all have to leave our homes and make new homes in new territories – be it literally or figuratively. Some of us have to reject our homes and even forsake those homes, not because of external violence, but because of an internal metamorphosis that is common to every man and woman walking on the surface of this earth. The forks on the roads of our lives often force us to abandon ideological homes that we would rather cling to forever. Every time I visit my mum’s new place, I am reminded of the dozens of homes I have had to leave before, and how painful and difficult each departure was.

My mum’s new place reminds me of my first crush, and how crushed I was when my infatuation went unrequited. I was in high school. I spent three years trying to get this girl’s attention and trying to convince her that I was the man of her dreams – she just didn’t know it yet. Eventually, I had to accept that she never felt the same way towards me, and I had to move on. Mum’s new place reminds me of this girl because I had to give up on the person I thought was “the one” for me. I had to wrest my heart from the clutches of her enchantment and persuade my mind that her heart was not my home. I had to move out and move fast, albeit three years too late.

Mum’s new place reminds me of a time when it finally dawned on me that my dad was not the best or the most powerful or even the wisest man to ever walk on earth. The time when I saw him wrestle with his inadequacies and unsuccessfully try to shield me from his tears of desperation. I am reminded of how much I idolized dad, and was proud of dad, and looked up to dad, until one day when his humanity hit me at 100 kilometers per hour, leaving me reeling with the realization that my dad was sometimes a wimp and a failure… and yes, just another weak man.

Leaving this kingdom of dad was difficult. Every dream I pursued and every goal I chased was somehow tied to the assurance that dad knew best and what he said was wiser than any advice I would get from the wisest of sages. But with every passing year, the scales from my enchanted eyes fell as dad’s tough exterior began to fade, and I knew I soon had to be my own man and that dad would not always be there. I had to move out and move fast, or else I would die the kind of death he did.

Mum’s new place can get lonely – especially for her. She doesn’t know most of her neighbors, and new friendships are hard to form in this fast-paced city, especially at her age. Speaking of age, the fact that mum is not at a point in life where she is raising her children alongside the women in her neighbourhood always makes her feel like an outcast. Many women her age are usually surrounded by an anthropological support system that has taken years, if not decades, to strengthen.

These pillars of strength may not always be her immediate neighbours, but for mum, even her distant neighbours can no longer be there because they belong to the wrong “tribe” and some of the damage that was done at our departure cannot easily be undone. You see, even my mum had to deal with the harsh reality that the women she had called friends for years had turned their backs when she needed them most. They were a home that she had to move out of, fast.

Mum’s new place reminds me of mum’s old place and why it is necessary for all of us to leave the places we have learned to love and call home. We must leave home for our own good, because most homes are only temporary. In fact, all homes, including our own physical bodies, are temporary. And I am not even talking about death. All of the cells in your body get replaced every 7 to 10 years. So the body that you currently have, the one that you inhabit and most probably consider your most permanent residence, will have to be vacated every decade.

Yet the homes we most need to leave are not always the literal spaces, but the mental spaces that prove no longer healthy to remain in. Just as my family had to leave our Eldoret home for us to survive and thrive, some ideas need to be vacated because the time has come to leave. We must leave in order to live, because that’s just how life is – a series of departures.

There are ideas that we hold at certain points in our lives, worldviews that grant us safety and the security that we need to pass through that particular stage in life. But a time comes when we have to grow out of those naïve notions and venture into new frontiers. A time comes when we have to find new homes because the old ones are no longer habitable. Biases and convictions that were cultured and cultivated under the roof of unquestioned authority have to one day face the world of harsh criticism and merciless reality.

A time will come, and has probably come many times for us, when we have to face the hard fact that home is not always best even though home is always first. That while some roots are necessary, they are not perpetual and someday the seed will have to break from the family tree and find new ground and form new roots.

Mum’s new place reminds me of the many goodbyes I have said in my brief time on this planet. Many were happy goodbyes, some were tense, while a few were painful and gut-wrenching. Take my second day in college, for example. I have never been to boarding school. Throughout primary and high school, I always knew that at the end of the day I would go home to a hot cup of evening tea and a warm dinner before burying myself under warm blankets – all courtesy of mum. I have fond memories of my mother waking me up with the words “Haiya, kwani hauendi shule leo?” (Aren’t you going to school today?)

At the time I would panic and jump out of bed thinking that I was late. But even then, I always knew that a clean set of pressed uniform and a sumptuous breakfast were waiting for me – the uniform for me to slip into and the breakfast to slip into me. So when I reported to the university, my first morning was rather disorienting. For the first time in my life, I had to figure what what I would have for breakfast, and then get or make that breakfast. I realize now that while this was a mild inconvenience then, it was a necessary transition. A breaking away from tradition that was necessary for my own survival.

I miss Eldoret, my previous home. I really do, to deny this would be to deny a key ingredient to the person I am today. But as the years pass, I realize more and more that my nostalgia is shifting from a sense of regret to a sense of gratitude. While I am grateful for where I come from and the place I grew up, I am careful not to get stuck there. Mum’s old place was just a launch-pad, not a landing pad, a place to begin but not the place to remain.

Mum’s new place reminds me that we are all IDPs. Every now and then, we are all internally displaced from the persons we used to be. We are internally displeased and discomfited by the person we once thought we were. Whenever the tides of life turn, I am reminded that in those uncomfortable moments I am just a caterpillar breaking out of the cocoon that was once my home and embracing the reality that even though I was once truly made and fully designed to crawl, I was never meant to remain that way.

What I once called home would one day become uninhabitable; and the birth of me would become the death of me if I did not release my grip on what I once called home. I must say goodbye to what I call home, in order to truly feel at home again.

Cornell Ngare is a contributor at GotQuestions and a Kenyan journalist. Follow him on Twitter.

This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s new e-book, 127.0.0.1 – Thoughts on Home, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

2 Comments.
  1. I enjoyed reading this piece. As the saying, “Home is where the heart is” implies, home is not static since our hearts are not static.

  2. wacerg says:

    Sadly I may have been somewhat ignorant of the PEV when it was happening mostly because I had lived a pretty much sheltered life growing up. It felt as if it was a movie, happening to ‘other’ people and definitely no way it could be reality. Reading this I would not say was an eye opener but rather a reality check that this actually did happen. I fail to understand how people can choose to look beyond everything else that makes a person who their are and just see their tribe or race or religion or what not. How narrow minded can we be sometimes? I dream of a Kenya/world where we shall all be able to leave as one. Where it shall not be an issue what tribe I am, which continent I come from, what gender I ascribe to or which supreme deity I believe in. I know I shall be dreaming for a while but hopefully sooner than later it shall be a reality.
    I love though that Cornell said we need to let go of what was in order to embrace what is and be open to what shall be.

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