When I was a child, my father worked for the land arm of the Kenya Defence Forces. As a military member, he was relocated to different parts of the country every few years. This meant that there was never one specific place I called home.
The constant in my life was, and continues to be, my mother and her family. No matter where we are we always find a reason to come together. I remember the myriads of times my cousins and I played on the top of the windy Ngong hills in Nairobi where our extended family picnicked on public holidays. During Christmas holidays we travelled to the countryside to spend time with our grandparents. Our mothers would prepare meals in the house. Us children sat under the gazebo beside the mango tree right outside our grandparents’ main entrance. We would take turns on the wooden swing that was roped to the mango tree’s thick branch. That swing had been there longer that all of us children. My mother told me that she and her siblings played there as children. The men were often behind the house, in the yard just before our family’s endless acres of tea plantation. There they would slaughter a goat, bleed it out, skin it and remove the unwanted parts before roasting the meat to accompany our meal. In the nighttime my grandmother told us Bible stories in the living room as the homely aroma of sweet corn and milky ginger tea filled the air. During school breaks, we travelled to Kenya’s coast where we spent a week or two basking in the coastal sun on the white sandy beaches or swimming. When we were not swimming in the open blue sea with its salty waters, we were competing to collect shells. On those evenings, my uncle and occasionally my father when he managed to travel with us, played their guitars singing old country songs like You’re Still the One by Broken Paths.
One of our more recent gatherings was under very different terms. Everybody was there that evening; my mother, her siblings and all their children. The night was cold as it always is in Kericho, the tea highlands of Kenya, and my grandparents’ home. My grandparents had built a grand house in order to accommodate their eight children and the generations of grandchildren and great-grandchildren to come. It was a sad evening, but even then, we were happy to be in it together. I looked around at the faces from the fireplace across from the door to the dining area on the other end where my little cousins were playing quietly. There were many tear-stained faces, red eyes, hand holding, some hugging, but also love and laughter.
Even though our extended family lives for these moments when everyone is together, we are not accustomed to being sad. This was unusual, and we did not know how to behave. Someone, probably my uncle’s wife, broke into song. “Tempted and tried we’re oft’ made to wonder…” We joined, and the room was filled with sorrowful, harmonious music. “…why it should be thus all the day long…”
The little stool by the fireplace where my grandmother always sat making her rich creamy Kenyan tea and roasting corn, was empty that night. The matriarch had left us. The fire was ablaze but there was no teapot resting on the three stones in the fireplace. Nor was there corn roasting in the flames. We leaned against each other, staring at the empty stool by the fireplace. We poured our hearts out through music with tears streaming down our faces.
Joanne, Esther and I were seated on the steps that separated the living room from the dining area. I sat in the middle. Joanne and I held hands. Esther had her arm over my shoulder. She led the song and the rest of us followed and harmonized, sniffing and wiping our tears as we sang.
“Farther along we’ll know all about it. Farther along we’ll understand why. Cheer up dear family, live in the sunshine, we’ll understand it all by and by.” My uncle’s deep bass boomed in the background. The boys and their fathers split between the tenor and bass. The ladies were altos, sopranos and female tenors. At some point, the younger children were sent off to sleep. We sang into the hush of the night and then some more. Words had escaped us, and the only comfort was in being together. So, we continued to borrow from the writers of song, words that failed us that night.
Now our family is scattered across the globe. We jokingly refer to ourselves as globetrotters. Whenever an event is taking place, we quickly arrange to travel to be together. Our family gathered in Birmingham, Alabama to celebrate the end of 2019 and the start of a new year. In August of 2019, we all travelled to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, to spend some time with family before my younger cousins, nieces and nephews returned to school. A year before that, we assembled in Calgary, Alberta for a couple of weeks in the summer as my cousin was graduating from high school. Later this year we will be meeting in Cyprus for a week as my uncle is taking his children on a trip to some of the Greek Islands.
Moments like these when our family comes together to share in joy or in sorrow are the moments that I feel at home. The presence of my mother, her siblings, my cousins and my grandparents (when they were alive), is, to me, what defines home. Home is not a piece of land or a structure that housed me at any point in my life, but rather the people who always surround me with love.