Home, Sweet HomeIt’s a few minutes after sunrise and every one is aimlessly moving around the house. A dense gray blanket of cloud envelops the sky, and the first rays of sunlight are beginning to stream through the windows. My older brother is sitting in the living room, sipping tea and flipping through pages of the newspaper. My younger sister is similarly flipping the channels on our old television set. Standing a few feet away, my mother is yelling at particularly no one.
From where I am sitting upstairs, wrapped in a blanket, I can hear the television. It’s a Wednesday morning; relocation day. It’s also the last day of 2014, and by evening, we will have to vacate our home of eight years.
There’s a certain anxiety that comes with moving houses. Ours is doubled in that we are finally moving to our own house: no longer tenants but property owners. For the five or so months that my elder brother spent building our new home, everybody in my family had a nagging doubt about what will happen when it was finally over. Now, that moment had finally arrived, and everyone was spotting a nonchalant façade masking their anxiety.
December 31st was a warm Nairobi day, the kind of day when the roads are devoid of cars, and folks are lackadaisical about their dealings. We were moving less than 20 minutes away from our old house located in the South C area.
As the movers finished carrying all our stuff from the old place, I could see the panic and excitement in my siblings’ eyes. There was a mixture of wistfulness and nostalgia of what was gone and what was to come. It was a moment of the unknown known, the strange quirks of fate at work, and I have to admit that it was both bizarre and beautiful to pause and watch them pace up and down the house to see if anything was left behind.
The new house is a three-storied bungalow, built on 200 meters square, and stands proud at the edge of a bend with its brown and red gate. Its exterior is painted earth-brown, and inside, the walls are white, the doors brown and the window frames dark green. There’s also a chilly atmosphere surrounding the house, with echoes flying off the walls when we call for each other, and the doors slamming forcefully whenever a gust of wind blows through the windows.
Our new residence is located in the Langata area of Nairobi, in Royal Park Estate: an odd choice of a regal name reminiscent of Windsor Castle for a place with potholed roads and uncompleted houses. Langata is typical of the rapid modernization that is affecting – and afflicting – Kenya’s real estate industry. Royal Park is a symbol of that change, and our new home is an example of what it means to experience Nairobi both at its best and worst.
To the north and east, large mansions surround us – some painted in garish colors, others elegantly designed, complete with tiny dormer windows. To the west, facing my room is an undeveloped land of scrub and some grass for donkeys to graze. Beyond that, there’s a forest, and it is always a delight to catch the sun around six thirty in the evening, balling itself in a golden amber, setting into the horizon.
To the far south, an inter-religious cemetery spreads over the landscape. The Christian graves are made of white marble or black tiles, the white crosses positioned in upright postures. The Muslim section is stark, with mounds of earth and the occasional grave with an epitaph inscribed on the tombstone, alongside the name and birth date of the deceased. My grandfather, who once delivered religious teachings in a vocation that lasted more than six decades, is buried here. “Sheikh Ahmed Sheikh Abubakar – An imam and an Islamic scholar who preached a Quranic way of life,” reads his gravestone. My grandfather had passed on so unexpectedly back in 2008, and it was now jarring to come to the realization that we were so close yet so far away from each other.
Just off the graveyard, a highway eponymously named Langata and with “Monkey Crossing” signage connects Langata to the rest of Nairobi. That same road takes you to the Nairobi National Park, which is the only “protected” park next to a capital city in the world.
Karen estate – named after Karen Blixen of the Out of Africa fame – is also located at the end of this road. The lush landscape she described as unparalleled “in all the world” has slowly given way to unsightly malls, bungalows and freeways. That proverbial image of Kenya is slowly fading, and I cannot help but dread the day when all the greenery surrounding our house will be gone. My younger sister has nicknamed our home the “little palace in the prairie.” But the idea that our idyllic surroundings will gradually disappear is foreboding. The idea, that all the spaces will be filled with homes painted in bright colors and balconies decorated with gaudy knick-knacks, is unappealing.
For now, however, everything seems intact. The other morning, I spotted a fox strolling right outside the balcony. Its bushy tail was swinging fast, and its pointed muzzle scoured the earth for an obscure object. I was reading a novel when I first noticed it, and I immediately stopped to see what this creature was up to. When we locked eyes, the fox halted its movement and stared past me into the façade of the house behind me. Then, as swiftly as it had come, it limped off and disappeared into the nearby forest.
Barely an hour later, a caravan of camels passed led by a lanky teenager with cracked skin and tattered trousers. A herd of cows then followed, as did donkeys, some still spotting tethers on their backs. A boy and a girl, carrying jerry cans full of water trailed the animals, stopping every once in a while to laugh at one thing or another.
* * *
On our first night in the new home, my father sat up unfazed in the living room next to my mother. Wrapped in a plaid shawl, he was reticent about his feelings towards the house, but what he lacked in words, he made up for in action. Throughout the day, he kept moving things around the house, switching things from one location to another. My mother patiently rearranged everything.
Neither my mother nor my father finished their formal education, yet they strived to make a better life for their children and to ground them, even though that grounding did not come with a fixed address. The nomadic lifestyle we had as children, moving between Nairobi and Mogadishu, helped solidify that reality. We were born in Nairobi and moved between three houses before I was nine. Then came Mogadishu, where we lived for eight years in three different houses again, one of which was seized from its rightful owners by an elegant warlord who, like a seventies mobster, wore sunglasses whenever he came to collect the rent. After we moved back to Nairobi, we had an Indian landlord who always wondered out loud how we managed to “thoroughly” clean the tiles. We lived there for eight long years.
And so, we never called anywhere home. One minute we were the children of war, the second we were the children of peace, dividing our time between busy Nairobi and bombed-out Mogadishu. Our story wasn’t much about stability as it was about survival. We just did not belong.
This is why home ownership is a big step for my family. And that’s why we are all hoping that this will be the house that finally closes the gap. The one home that sustains us as a family, the sturdy building we will look back to and decide where we came from and where we are going. In some ways, our home is a start to a different narrative, the place we can write new fables, populated by real foxes, and by any stretch of the imagination, lions.
* * *
On New Year’s Eve, as the clock edged towards midnight, I sat on the balcony of our new house and watched the neighbors across the street count down the last seconds of the year. The chirping of crickets and the braying of a donkey faraway mingled with the drunken noise of those celebrating the impending year.
“Your first discovery when you travel is that you do not exist,” wrote the American critic and novelist Elizabeth Hardwick. I love that quote. I have etched it on each one of my personal notebooks. However, travel for me has always been associated with distance: catch a flight, hail a cab, ride a bus, hop on a train and go as far away as you can. I never imagined that one could move a few kilometers and get engrossed in a new reality this fast.
Tomorrow, I thought, will be a new day, the beginning of a new year, the year that marks the midpoint of the decade. And the very first resolutions will include warming up to the neighbor next door, making new friends at the local kiosk, and watching out for the fox or warthog that might be wandering around as I prepare for a morning jog.
But the biggest undertaking from all this comes from recognizing one important thing: that sometimes you don’t have to travel a great distance to realize that you have come far.
Abdi Latif Dahir is a writer and editor for Sahan Journal. Follow him on Twitter @Lattif