We kiss and hug in tears,
holding on tight to a moment soon gone.
Wheezing past our ears on faces frozen,
the cold breeze of the tropical nights-
adorning us with our land’s blessings,
as we savour the standstill minutes.
I have known family all my life, but
now I tear myself away from their midst, and
I don’t know if I ever will see them all again.
The threads of pain weave through my body
as if summoned by my forefathers.
I try to walk straight on but am faint,
the ground before me breaking open,
I barely see where my next step falls
but am kept upright by my goals;
the many family dreams and promises,
prayers for the entire clan and
hope for the whole village.
their pride, this investment anchor and
model for the young….
I remember the great buzz of excitement as the preparations for my departure quickly followed with the arrival of a much awaited and prayed for letter; the Chief had personally delivered this very important document in person and my parents and family were swelled with pride. I was beside myself as the late afternoon news spread like wildfire in our village.
Growing up in a small remote village by the foothills of Mt.Kenya, I had known the only games we had played as children. We would make dolls from red earth, kneading the soil mixed with water and firewood ash to make little dolls, insects, animals, and play houses. We created things that were known to us, things we had seen and experienced.
Later we joined the only primary school in the village for our elementary education. I can clearly see my first day in school, wearing a school uniform; light blue cotton blouse under a sky blue khaki tunic and bare feet. We attended assembly and I fell in step guided by my elder sister and standing in rows per class. We all stood very still and straight as the head teacher gave a speech of welcome and disciplinary outline for the new school year.
After about 20 minutes or so all others were released for their lessons in classes and the new school kids were asked to stay behind. First, we were instructed to stand up very straight and lift up our right hand directly over the right ear and touch the left ear over the head, this meant if one could touch the left ear, he or she was old enough for school and those who did not pass this were immediately sent off back home accompanied by their elder siblings or neighbours´ older children. Those who qualified were further instructed to write on the bare ground with fingers, thus testing our knowledge of the alphabet and numbers. I qualified and was then handed a book and a pencil and was led to my first class. I would be in this school for five years before my family transferred me to a boarding primary school; this was very expensive and many families could not afford but my mother worked endlessly and tirelessly in the coffee and tea farms to provide for the school fees.
Back home during the school holidays, we continued to live a normal village life; playing, singing and dancing with other children, our mothers telling us stories around the evening fire while the meal cooked to keep us awake and to pass on knowledge of our traditions and culture, a practice from many generations. They were very careful to instil in us the importance of our traditions, the respect for the older people; proper language, good manners, kindness, the value of community and of course the consequences for those who disobeyed: Curses would follow them all their life. It was passed on in a nice way though and even though curses were dreaded; it was made clear that this befell those who openly chose the wrong path.
After primary school education I qualified for a national high school, a great success then for a village girl. I was filled with pride and confidence as I walked around the village and all would openly and sometimes secretly talk about my great success; it was not in bad faith, everyone celebrated with me and my family and I became a good example and role- model not only for my immediate village but other neighbouring villages as well. My good report went down in many records especially in the locations and divisions and even in the entire District.
I have always been a great dreamer and believer in my dreams, I created worlds in my mind’s eye and remained faithful to them, I would pray my ideals and plant them deep inside of me where I protected them from everyone else. Sometimes, out of fear of letting go of my precious dreams, I would put them down on paper in a poetic language to further protect them from anyone who came across my writings and my world of secrets. My love for my world opened up suddenly when I joined my high school; I learned so much of my secret world, that it did really exist and many of my new friends had relatives and close family ties in the big world out there. I gathered as much information as I could and this presented my dream world much more closely to me. After high school I joined a vocational college and began to work in the city far away from my home village. I kept my secret world of dreams dear to my heart and believed even more faithfully especially when the working life became clear to me it would not bring me close to my dreams.
My parents had toiled so hard in the hope I would relieve them of their many burdens of school fees and other such financial needs. The fields had tired and were nearly barren, there was barely enough food to sustain the families. I desperately kept my eyes wide open for opportunities to cross the big waters and go in search of the real world of my childhood dreams that would save us all from toiling on end. With the help of one of my new friends, I applied to college and sure enough I qualified and was invited to study far away from home. This is the great document the chief had delivered in person.
With the help of the chief; an important man of good position in the society and well respected, my family managed to raise enough money to send me off to the land of many opportunities to study so I could in return send back home a lot of money and open doors for others from my village to follow me into this land of big promises.
As I sat by the table placed in front of the gathered villagers and relatives from afar, the list was read by the same chief, a list describing my new duties:
- Build your family a storied house; the old thatched one is falling apart
- Upgrade the health centre that has seen better days and provide medicine
- Tarmac the village road
- Send donations of clothing and school materials to our village school
- Send containers of clothing and other accessories to the villagers
- Invite and welcome all the young brilliant boys and girls of the village over to you as soon as you have settled down
- Never forget the respect and practice of your cultures, to always seek blessings and stay away from anything that would bring a curse upon you…
The list had nearly no end but we had to quickly close the meeting before the equatorial darkness settled on the village. It had been a great function, we analysed later at home as we gathered around the open fire back home with my family. We thanked God profusely and prayed further for journey mercies and for protection in the strange land that would soon be my home.
We talked late into the night and the following day we set off for the long journey on the earthen road to the far away city where I would get on the Aeroplane that would bring me to the land far away.
My first welcome in my new home is culture shock; I am awed by the big and endless buildings, the millions of cars and the very many complicated roads and other means of transport. I struggle like others before me to come to terms with all the new ways and things. I write home letters of my experiences and I can figure how the entire village sit under the Mugumo tree listening to the message of the letter as read out aloud by my elder brother who translates in my mother tongue for all present. I imagine how they will talk about this for many months until the next letter comes and how my father folds them neatly and stores them away carefully in his wooden box.
The college workload is much more challenging than I had initially expected, I must pass with good grades to ensure I retain my visa and my student status which allows me to work a few hours. My meagre earnings go into my school fees, housing, food and health insurance coverage I must have. I cannot catch up with updating my family and villagers because I have not much time left and the anxiety back home is increasing; all are on the look out to see if my family’s lifestyle is changing: new clothes, all siblings in school and colleges, if my father is paying the local butcher more visits than once a year as before….
My own family begins to pressure me about all the new gossip from the villagers; they have heard that so many people go abroad and disappear, they caution me not to forget my promises (dictation that was handed down to me as they contributed for my air ticket, conditions that were forced down my throat as the basket was squeezed in my hands.), that my old grandmother was ailing and needed good medical care, that my elder siblings needed school fees for college, to please remember that they were all counting on me, I was their only hope for a better future….
I sure have not forgotten all the toiling of my mother on the hard grounds to provide for a better future for her children, I still remember that the entire family and neighbourhood sacrificed to send me off to a more promising opportunity; they have invested in me desperately. It is these thoughts that plague me every time I take a nap: yes that’s all I can do now; nap! I don’t remember my last decent sleep, I work all I can and pay off for my needs and the rest of the money goes back home.
My father’s signature has won respect in the local bank where he goes to pick up the money I send as often as I can; for the new construction of the local medical centre, for the new church house, for the upgrading of the primary school structures and for the continuation of the new house I am putting up for my family….
After ten years of still not completed graduate schooling, sending off money to needs that have increased overnight; buying my brother a Taxi that he promises should give returns in full within six months, purchasing town plots for which I have no evidence if they exist or not, college fees that are always directed elsewhere because there was a most urgent need….
In these years, they keep asking me when I will finish my school and get a better paying job-no one understands the reasons why I am not yet done with school, why I do not have a regular office job, why the money I send home doesn’t roll in, in greater amounts….
Slowly I begin to reveal my childhood dreams,
I begin to go over all my naïve ideals of my youth,
I go time and time again
back to the day in the village
where all had gathered to send me off
to this land of opportunities;
I begin to wonder if I have been enslaved,
if I have enslaved myself,
If I have been sent off to a kind of self imprisonment,
if I have sent myself off to a prison made of golden bars.
I begin to ask myself
if I have taken up the crown of poverty
in the midst of riches,
if this crown is some sort of fate
bestowed on me because of my innocent childhood dreams.
Am I a sacrifice for everyone else except for me?
What is the price I have to still pay?
Am I willing to go on paying it and
if so for how long still?
Is there a future for my children?
I want to tell them my childhood stories.
Show them the rivers and springs where I drew water,
teach them my cultures and traditions
sing them my child songs and dance
will they survive this new wave come?
The good ways of my forefathers
have gone astray and
blood gone sour.
Respect is turned into a broth of bitter rules
forced down one’s throat.
The game of age is known no more,
the beauty maddened and smoothed with ash.
Lies forgot boundaries and are fired by all,
my blood ties have fermented and smell sour
It won’t be long now,
is on his way!
The place for the rich and deep African culture and traditions is going to be with us for a very long time, because we still pass it on to our children in very many ways. Even though there are some acts of these cultures we strive to squash out from among us and discourage, we know some practices will live on for some time.
And it is these traditions and cultures that follow us even beyond our birth homes, practices that may continue to plague our generations that have no direct ties to the homes where these practices were valued and kept.
We move to developed countries in search of betterment; through a more qualified and valued modern education in the hope for better jobs and pay, in return to afford a more quality lifestyle, but it is not just for us! it is for the entire family and many relatives and neighbours. It is for many large communities.
This cycle wraps those in the Diaspora around itself and one tends to experience new things out of the norm; demands suddenly increase, the pressure exercised directly or indirectly is enormous, leaving many a lot of bad experiences; feelings of being misused, of being enslaved by one’s own expectations and the needs of others around us, the many promises we made in belief that we would earn a lot of money abroad in a short time.
It is not clear enough in us if we are going to age here in this new home we have set up or if we want to go back to our birth home at some point and it is this lingering dilemma that finds us investing in town plots and big parcels of land and the dream to put up great structures that have to be in the standard of what we now know. The money too is channelled to the larger family to help uplift their living standards; unfortunately when one cannot manage to keep up with the demands of others, we withdraw and cut off all contact, others are pressured to withdraw because the families are ashamed of a daughter or son living abroad and cannot meet their demands. Slowly the once beautiful cultures and traditions of our forefathers that held communities together in harmony and in social benefit for all are misused. No one watches the others’ back anymore.
The respect for blood ties is broken; in its place are shameless lies in self gratitude that have arisen and many families have lost contact that may never pick up again.
Kawira Njeru- is an author, nutritionist, environmentalist and lover of African culture. She lives in Germany with her family and has written a book, Coming Home. Read about her here.