A strange feeling overcomes me as I write this from my childhood bedroom in Kenya in the home I grew up in. I’ve been sorting through my old stuff and getting rid of things like old college notes, books, postcards, and aerogramme letters (remember those)? It’s a mixed bag of nostalgia and enormous gratitude for my life experiences, my parents, my country. As I grow older, I’m developing a deeper appreciation for the trajectory that has been my life – how circumstances and events have moved me from one thing to another, leading me to where I am now. Coming home is revisiting these past experiences.
Our languages express this nostalgia in different ways. The word nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos which means “to return home”, and algos meaning “pain” or “ache”. I’m contemplating how both being away from home and coming back home can bring us pain. In English, words like homecoming, homesick, and home base capture some of the sentiments that we associate with home. The Germans have Heimweh, literally “home pain”, which describes an aching for home.
When I arrive in Kenya, I’m often greeted with the Swahili words, “Karibu nyumbani” – welcome home – which evoke in me feelings of belonging and pride. In conversation with my father the other day, he shared with me the Kikuyu proverb: “Mîciî nî ndogo” which translates literally as “homes are smoke”. He explained that you know that a hut is a home when you see smoke coming from it, signifying the warmth, comfort, and sustenance that indicate that this place is inhabited by people and life.
Sometimes home is the place where we remember some of our earliest feelings of love, safety, friendship, and belonging; a foundation upon which our lives and personalities are built. At other times, home is where our psychological complexes are triggered, where we re-experience old childhood insecurities that shake our confidence, expose our vulnerabilities, and fill us with shame, fear, and regret. For many, it’s a combination of both.
During this trip home, it was interesting to hear from my college friends from over two decades ago how I’ve changed and how I’ve remained the same. Through their recollections, it was fun to remember the younger, more carefree and expressive me. My sister was also home from abroad, and we talked about how during sleep, our dreams become more vivid and memorable in Kenya. It is as if our psyches recognize their source – those first impressions of what it means to be human and conscious – and are stimulated by this recognition. It was also on this trip home that I found clarity on some decisions I needed to make in my life – what to move forward with, and what to leave behind.
Feeling at home
Earlier this summer I took a trip with my family to a game reserve in Kenya, where we stayed for several days in the middle of the savanna, surrounded by flora and fauna that have existed there for eons. On a safari drive, we emerged from the bushes to see a solitary reticulated giraffe outlined against a clear expansive sky, munching leaves from the tallest branches of an acacia tree. It was breathtaking. Our driver immediately stopped the vehicle and turned off the engine. The giraffe paused its chewing and peered at us through long, thick eyelashes. Our eyes locked as we gazed at each other in complete silence for what seemed like ages before it started chewing again and went on with its life.
Numinous moments like these move me. What a gift to witness this magnificent creature in its natural habitat. Here is a place where an ancient wisdom is in charge, where living things do not have to justify their existence, are not besieged by insecurities. They just live their lives simply and elegantly in this perfect (or imperfect) moment. I felt that sense of acceptance and knowing envelope me. This is what coming home means to me: being at ease with life, nature, and myself. Not having to explain myself to anyone. Fitting in without having to try. Perhaps that’s why I love coming home – because each time I do, more and more of this feeling accompanies me back to the other spaces I inhabit and infuses them with value and meaning.