And Home Was Kariakoo
DOWN BELOW, out the airplane porthole, lay the vast unconquered landscape of Africa—so different from the parcelled geometry of Europe which I had crossed over or the grey, highway-girded northeastern United States where I had made my home for the time being. The red earth and green scrubland, a few huts, a solitary figure wending its way on a trail to somewhere, perhaps carrying water, all under a cool morning sun that would in no time replenish its fires and begin to bake the earth. It must have been the arid north of Kenya, south of Somalia, down there below me, but it didn’t matter, the familiarity was unquestionable and it filled me with a huge emotion. This was my country. This was East Africa and I was returning home.
I was twenty-one, it was only sixteen months since I had gone away, but that was a long time then. Mine was the overwhelming emotion of someone who had feared he might not see home again. The people, the places; the music, the language: everything that was suffused into my pores and my very being, now crowded out by new challenges and pushed back into memory. That feeling about my African home would never change over the years and decades that followed, during which I would go to many places, including Canada, which gave me a home, and my Indian ancestral homeland, which partially claimed me back.
Many from my generation left during those heady 1960s and ‘70s of the last century, soon after independence. Most went away to the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, and some have returned for visits, but few that I know with that intensity of emotional reclamation. Of mad belonging. Some of those who left never returned, having made good their escape, packing their bitterness with them—bitterness at the politics, the revenge racism, and the socialist policies and broken official promises that drove them out; others left simply to fulfill the colonial dream, finding their way to what had been the centre of their universe—London, now simply the West. Whence this sense of place in me, I have often wondered. To call it nostalgia is too easy; I recall harrowing moments from a deprived childhood, as well as happy ones. I don’t long for the crowded bedroom of my childhood, the despair of a single mother on the brink of breakdown; they are gone. Dar es Salaam, where I grew up, has changed; Nairobi, my birthplace, has changed. I have seen both these cities which were my home metamorphose during numerous revisits—populations multiplied, violence increased, beauty and serenity reduced to squalor. Toronto, where I live and have made my home, has changed too; it has become friendly and cosmopolitan, its urban spaces look renewed, as they do in the American cities I have known: Boston, Philadelphia, New York. But, to use a metaphor, returning to the original home either one can opt to observe how everyone has aged and everything is no longer the same, and how ultimately, predictably disappointing it all is; or one sees the familiar and the dear in the older, broken faces. One has memory, and attachment and commitment, one is aware of change and history as it applies to everything.
Modern aesthetic—I mean the western one—prefers ironic detachment, a stony turning away from the emotion, a haughty look askance at anything that might give joy or sadness—seeing the inevitable winter behind the summer, the motive behind the charm, the spent passion, the bitter aftertaste. Does climate have anything to do with this? Those of us from the south—where fruits and vegetables actually rot and smell, and death is real, not irony—sometimes fear what the winters might be doing to us. I see my feelings about my place of birth to be mixed, obviously, growing older demands that, but disappointment does not poison the joy or the attachment.
Perhaps I judge unfairly this “western” aesthetic. It is novelists, of whatever country and culture, who in some sense never leave home, who keep returning to it—despite that old cliché. Why this need to return? My answer is this: there is simply too much of life unexplored that, at a distance and prompted by nostalgia, yes, and the clarity of observed youth, yields precious narrative and self-knowledge.
Excerpted with permission from Penguin