I was born in one country, spent my early childhood in another, and then, aged 5, I was whisked onwards to a third one. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that I often say moving runs in my veins.
It all started with my grandparents (at least as far as I can confirm, because it could have started with my great grandparents, my great-great grandparents, and so on, if you get the drift).
My grandfather told me that he and my grandmother crossed from present-day Pakistan into India during the 1947 partition, a terrifying journey taken during a volatile time. And one of the most memorable features in grandpa’s tales were stories of the terror they felt during the partition. “It felt as if the world was on fire,” he said. Violence against women was particularly rife during the partition, and so men would often hide the women and girls in the family as they searched for a place to finally settle.
Once they made it to safety, grandpa said, they faced the huge task of starting all over again in the new place, setting up a home, finding sources of income and dealing with the myriad changes and challenges – cultural, religious, political, et al – which came with the partition. In the end – courtesy of the partition – my grandparents and their siblings went abroad in search of safety and opportunities, making homes in Sierra Leone, Liberia and the United Arab Emirates.
Not keen on sitting still, my mother’s generation took it further, so that either through marriage or work, her siblings and cousins (my aunties and uncles) ended up in a host of countries around the world: Indonesia, the United States and the United Kingdom.
And now my cousins and I are dotted all over the world.
It runs in our blood, I guess.
As I write this, I have just returned to Nairobi.
Despite having lived in London for most of my life, the desire to move to Kenya had always been at the back of my mind, because I was quite convinced that Nairobi was where my future lay professionally. But then the move never quite happened, until I fell in love!
It first began as a long-distance relationship, with me spending much of 2022 going back and forth between Kenya and the United Kingdom, before conceding that the arrangement was simply unsustainable. It was in coming to this realisation that I seriously considered making Nairobi my home. And to start me off, I spent the later months of 2022 in Nairobi, only returning to London for the December holiday season.
Then reality started biting.
I will be the first to admit that I had over romanticised the idea of Nairobi as a place. Initially, this romanticization was easily fueled by the fact that I was spending three to four weeks in the city every few months. The weather was lovely (compared to London), I would see friends I had not seen in ages and go to cozy coffee shops and have what can best be described as “a working holiday.”
Then, my “soft move” in September 2022 happened.
There was joy at being with my boyfriend, at waking up to sunshine and some of Kenya’s beautiful sights and scenery, which are always just a car ride away. But there was also a gnawing sense of loss, of fear, of feeling like the ground beneath my feet was falling away from me, because much us this was all so exciting, I was simultaneously feeling a sense of loss of the familiar, London.
I found a gym (weight training keeps me grounded) and learnt to navigate my way around Nairobi. I had moments of missing the ability to wake up in London and put my trainers on and walk with ease to anywhere I wanted. And now, I felt frustrated at my lack of independence (to walk to wherever) as I relied upon cabs to get to places. On the flip side, I loved seeing Nairobi’s spectacular jacaranda trees blooming and the stunning pink bougainvillaea.
I devoured avocados and tree tomato juice, I had interesting conversations with cab drivers, I tried to pick up some Kiswahili, but still had days on end of battling horrible homesickness which had me in tears.
I visited bookshops and was enthralled by the number of books available by Kenyan and African writers which I had never seen before; I had a million cab drivers cancel my trips at the last minute; I learnt to use M-PESA (best invention ever); I began my toxic relationship with Kenya Power (sorry Nigerians and South Africans, I know my electricity-privilege is showing) and found myself writing an article in my boyfriend’s car because there was a city-wide power cut.
Security guards with guns at all sorts of establishments always made me shudder (not a criticism, it’s just not something I am used to), the amount of sheer talent that makes up Nairobi’s creative scene alongside the brilliant authors, poets, artists and journalists in the country often left me in awe.
Yet the sense of loss I carried during those months in Nairobi can best be described as finding yourself in a stranger’s house. You’re used to sleeping on the right side of your bed, your pink slippers are near the door, you come down for breakfast at 9 a.m., the oats are on the kitchen counter. All of a sudden it’s a different bed, you can’t find your slippers, the clock has stopped working and its toast for breakfast.
On a day I was struggling, I spoke to an editor of mine who said that his therapist told him that relocating is like a form of trauma for the brain; that summed up my experience some days. It was not Nairobi that was the problem. It was the process of adjusting to a place that was new, that was different to what I was used to and the need to accept that things were different. Not better or worse. Just different.
And perhaps that was the grief I felt.
My relationship with the United Kingdom has always been a complicated one. I don’t think I view myself as British and I was never quite decided if it was “home”, because when it comes to race and belonging, the “go back to where you came from” line is never quite far away.
And yet when I landed at London’s Heathrow Airport at the end of 2022, I felt the comfort that comes with familiarity, the temperature outside was -2 degrees and as I felt the cold air against my face I wondered if having been away, I could call this place home. I am still undecided, but I know for the moment, when it comes to the idea of home, it’s all I had. Then came 2023, and as I prepared to head back to Nairobi, I felt emotions ranging from excitement to anxiety.
The entire experience has given me a slight glimpse into what my grandparents and parents’ generation must have felt as they moved to different places, in some cases not out of choice but out of necessity. Going to countries where they knew no one, the battles they must have faced as outsiders, including hostility, racism, not being able to speak their language freely and that too at a time where the technologies we have today did not exist. There was no option to text or Whatsapp or FaceTime with loved ones.
And so amidst all this, I can’t be ignorant of my privilege.
There are people all over the world who leave behind their homes, sometimes out of choice, other times out of necessity. Some put their lives at risk to take these journeys, others face the most brutal consequences when they do arrive. My journey cannot be compared to theirs.
But if there is anything I have learnt, it is that “it runs in our blood” does not make it any easier. So, if you meet someone who has moved from another neighbourhood, village, city, country, ask them how they are. You just never know. Your kindness may make them rethink the idea of home, maybe, even if just for a moment.