I have always had a love/hate relationship with Kenya, my country of birth. I was born in 1978 and unbeknown to me, my tempestuous relationship with Kenya had begun the year before. In December of 1977 my dad Ngugi wa Thiong’o was imprisoned by the Jomo Kenyatta government for his novel, Petals of Blood, and his Gĩkũyũ language play, Ngaahika ndeenda/I will Marry when I want. So Baba missed my grand entrance into the world. I would learn later, that my mother, Nyambura, made up for it by sending him my picture, which he and the other political prisoners welcomed by naming me, Kaana Ka Bothita/ Post office baby. Seeing me as a symbol of hope, the members of Kamĩrĩthũ Community theater named me Wamũingĩ/One who belong’s to the people. Even outside of Kenya, Wole Soyinka and the African writers organization he then headed would name me Ayerubo.
In 1982, four years after my grand entrance, the Moi government forced him to go into exile, but not before they had tried to stop the publication of the Gĩkũyũ language novel, Caitaani Mũtharabainĩ/Devil on the Cross, written in prison on toilet paper, and worse, their destruction of the Kamĩrĩthũ Community Education and Cultural Center, the space of his people’s theater. Prison and then exile meant separation. Growing up without his being around me physically, was hard but his spirit through his home library was always with me. The library became part of my play ground. Who could complain of playing all day, or cuddling in a corner of our house reading, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew,Pipi Longstocking or The Adventures of Abunuwasi?
I had a wonderful childhood with my mother, siblings and extended family. My siblings always teased me for literally living on my moms lap or for always crawling in bed with her but I didn’t care. We were always a team. We stuck together. I still recall the excitement I felt waiting for my brothers to come home from school, to regale the adventures of Mwangi Cowboy the hero who always showed up from nowhere to serve up some justice for the people! Mwangi Cowboy had been invented by my father in the stories he told my older siblings. Taken in by the magic and art of story telling, they each created a unique heroic Mwangi Cowboy. I became the beneficiary of the different episodes!
But even in my joy, I felt my father’s absence, a void, sometimes made unbearable by the government spies who snooped on us to see what we were up to. Every other month or so we had so-called “thugs” knock down our doors, sometimes beating us up and threatening our very lives, demanding to know what he was up to in Europe or the U.S. or even whether he sneaked back home from Europe at night.
I was 12 years old when I finally reunited with my dad, in exile, in the USA. I left Kenya in 1990 for Zimbabwe from where he came for me. Although I was excited to be on this new adventure in a new country, making new friends and getting to finally know my dad face to face, it once again meant I had to be separated from my mother. Once again my life was being dictated by those that were more interested in silencing my dad and could have cared less about the upheaval they created in the life of a 12-year-old girl and her family. I would return to Kenya in June 1996, on my 18th birthday, to bury my mom. The memory of my reunion with friends and relatives in Kenya at the time would always be associated with the sorrow of my loss.
My next trip to Kenya was in 2004 for the criminal trial of four gunmen and their “engineers” who had tried to assassinate my father and step-mother, Njeeri, in their Nairobi Hotel. They had only been in the country for 11 days after 23 years of my father’s exile, only to be greeted with that murderous attack. The gunmen were charged with “armed robbery”. If they had succeeded in their plans, it would have meant yet another loss. I felt rejected by my own country. I vowed I would never return to Kenya leave alone raise a family there. But I would miss Africa! Maybe I would have to relocate to Tanzania, Uganda, or even Zimbabwe, any of the neighbouring countries….. But deep inside I longed for Kenya. I ached for a Kenya that would embrace me as its own.
My time came earlier this year. With my siblings, I visited Kenya for my dad’s 50th anniversary of his novel “Weep Not Child”, organized by his Publishers The East Africa Educational Publishers. It turned out to be more than just a celebration of a single text, for the novel, first published in April 1964, that is 14 years before my own grand entry, had birthed the national literature of an Independent Kenya. Among the new generation of writers were some of my siblings who used to wow me with the Mwangi Cow boy stories. There was Tee Thiong’o with his Stories of Love and Despair; Wanjikũ with her The Fall of Saints; Mukoma, with his Nairobi Heat; and Ndũcũ, with his City Murders.They were all published by the publishers of Weep not Child!
The country I once remembered as a static landscape of my childhood and youth had completely changed. The grandmothers and grandfathers of my childhood neighbourhood had long passed on; the aunts and uncles had become the grandparents. My childhood friends now had children older than my 12 years when I first left the country. But the memory of loss was more than balanced by the welcome. People were genuinely happy to share our space, break bread with us and even share their stories with us. I recalled those days when people used to run away from us; now they were running towards us. Times had changed. The welcome we received was humbling in the most beautiful, inspiring, authentic and healing way.
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