“We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place. We stay there even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there. We travel to ourselves when we go to a place that we have covered a stretch of our life no matter how brief it may have been.” Amadeu de Prado from Um ourives des palavras (A Goldsmith of Words, in Portuguese)
Ma, tazama waona nani ankuja? (Ma, look do you see who has come?)
I would know that voice anywhere, my younger brother, Salim, who had spent hours talking to me slowly and gently for hours on end as I practiced my fledgling Kiswahili so many years ago. I had been looking forward to seeing him ever since our video call earlier in the year but now Icould not tear my eyes away from the woman before me, not even to greet him. It was as if everyone in the room had faded into the background. I knew they were there; I could hear them, but I couldn’t see anyone but my mother MaFatu, seated in the most prominent place in the living room, filled with several of her sons and daughters, all who were watching me enter the room and to see how we would react finally seeing one another again.
Older, and obviously frail, her eyes clouded from failing vision due to glaucoma, she was wearing a deep teal green head scarf that emphasize the beauty of her honey brown skin, the characteristic skin color of most of the Swahili people of the East African coast. My eyes filled with tears, I could hardly get my words out to greet her. I held her face in my hands, kissed her head, her cheeks, still gasping to control my tears. I had thought that I would never see her again. But here she was, 91 years strong.
Eni, eni, unkuja… (Ani, ani, you’ve come…) She smiled as she clutched my hands in hers.
It was only after I had held her in my arms that I could look up and see everyone else who was in the room. One by one, I hugged them, held their hands, looked into the faces that I had held in my mind’s eye frozen in time forty years ago. We were all graying, ten of MaFatu’s children had married and had children. Some of their children had married one another. And some of the children had already had children. Three generations of family surrounded me, telling me about the fourth whom I had yet to meet. I couldn’t help but remember the fifth, MaFatu’s mother, MaZuena, who had raised many of her daughter’s children, and who had become my grandmother when MaFatu in her elder years, and her older sister, Bimomo, who was blind by the time I met her, with hair white as snow and soft pale skin, since she was born without any melanin (skin pigment).
By coincidence, or perhaps as part of the grand design of my life in Mombasa, I met Bimomo long before I met MaFatu or MaZuena when a student whom I had met at the University of Nairobi had offered me a room to stay in his family’s home in Mombasa. Although I did not know it then, his was the family who married their daughter Fatuma to the local Swahili magistrate who would one day become my father. In those days, Bimomo spent her days on a bed set just outside the door of my room on the third floor of the Arab style family home that looked out over the Indian Ocean. I couldn’t have found a better place to teach myself Kiswahili and to this day, I don’t remember how I met the student who helped me, or why he offered to help in the first place. Memory is a strange thing. I never know what I am going to remember, or not.
Bimomo loved telling stories, most of which I could not understand because she spoke a older dialect of Kiswahili and I was still struggling with my first words of the current one. But I don’t think she cared whether i understood or not, she just liked having the company and I was happy to sit by her side, trying to discern recognizable words and to make the appropriate sounds of agreement and/or surprise at the proper moments in the conversation as she regaled me. Here in Mombasa, I have known five generations of my adopted family, while in the U.S., I only knew three generations of my birth family.
Once I took the time to look into the faces of other people in the room, I had no trouble recognizing all of the women but, apart from Salim, I didn’t recognize any of the men, perhaps because they had changed more, but also perhaps because, living in a Muslim family, my time was spent solely with women. I only saw the men in passing, except for Salim. I have already spent more time with three of my brothers in the three days that I have been here than I ever spent with them 40 years ago. Things have changed a little, now the whole family, men and women eat together, whereas in the past the men ate in one room and the women in another. The women also keep their heads covered 24/7 whereas they used to leave them uncovered when in the comfort of their home, unless a male guest dropped by.
As someone who is used to spending a lot of time alone, being part of a huge family was sometimes overwhelming 40 years ago as it still it today. I sit and wonder what it would be like to spend 75 years in the company of the same group of people, the closest I ever got to this was 60 years with one woman, my birth mother. They have lived though life and death with one another, watched generations of children grow up to raise families of their own, all the while embracing (and remembering the names of them all) a multitude of extended family members. The Mazrui have an auspicious heritage, descended from the Omani Mazrui clan which reigned over certain areas of East Africa, especially Kenya, from the 18th to 20th centuries. In the 18th century, the Mazrui clan governed Mombasa.
What was striking to me then about being joining this family is still true today — however I show up, I am accepted and included as one of the family except, of course, I am not expected to pray five times a day. They have never tried to convert me to Islam. They are secure in their faith, and easily accept that theirs is not mine. After my first day here, no one seemed to pay me any particular attention, but they were still keeping track of my needs, as I discovered when my brother, Soud, who drives me around leaps up from the dinner table precisely at 8 p.m. and says tuende (let’s go), knowing that I like to get back to my hotel around 7:30 p.m. While “being on time” in Africa is usually more loosely practiced than in the U.S., Soud informed me that Muslims value being on time, something that I somehow missed 40 years ago. I guess it’s never too late to learn something new.
The reality is that, 40 years later, I still need “me time”, despite having just completed a year in Rwanda where I was craving “we” time. Differences in faith, customs, and language notwithstanding, I am still home whenever I step into the Mazrui house, even if they can’t understand (or even approve of) some of my choices. My sister Sulafa has made it clear that she doesn’t think I should have cut my hair, but she accepts it. I know that I could have stayed with them, even after 25 years, and they probably wonder why I did not, since I always had before. But they accept that I chose to stay in a hotel, and provide me with transportation whenever I need it. I know MaFatu would prefer me to sit by her side all day, but she accepts when I decide to spend the day at my beach hotel with a quiet Ah la! (expression of surprise). Like her mother and her mother’s sister before her, her life now centers around the people who come and go around her as she sits and waits to see who will next enter the door. As inclusive as they are, I am quite certain that my continued presence in their home would have disrupted their routine if I had stayed wit them.
Most of the time I do what I did forty years ago, I sit and listen to them telling one another stories about various people in the community, things that happened, that they remember, as all are now retired. When I have a good story, I share it, such as earlier this week when a crow at the hotel snatched my treasured hambri (a sweet Swahili bread made with coconut milk) when I left it unprotected at an outdoor table when I went in search of butter. I wished I could have seen him as he soared into the sky with his prize. He must have been quite a sight carrying away a sweetbread several times the size of his head. And, just as I remembered, because my story was a good one, and a funny one, it was told over and over, as the day went on each time someone came through the front door who had not heard it earlier. It is this tradition of story-telling, and re-telling, that provides the perfect setting for language learning. Perhaps this is why the language has not left me, even after 40 years of no use.
As I listen to the banter and the laughter, because these are a cheerful crew, I bask in the pleasure of hearing the dialect of KiSwahili — Kimvita — that I learned oh so many years. I delight in hearing the pronunciation of certain sounds that are unique to Kimvita and recognizing the verb tense system which is different from that of standard Kiswahili. Finally, the words themselves, many that I have forgotten until they are uttered and I am able to greet them like old friends and know what they mean, as well as new words that I cannot find in the dictionary because they belong to only the local speech community that inhabits the town of Mombasa that surrounds Kilindini port, the largest in East Africa with an impressive history dating back to before the 12th century.
The words of Kivita swirl around me, her cadence and rhythm is music to my ears, bathing me in sounds that awaken me to memories of another time, when I was someone else, when we we were all young, with the years unrolling before us like an endless ocean of possibility. As we sit with MaFatu, our mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, with more years now behind us than before us, listening to the call to prayer wafting through the air from the nearby mosque, I knew that, from now until eternity, I would always leave something of myself in this place, and she would remain here for me to find again and again, whenever I could come my way home.