Identity. It has never been an issue for me. I know myself. I am secure and safe in my knowledge of who I am. Lately though I found myself questioning it especially from a cultural point of view. What exactly gives us that sense of belonging? Our parents,our language, our surroundings? A few weeks ago I travelled back to my shags (ancestral home) for the first time in about 12 years. Sadly, the reason for my travel was my aunt's funeral. I had never met her. She was my mum's older sister and had only featured in a handful of stories that I could remember. The reason for this was because she had suffered a mental breakdown years before and had thus been confined to a rather secluded life.
We packed the car and left for Kasipul Kabondo with my younger brother and mother. The beauty of the country played out in an endless vista as we drove into the Rift Valley. Past the parched expanse of Narok and into the breath taking coffee covered hills of Litein. I drove as my mother and I talked while my brother alternated between snoring in the back seat and ridiculous stories. During the drive, mum filled us in on what her childhood with her sister had been like. In many respects, she felt the version of her sister she had known had been gone for a while. So while there was a great sense of loss it wasn't exactly like someone she recognised.
5 hours and loads of junk food later we drove into our homestead. The last time I had been here was to bury my father. I was barely 12 then. Now I looked at everything as an adult. The corner of the grounds where a goat had head butted me, (Hilarious now but terrifying then), the well I almost fell into during a thunderstorm, the paths I had taken when taking the cows to the river. It had all changed yet in the change were vestiges of a time gone by. What had once stood proud and grand was now run down and shabby. But it was home. My home.
My uncle walked my brother and I around the place explaining the changes. My brother and I exchanged confused looks. He rattled off names of relatives we hadn't seen in years & could hardly remember. Then he walked us to my dad's grave to pay our respects. In a corner of a desolate field is where my father's remains lay. A clump of weeds grew around his grave and a beehive was somewhere near. The latter ensured that we could only pay our respects from a safe distance.
On the night before the funeral there was a thum. (dance). Loud music was played from large speakers & family, friends & neighbours came from far and wide to dance. Again, my brother and I stood there watching like outsiders as they engaged in some of the funniest dance moves we had ever seen. On the other edge of the homestead a small group of religious mourners sang in low tones while they danced around a drum in a circle. By 4 am when I was finally succumbing to sleep both groups of mourners were still doing their thing with gusto.
The next morning more visitors started streaming in early. And then the barrage started. Do you remember me? Do you know me? Wow. You're all grown up. (This last one tends to annoy me. Like people expect you to be a child all your life.) I was completely ashamed. I didn't know most of extended family. Cousins, uncles and aunts seemed taken aback that I couldn't recall their names. Then there were those convoluted relations. The kind who made it sound like you should know the son of your grandfather's third wife's step sister's cousin's child. Apparently everyone here had held me as a child. (Did mum just like giving me out?) I was floating in a sea of utter confusion. I was that cliche. The kid brought up in the city who heads back to find his roots and can't quite find them. In the city I claim my luo heritage yet here in the country I struggle to string together proper sentences to talk to relatives I hardly recognize.
My grandmother and my mother are my refuge here. The former has nothing but sympathy for my shortcomings here. No one knows how old my grandmother is. I am basically learning dholuo just so I can converse with her. She watches me struggle through my dholuo then admonishes me for not knowing my relatives. Apparently some had snitched on me. She talks to me about the importance of identity. Of family. Then her old, leathery face breaks into a conspiratorial smile as she whispers that my dholuo is getting better.
The ceremony goes off without a hitch. Actually just one. The master of ceremony has to ask the speakers to keep their speeches short. He says it's not a competition to see who loved my aunt most. It draws a few angry remarks from the mourners. Later as people walk away, I stand next to my grandmother as she watches people commit her daughter to the soil. Her eyes are red. I realise I have never seen her cry. All this. All the bits I knew and the bits I didn't understand were all part of me. So was this woman I had never quite gotten to know. She's a strong, proud woman. Even now in her moment of utter despair, there is something regal about her. I take her hand and squeeze it. No words are necessary.