So this is growing up: time seems to pass by so swiftly, we’re no longer protected by the shield of our beloved parents, and when we return to our hometown, it doesn’t quite feel like home anymore. Why does this happen? Nostalgia floats in the air as we pass by the old hangout places in Nairobi, and as we relive the memories associated with all of the places we once thrived in. When a song from 2011 comes on the radio we feel old and are hit with the moments we experienced when it was in vogue. Every time I head back to my hometown (Mombasa), it looks different, and it saddens me. I know it will never be the same as I remember it, and I want to hold that piece of my memory close to my heart forever… But I know that growing up is change, and change cannot be stopped.
It seems like memories fade so quickly, and sometimes we’re unaware of them getting lost until something brings it into the forefront of our minds. Whether it be a smell, a song, a word, or just a feeling of reminiscence, certain things bring us back to days we had forgotten about, but we can never really return to that place. Rather than longing for a place to call home, we must learn to carry home with us wherever we go. One of my favorite songs begs the lyrics, “home is not a place, but a feeling inside” and I believe in this wholeheartedly. Of course it’s heartbreaking to see the place you grew up become unfamiliar, but we must not let that discourage us, and hold a place in our hearts for home to reside. The houses you and your friends grew up in suddenly have new occupants. Peer groups begin to dismantle. The place that you once possessed at least some ownership over has dissolved—and while the place still exists, deep down you know its not the same place you once loved. Everything that you once held onto so tightly has begun to not belong to you at all.
We are creatures that need change, but only if it comes on our own terms. The idea that you can spend years carving your spot into a community, creating memories, experiencing love, loss, joy and sadness, only to have it move on without us—forgetting us—is incredibly difficult to comprehend. We want to be the sole catalysts for change. To grow and evolve and leave on a whim—to discover new places, to move thousands of kilometers, we want to be the ones to leave big gaping holes in our wake. The process of growing up is nothing more than wanting to grow and evolve ourselves but the world to stay exactly as it is, as we know it.
When you head home and realize your past has outgrown you, it’s incredibly lonely. It’s like heading into the world without that safety net. The place we once held close when homesickness and nostalgia took over doesn’t exist anymore. It’s no longer a tangible destination. It exists only in our memories, and sentimental reflections with old friends. No longer is there that comforting notion that if everything were to fall to pieces, we’d have our old home to fall back on. All of a sudden we are left alone with our future plans, goals and dreams. We look at home as something that has been fortified for us, rather than something we create.
A very dependable feature of people who live or study abroad is finding them huddled together in bars and restaurants, talking not just about their homelands, but about the experience of leaving. And strangely enough, these groups aren’t necessarily all from the same home countries, often the mere experience of trading lands and cultures is enough to link them together and build the foundations of a friendship. I knew a decent amount of ex pats — of varying lengths of stay — back in Kenya, and it’s reassuring to see that here in Accra, the “foreigner” bars are just as prevalent and filled with the same warm, nostalgic chatter.
But one thing that undoubtedly exists between all of us, something that lingers unspoken at all of our gatherings, is fear. There is a palpable fear to living in a new country, and though it is more acute in the first months, even year, of your stay, it never completely evaporates as time goes on. It simply changes. The anxiousness that was once concentrated on how you’re going to make new friends, adjust, and master the nuances of the language has become the repeated question “What am I missing?” As you settle into your new life and country, as time passes and becomes less a question of how long you’ve been here and more one of how long you’ve been gone, you realize that life back home has gone on without you. People have grown up, they’ve moved, they’ve married, they’ve become completely different people — and so have you.
So many of us, when we leave our home countries, want to escape ourselves. We build up enormous webs of people, of bars and coffee shops, of arguments and exes and the same five places over and over again, from which we feel we can’t break free. There are just too many bridges that have been burned, or love that has turned sour and ugly, or restaurants at which you’ve eaten everything on the menu at least ten times — the only way to escape and to wipe your slate clean is to go somewhere where no one knows who you were, and no one is going to ask. And while it’s enormously refreshing and exhilarating to feel like you can be anyone you want to be and come without the baggage of your past, you realize just how much of “you” was based more on geographic location than anything else.
And well, life has gone on without you.
Holidays, birthdays, ruracio, nyama choma, Delta Hotel, road trips, Tribeka— every event that you miss suddenly becomes a tick mark on an endless ream of paper. One day, you simply look back and realize that so much has happened in your absence, that so much has changed. You find it harder and harder to start conversations with people who used to be some of your best friends, and in-jokes become increasingly foreign — you have become an outsider. There are those who stay so long that they can never go back.
So you look at your life, and the two countries that hold it, and realize that you are now two distinct people. As much as your countries represent and fulfill different parts of you and what you enjoy about life, as much as you have formed unbreakable bonds with people you love in both places, as much as you feel truly at home in either one, so you are divided in two. For the rest of your life, or at least it feels this way, you will spend your time in one naggingly longing for the other, and waiting until you can get back for at least a few weeks and dive back into the person you were back there. It takes so much to carve out a new life for yourself somewhere new, and it can’t die simply because you’ve moved over a few time zones. The people that took you into their country and became your new family aren’t going to mean any less to you when you’re far away.
Afterall, home is not ever a physical destination. Home is nothing more than a collection of memories that warm us. We are wrong to assume that it is an inherent geographical location, because home is neither a place nor a time period. Home is a story that we tell ourselves in times of distress—a story of what we can rely on, the only constant in a life that is anything but stable. We attach this idea of home to places, people and landmarks, but never ourselves. We forget that we can become our own homes. Things we are comforted by. Things we can count on to remain constant.
Home is a story line that can quickly become obsolete, but we never suffer from this. Returning to a place that we have loved and seeing all the ways it is different is perhaps nothing more than an indication to begin to write your own story of home- to be your own home, because home isn’t the place where you grew up or fell in love or lost your way and then found it again. Home isn’t where you created most of the memories that shaped your childhood. Rather, it is what you make of it.
So this is growing up: we learn to make a home out of our own bodies rather than idealizing a place we can never go back to. We create our own realities and with this, we must create our own internal place of comfort and love. Home will never be what we once thought it was, but if we let it, it can be something so much greater than that.
Thanks to Chelsea Fagan and Colleen Gaffey for inspiring this article. Y’all are awesome people.
Special dedication to Christelle Wangu, Wangari Karuru, Jackline Mukami, Doline & Eunice Wanjiku, Ashura Mkangi, Bint M., Marcy N., Sifuna Sifuna, et al for making my summer 2k17 such an amazing experience. Love y’all.