An ecstatic voice: “Yes! I’m home! Hallelujah!
Two or three try to recreate the rapture, desultory applause, a wave that refuses to rise. We used to cheer and applaud into Nairobi. We applauded the pilot’s skills in landing us, the first wheel-mediated feel of terra firma, our escape from wing-churned skies.
One experienced homecoming.
I get this wrong.
Homecoming was experienced.
By 1990, on my first international flight, the celebrations of homecoming were fading, though their ghosts struggled to survive. We welcomed ourselves into Kenya—the anxieties of having been elsewhere and traveling on metal wings were vented in hearty cheers, the joy of arriving into the familiar, or, at least, into a space that claimed one.
By 1996, my first summer trip home, the cheers were gone. Or, perhaps I traveled in planes that had more tourists than returning Kenyans. It’s difficult to tell. Perhaps the Kenya of the 1990s was a difficult space to celebrate—one returned to cloistered embraces, a world of striving imaginations. Energies were needed elsewhere.
I arrive at 5:30 am.
The first sign I read: Welcome to Kenya—Home of Tusker.
I take a taxi home.
The rituals would be unrecognizable in 1983. Then, the arrivals area was thick with one’s intimates. One was met—there needed to be assurances that one had arrived—and this, perhaps, was simply a ghost of earlier arrivals in the 1950s and 1960s. And also of departures. Many years ago, my mother refused to leave the airport until she had heard my sister’s plane departing. Today, we wave each other onto taxis.
I don’t remember the billboards from my childhood. I assume they must have been on that long stretch of road from the airport through the city to home. But they are crowded out by the bodies squeezed into cars at all hours to welcome those who returned. We have become more efficient.
We are welcomed by taxis and billboards.
The attenuated celebrations on landing, the awaiting taxis, the welcoming billboards. The difference between home and not-home shrinks. Over the years, I have felt a twinge of guilt on feeling home as I landed back in Illinois or DC—home, where a set of keys opens onto scents familiar and mine. Onto memories imprinted on objects—the disposable sponge I use to wash my dishes. The accents that envelop one. The banal rituals of cleaning, cooking, sleeping.
When did home become other people’s memories?
I blunder into cobweb filaments, the sticky demands of then folded into emerging cavities of now. Time looms. Other intimacies suffuse once-familiar spaces.
I have come home to write a book about arrivals and departures and sticky intimacies—it started many years ago as an encounter between thinkers and fields. In the years since its first incarnation, it has become a book about imaginary cobwebs—about the people who spin them, how they spin them, and what they hope to capture and preserve. It has learned—is still learning—how to stretch into time and bend into space, how to be flexible and strong, how to leap and hope there will be catching.
Written once there, it is a book that needs to be completed here, where I am reminded, daily, how it matters.
As it stretches from Liberia to Jamaica and from Kenya to Martinique, with threads that cross through the U.S., the U.K., and France, it sketches a series of impressions, looks for muted patterns, suggests that the most banal observations have shape and consequence. This description of it is unrecognizable in the documents that name it, and part of my labor will be how to translate the uneven passions that shape it, the delicate webs that support it, into something recognizable within other worlds.
The welcome to Kenya billboard features a solitary glass, no human figure.
Ongoing work and conversations with WM attune me to the world of images and objects, to the complex imaginative space that opens and closes, to memories and histories and to their negation. The relationship between what remains and what awaits—the fragility of our claims to hereness and nowness. I see absence more readily.
I wonder who this glass of Tusker welcomes, the expectations of tongue and taste. What it means to have a taste for home and to taste homecoming.
I have yet to eat chapati.