By Ketty Nivyabandi
Just over a year ago, I lived in a yellow little house. Each morning, birds convened and sang at my bedroom window. The gate was indigo and inside the garden all kinds of flowers rose to kiss the sunny walls. The yellow nest was filled with cherished books, colourful art and sweet peace. There was a little kitchen, with cherry-red cabinets made by the most business-savvy street artisan I have ever met. In the little kitchen, my daughters and I baked, giggled, danced and let our free-range souls be. Looking down on us was a Gael Faye poster, cooking books from the across the globe (including delicious Caribbean recipes by Maya Angelou), my daughters early drawings, vintage photographs. And music. Always music.
On the yellow porch sat a white high table where I often pretended to write poetry. Most of the time I would simply soak in the delicious silence… And beside it, a long lounge chair, always tilted in the same, exact position: the only place in the house where one could spot the glistening, silvery lake Tanganyika. Between the neighbour’s blue tin roof and two tall mango trees. On some mornings, after the skies had cried all night, I would witness the mighty mountains of Congo rise from the fog. And everything inside me would fall into place.
It is where I enjoyed the most joyful evenings with rowdy, tipsy relatives who sometimes popped in with red wine, some cheese, and impromtu dance moves. It’s also where I often lay alone, by candlelight and let my heart breathe. Just above me hung a chalkboard, where my daughter once wrote: ‘Welcome home, where the sun is always free’.
It was home, in every sense of the word. Where one softens. Where one belongs.
It was home until one sudden morning, when danger came banging at the indigo gate. Prompted me to drop the book in my hand, grab the closest bag and lock up the sunny nest. ‘It’s just for a couple of days’ I thought. A couple of days later, danger spat me out of my city, out of the hills, out of the lake, out of the drums, out of the homeland I adore. Danger chased as I drove at the highest speed, through my beloved country’s coiled bowels, running away from the only place I had ever wanted to be. Running away from the yellow, the indigo, the cherry red, the morning birds, the splendid silvery lake, the scent of rain, the dear relatives, the red wine and impromptu dance moves, the sweet peace, the emerald hills, the sound of my daughters laughing in between two nap dreams, the escapades to my aunt’s rural home, the smell of cow’s dung, of eucalyptus leaves, of freedom, the taste of isombe, the sight of boungainvillea on every street, the sound of church bells on Sundays and the muezzin at dawn, the scent of arabica coffee beans, the voices of dear friends, the red soil, the green, the green, the green…
It was home until I crossed the border, looked back at the green sliding into red, and felt everything inside me falling apart.
‘Thank God you are safe’ they tell you. Not knowing that your heart was never more at risk, never more a wound, never more famished.
‘You are so lucky you got out. Now you can rebuild your life’. And you want to say that you don’t want to rebuild, not here, not in this concrete greyness. Not in these subways which scare the sun and the smiles away. Not in these supermarket alleys where bananas remind you of that haunting look in the old lion’s eyes, at the zoo. The look of displacement. Not in this place where every move is a strategic plan, where one saves time like one saves money, where one debates what to have for dinner like a constitutional reform.
‘You’ll see, it will be great for the children’. And you want to tell them that what is good for your children is napping with the scent of the rain falling on dusty grounds, running barefoot in the grass with ten other cousins, the taste of small and sweet bananas (how do you explain that taste?), the sun teasing the melanin in their skins, and the tender love and care they receive everywhere they go…
But you remain quiet, because there are no words to explain these mutterings in your veins. Because you should be grateful for being alive, even when your whole life burns. Because there is a certain indecency in not being grateful. In not acknowledging your fortune, the misery and fear of those who stayed behind, the kindness of your host country. Because you must, after all, reinvent (not rebuild, please, no) your life. Because your surroundings should not determine the state of your heart.
And so you carry on, in a refugee camp, fetching wood with strangers who soon become your world, rising early to beat the food distribution line, cutting deals to feed your babies, looking at this country within a country, not knowing when you will ever get out. Or in the homeless shelter, receiving food stamps, and being explained how to proceed as if you were a five-year-old and wherever you came from requires things to be explained s.l.o.w.l.y. You smile when kindness offers you used clothes and a cooking pan, you are overwhelmed by this warmth, these random acts of goodness but hold yourself from rupturing into a silvery lake. Because you are someone, you were someone, because you once had your own new clothes and plenty of cooking pans thank you very much, and somehow this beautiful kindness also feels unkind, unkind to your being, to your inside, to your life, and makes you want to cry.
You overcome being called a refugee. A small, wounding word in which the world tries to squeeze you every day. As your vastness cries out.
You overcome the weight and inexplicable shame that comes with that word. The feeling of not belonging. And you desperately try to catch your dignity, flying away in the autumn wind.
You overcome becoming part of the diaspora, this warm, wide sea of people whom you now begin to resemble; always a little too far or too close to home. Never in balance. Almost like, but never quite ‘home’.
You put one foot in front of the other, without thinking, forget thinking, forget any logic you ever had, because what kind logic shatters a life into pieces in one single morning? You create normal out of the abnormal. For months, for years, until one day you surprise yourself laughing out loud. Find new blossoms in your heart. You learn to live with the scars of exile. To conceal them. Especially from yourself. You learn to ‘adapt’. And when you finally receive your immigration papers, your new friends, your lawyer, your colleagues at the store, all rejoice: ‘All is well now!’ As though a home, a country, a life could be replaced so easily, by paperwork.
You learn to oil the stretch marks that criss-cross your heart, to walk fast, to do ten things at the same time, ‘to plan’. You learn not to hear the voids in the concrete grey, the silence in a room full of people, the wails in the teenager’s eyes, the pain in the soccer mom’s high-pitched voice, the insecurity in the suited man’s walk. You learn to wear dark colours in winter, and not to miss the happy, organised chaos that is your hometown. You learn to unlearn yourself. To unlearn the organic joy, the carefree in you. And not see the dangers of this place where everything has a limit. Where your being feels tamed. Where life feels like a trap, and you don’t understand why because everything ‘is well now’. You learn because the alternative is too painful. Because to remember – to truly remember – is to hurt, and your stretch marked heart can only stretch so far.
I still hear the yellow nest and the emerald hills calling my name everyday. Sometimes, on a merciful night, the moon will rise just as it used to under my porch.
On such nights I close my eyes, and I am home.