Born in the US, raised in Kenya, now an immigrant in the country of his birth, Mukoma Wa Ngugi wrestles with identity, and the quest for goat stew.
I am sipping a cold Taj Mahal beer at Empress Taytu, an Ethiopian restaurant on Cleveland’s East Side. My wife, friends and I have just finished some doro wat stew and injera bread while our ten-day-old daughter, Nyambura, takes a nap.
I am a Kenyan claiming Ethiopian culture in order to feel at home. Perhaps years ago, it would have felt ironic, but not anymore.
I came to the United States in 1990 to attend college and reconnect with my father, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, whom I hadn’t seen in eight years. A writer, he was living in political exile after using his pen against Daniel Arap Moi. Moi’s rule had denied my siblings passports – an attempt to punish my father. But because I was born in Illinois, I was able to get a US passport.
Given the politics, my return to the States was also an escape. But because I had lived in Kenya all my life, it was not a return home; it was to begin the life of an immigrant in the country of my birth. To cope with my feelings of isolation in racially polarised 1990s America – the time of the Rodney King beating and the LA riots – and the news from East Africa – politics intensifying in Kenya, genocide unfolding in Rwanda – I sought the company of other Africans and African-Americans. I had to abandon a narrower Kenyan identity and embrace my Africanness and blackness.
Still, even today, I can get terribly homesick. The cure is in finding small, mundane things that bring home back to me. Immigrants are forced out of their native lands by great upheavals: war, famine, oppression. But in our host countries, those larger issues become abstract. We miss small, practical things that function as metaphors for home. When we do find them, we feel like we have reconnected with our culture.
Mostly, though, I am in search of food. Food is culture. And for us Kenyans, there is no substitute for goat meat. There is an urban legend here of an American couple who went out of town for a few days, leaving their pet goat under the care of a Kenyan student, who promptly threw a party. No need to spell out the fate of the goat, or the friendship.
Sometimes, I have to innovate. Indian naan bread replaces thicker chapatis. To make ugali, I must find the dry, white maize flour at a Hispanic or Asian grocer.
Ultimately, some things do not translate. Last year, when I flew home, my brothers met me at Nairobi airport; we immediately went out for goat and Tuskers. A lone musician sang old favorites. This was home at its essence: music, food, family, language.
But what Cleveland cannot give, it can compensate for in profound ways. This is where my daughter was born. Her roots will always start here. We named her Nyambura, bringer of rain, after my late mother. My mother continues to live through her.
Translation means a word is reborn into a different language and culture. So isn’t my mother being reborn in Cleveland the ultimate act of translation?
About the author
Mukoma Wa Ngugi is Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University and author of Nairobi Heat (Melville, 2011), Hurling Words at Consciousness (Poems, AWP, 2006) and the forthcoming Finding Sahara (Melville, 2013). Mukoma holds a PhD in English from the University of Wisconsin.