My earliest memories of home was a single room my parents rented when we moved to Kipkaren Estate, Eldoret, in the early 90s. A bed sheet hung across the room, partitioning it into two main “rooms”.
In the back half of the room was the bedroom and the kitchen, which also had a chimney in the corner. Chimneys were standard requirement for houses at the time because it was assumed that all of us used charcoal to cook.
The front end of the room – the side with the door and the window – had a single couch, a table and other paraphernalia I can’t recall. At one point my mum got rid of the table and converted this front section into a shop. So she had to further partition the half-room, entirely blocking the window as she dedicated the area around the window to the makeshift “shop”.
Staying in the house was not something we did during daytime. All the kids around the neighborhood understood that. The home wasn’t a place to spend your waking hours. Home was where you went to eat and sleep — after converting the sitting room into a second bedroom.
Sentenced to life at home
Yet, even as I look at this scenario as my past, I am confronted by the uncomfortable reality that this is the present for many Kenyans. For many people, especially those living in informal settlements (slums), the directive to stay at home does not evoke images of relaxation, Netflix and video games.
Let me not even go into the many homeless people, or those living in makeshift structures at their place of work (a workshop, an industrial complex). We must confront the fact that just because that’s where you sleep and spend the night does not mean that’s what you call home.
Not running away but going home
When the Kenyan government first gave the social distancing directives (for people to work from home and avoid crowded situations), many people started traveling upcountry. This is still happening. One of the main objections to this move has been that those traveling to the villages will expose their elderly parents and grandparents to the COVID-19 virus.
But what we forget is that many are not traveling home out of choice, or even for pleasure and relaxation. They are not simply “getting away”. Many people working in Nairobi often go to the village in the weekends because that’s where their family and real “home” is.
Some of them are the domestic workers that we “released” so that they can spend time with their families. They are not leaving their homes in Nairobi to go to the village, they are leaving their workplace to go home.
Yet, the homes I am particularly concerned about as I write this are not the brick and mortar, or the mud and thatch, the wood and iron-sheet structures that shield many of us from the heat and cold and rain and other elements. I am worried about the fact that, by sending people to these structures, we have actually taken them away from their real homes — their true sources (and repositories) of identity, community, comfort and purpose.
A different kind of home
For many of us, staying at home means a particular relationship, or web of relationships. Despite popular opinion, some of us find our deepest connections with the people with whom we spend long hours of our days at work. Home for us is marked by the banter about the, commute this morning, the football match last weekend or the latest political trends.
Staying at home for some of us means engaging in a particular passion. This may or may not coincide with your work, but home is where we find our deepest meaning and make sense of the world. Your home may be the non-profit work you do to help communities in need around the country. Your home may be the music you perform, the stories you write, the items you craft, all in the name of making the world a better place.
Staying at home for some of us is a person. It is that man or woman that you are dating and you always look forward to meeting and spending time with. It is that friendship you call “best”. But now you are separated by distance and circumstance as each of you is probably forced to stay home with your “real” family and not dare venture out. Phone calls and WhatsApp chat simply don’t measure up as substitutes.
For the religious, staying at home for us means that the most important relationships and connections in our lives are those with the members of my church. Home is this community of faith where we can share our deepest secrets and confess our deepest sins and find comfort and peace. And now, even that weekly or bi weekly (twice a week) meeting is impossible.
Yet, for many of us staying at home is defined, not by people or places or mementos, but by moments.
I feel most at home when things are working out, when I know where my next meal will come from. I am most at home when I know I am free to venture out and explore the world, take a long night time drive, meet with and hug a friend, read a book at a Java, go to a movie theatre, dance in the club or just hang out at a bar.
All these definitions of home have now simply been taken away from us and reduced to a wooden hashtag #StayAtHome that only has one meaning, a definition that is meaningless and irrelevant to many of us, and a definition that is even frightening to some of us.
Hell at home
There is the married mother of two who had gotten used to being her husband’s punching bag. She had come up with strategies of coping. The husband would often come home late at night. So she would make sure everything he needs is ready and warm. She would hope he would come too tired or too drunk to throw a straight punch.
But now he is home early, well rested and sober. He earns his wages per hour and now his working hours have been radically reduced. No more overtime bonus. The bar is closed by the time he gets there so he has started stocking up the alcohol in the house.
She knows what this means: new frustrations only lead new anger triggers combined with new energy which means renewed vigor in the punches.
There are the five children who spend majority of their lives at school, away from the abuse and neglect at a home that can barely accommodate them during the holiday season. Now they are forced to stay cramped up in a house that can barely accommodate them, a father who only tolerates them and a pot that can barely hold enough food to feed them.
I could go on, but you get the picture. Staying at home means many things to many people, but for many people, it now means nothing short of terror and despair and depression.
Perhaps we should spare a thought (and an accompanying act of kindness) to the millions of Kenyans who have now been thrown into the pit of hell that is “home away from their true home”.