I am sipping a cold Taj Mahal beer at Empress Taytu, the Ethiopian restaurant on Cleveland’s East Side. My wife, friends and I have just finished some doro wat stew and injera bread while our 10-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 a father I hadn’t seen in eight years. A writer, he was living in political exile after using his pen against the dictatorship of Daniel Arap Moi. Leaving for a conference in London, he’d been told he’d receive a “red-carpet welcome” on his return — a euphemism for being jailed or killed.
I was able to leave Kenya only because I was born in Evanston, Ill. My parents had returned home shortly after my birth, so my first language is Gikuyu, and my English accent is unmistakably Kenyan. The dictatorship had denied my siblings passports — an attempt to punish my father — while I, armed with my birth certificate and Kenyan identification, was able to go to the American Embassy and get a U.S. passport.
So my return to the states was 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 the racially polarized America of the 1990s — the time of the Rodney King beating, the Los Angeles riots and the O.J. Simpson trial — and the news from East Africa — the dictatorship intensifying in Kenya, the genocide unfolding in Rwanda — I sought the company and conversation 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. But even though I left Kenya for very complex reasons, 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, it is deeply satisfying. We feel like we have reconnected with our culture.
Finding such nuggets, though, is like translating between languages. I am constantly looking for the original or equivalent. At other times, I have to compensate and substitute. For example, I wanted to get married in a free-flowing African kitenge shirt, not straight-jacketed in a tuxedo. I couldn’t very well drive to Steelyard Commons for it. But at the Calabash African Market in Cleveland Heights, I found one with matching shorts.
Mostly, though, I am in search of food. If you love food as much as I do, food is culture. And for Kenyans, there is no substitute for goat meat. We eat roast goat at weddings and funerals, at birthday parties, in five- and one-star restaurants. There is an urban legend set in Cleveland of an elderly 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.
So in 2007, when my wife and I moved to Cleveland from Wisconsin so that she could start medical school, I promptly found my way to the West Side Market. Although I cannot buy a whole goat there, a full leg for roasting gets the job done.
Sometimes, as a food lover and fumbling chef, I have to innovate. Indian naan flatbread replaces thicker Kenyan chapatis. And in order to make ugali, a hard cakelike dish made of maize, I must find the dry, white maize flour at a Hispanic or Asian grocer, since sweet, yellow American corn flour won’t do. Thus, I’ve also begun to experiment with foods from many different cultures — and now even make a mean pad thai.
Ultimately, some things do not translate. Last year, when I flew home and my brothers met me at the Nairobi airport, we immediately went out for goat and Tusker beer. In the restaurant, a lone musician was strumming his guitar, singing old favorites in Gikuyu. The audience did a Mugithi train dance, snaking and chugging around the dance floor. This is home at its essence — music, food, family and language.
But what Cleveland cannot give, it can compensate for in profound ways. My daughter was born here. Her roots, which I hope will span wider than mine or her mother’s, will always start here. We named her Nyambura, which translates into bringer of rain, after my late mother. Culturally speaking, 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?
*This essay first appeared in the October 2010 issue of Cleveland Magazine.