I grew up in Kampala, close to my paternal grandparents. Family was very important to my grandparents, and often when we had gatherings the extended families of their children’s spouses were also very much part of the celebration. In fact the term ‘extended family’ was not part of our language. We were all family – even close friends became family! The culture of gathering was part of who we were – at whoever’s home – Christmas, Easter, new year, birthdays – or just because we could. Family chais – tea parties – were common.
Now as my generation is taking over the role of the elders in the family, we still come together to celebrate weddings, at funerals, graduations, collective birthday parties and … just for the fun of it. We understand – in spite of little arguments, alliances, misunderstandings, silences, spokens that make up family – that we are fundamentally tied together by love, that we have been handed down the baton to keep together no matter what and so we do. And yes, like in all families, we have our divas, our black sheep, our clowns, our peacemakers, our recluses – that make the process colourful, and we love them for who they are. And we have lots of fun together.
Today, being far away was so hard. You see today is my father’s birthday – and May day. Taking advantage of the long weekend the family in Kampala decided to get together at my grandfather’s home in Munyonyo to pray, clean the graves and play together. It’s what we do. We were all invited. People cooked and shared food. They worked, and prayed and sang and had a soccer match. And when the photo update started to arrive, on our Whatsapp group, a soft spot that I thought had healed opened up, and tears welled in my eyes. I missed Daddy. I missed home. Memories flooded back – of that place – Jajjas’ home.
I remembered the trip to Munyonyo – over the years we have used different routes, and the old, original road does not exist any more. I remembered Jajja John and Jajja Maliza welcoming us and sending us home with a prayer and a song. The 11 mango trees (one for each of their 9 children, and themselves) that we climbed as children to harvest juicy fruit. The cow shed that housed their cows – and the Balaalo who looked after the cows and knew each one by name. Estella and I trying to milk the cows that holiday we spent in Munyonyo. The bottles of milk they would send to us. The lusuku of matooke, with beans planted in between. Jajja Maliza’s cupboard in the dinning room in which she kept little treats. The yellow enamel potty that she had for us so we did not have to use the outside toilet. The verandah – oh the verandah!! As children it was so high we loved jumping off it. The grownups would sit on the stairs – and Daddy, Uncle Hugo and Uncle Jack – would sit on the stairs – cigarettes in hand. We would often sing on the verandah with Aunty Jane taking the lead. Or listen to Aunty Betty tell us family stories. I remember holding baby Moses, with Aunty Winnie close at hand, to make sure I did not drop him. Fay and Chris sat on the verandah in their wheel chairs… And always in the distance, Lake Nalubaale (Victoria)… and the gentle breeze. The land has become smaller over the years, and many of the new owners have built modern houses next door, but even in its smaller version the spirit of the Jajjas’ home remains – a place of love, of homecoming, of getting to know family – a place to return and laying to rest.
Today I would have loved to be there – to drink the spirit of family, to feel my roots sink deep, to have my children share stories and games with all the other children, to be with their aunties and uncles, to be part of the family ritual of taking care of the graves. Today, I would have loved to just fall into the bosom of family and be held there and know that I belong – without question, without explanation. To just be. Instead, I curl up in a chair, in my home, in South Africa, blinking back the tears, as I look into my heart and find that I carry within me that special place – Home.