Eric Otieno Sumba
“To search for home in the strangest places, and find it” – Anja Saleh (from “to be the ruin” in Soon, The Future of Memory)
You kept busy, exploring London for a few sunny autumn days after a conference in Windsor. Unfazed by the sensory overload of your inaugural visit to the heart of empire, you relished sights and symbols that, in your mind, signalled a nascent triumph over its vestiges. A golden saltire set against lavish black and green cloth, for instance, looked particularly flamboyant against London’s startlingly blue sky. The flag hung on a white mast, diagonally attached to a balcony on 1 Prince Consort Road every day. On the Saturday morning you arrived to take a picture of your strange obsession bathing in the precipitant October sun, the ropes, aided by the brash wind, whipped against the bare mast repeatedly as if to drive the point home that you had spectacularly missed your chance. Neatly folded, your new favourite flag probably lay inside a dark wooden drawer in the red brick walls of the Jamaican High Commission, one of the earliest missions to open in 1960s London after the floodgates of empire all but collapsed under the raucous wave of decolonisation.
In your mind, you had been boycotting the UK in an act of anticolonial defiance, counterintuitively settling in Germany instead, and painstakingly learning a new language for that purpose. In actuality, restrictive visa regimes meant that you only got to visit the UK for the first time at 32 years of age in 2021. Until the day that you travelled, you did not know whether you would be able to. Yes, the flights and the day-two test were booked, the 34-page visa application and passenger locator form duly filled, and four long hours spent (wasted) listing every single border you had crossed in the five preceding years. Yet, the ‘visa service provider’ manning the opaque interface between applicants like yourself and the Home Office took their time, making no effort to match your efficiency in putting together an application that would have bankrupted you had the conference organisers not generously shouldered the visa fees. You check the confirmation email again to calculate how long it has been.
DATE OF APPLICATION: 31 August 2021 22:54 (BST)
TYPE OF VISA / APPLICATION: Visitor visa
SERVICE OPTION: X Standard (Free) / Expedited 340.00 EUR
DURATION OF VISA: 6-months
FEE: 115.00 EUR
EXPRESS COURIER RETURN: 30.00 EUR
UKVI SERVICES: 66.71 EUR
TOTAL: 211.71 EUR
Realising that a year’s worth of work would be up in flames if the visa didn’t arrive on time, you panicked. Things were set in motion by the conference organisers in London after you sounded the alarm over your uncertain visa. Sure enough, two days before you were set to travel (three months later), you were reunited with your blue Kenyan passport. It arrived in a discreet envelope appropriately lined with bubble wrap on the inside to cushion the travel document, now newly upgraded with a visa and finally worthy of presentation at the border of the country which charted the borders of yours. You travelled, and to your genuine surprise, were allowed to enter the Kingdom (of the visa gods) off a BA flight worth half your visa expenditure. A polite, elderly border control officer let you pass under the needlessly gigantic “Welcome to the UK Border” banner at Heathrow without a fraction of the fuss that the visa application process had led you to anticipate.
To the Kenyan psyche, Britain’s familiarity is uncanny; the most trivial things indicate a deep bond that is only charming for amnesiacs. The relationship – for lack of a better word – evokes an abusive, interracial marriage: newly divorced spouses who have been together for so long that their mannerisms are similar, though both will hear nothing of it. You stayed at Strathmore Hotel that first night, which has not one, but two unaffiliated namesakes in Nairobi: Strathmore School and Strathmore University. The tea set in your hotel room could have been at any Nairobi hotel, and the brand of tea being served – named for Kenya’s tea-growing HQ, Kericho – is the same one available in most Kenyan supermarkets. While looking for a socket to charge your dying phone battery, you encountered a bummer straight out of Nairobi: your two-pronged plug suddenly useless in the face of the three-holed socket before it, warranting the use of adapters or odd pointed objects to mediate access to power. The quaint decor and aura of your hotel room on 41 Queens Gate Gardens could have been on the fully carpeted fourth floor of Nairobi’s Stanley Hotel. A gaze from your window would even reveal that the snarl of traffic on Kenyatta Avenue below keeps left too, just like in London.
You texted your brother in Kenya as soon as you arrived. Would he kindly send a pic of the house and the exact address? “It’s in the illustrated Anatomy book…don’t remember what it was called,” you specified.
“31 Deepfield Way, Coulsdon, Surrey CR3 2SZ.” He did not have to consult the anatomy book. My parents made them memorise the address for when they got lost. “First part is the physical address, the alphanumeric part is the postcode,” he explains overzealously.
“Found any pics?”
He sends three, “Most pictures were taken inside the house. Anyway, I finally found these (out of their usual places in the album)!”
Two of the pictures show your siblings sharing a dark brown armchair in the living area of the house from two different perspectives. The chair’s deep brown velvet gleams gently in the camera’s flash, just like their juvenile faces. Your sister’s toothy smile stands out. In the third picture, your brother is pictured outside the house, proud as a peacock on his blue BMX bike that you later inherited. You had seen this picture before, but you were actually looking at it for the first time, hungry for clues. You study it, noticing the well trimmed hedge in the background, the grey railing to his left, and your brother’s very, very long legs. “Outside the front door. The two doors visible are numbers 32 and 33. The white strip on the right is an accidental overexposure of the negative (hazards of analogue technology!). It doesn’t hide much: the railing overlooks the entrances to the car garages below,” his precise caption reads.
“Do you remember which year this was?” you answered, intrigued.
“Not sure, I think 1985 or 1986 (1985 more likely though).”
“Okay. Thanks,” you swiftly typed back, suddenly overcome with a flush of emotion.
In most children’s books you browsed through as a last-born child, the address was written loudly on one of the first few pages. You vaguely knew your parents and siblings lived at the address at some point, and you grew up surrounded by minor monuments to that life in England: dozens of Dad’s records, the framed fine art print above the fireplace, and your mother’s holy grail, a bedside Teasmade™ tea maker with an integrated lamp and clock. In your family’s albums, pictures of your elder siblings hosting a birthday party, making a snowman, or posing in front of Buckingham Palace on an outing fascinated you. They seemed far removed from your reality, growing up in a small town in the Kenyan Rift Valley. You promised yourself that you would visit Coulsdon one day for old times sake, but then you outgrew your fascination.
In 1982, your father had left Kenya to study in the UK, and one year later, your mother, brother, and sister joined him. He worked at Cane Hill Hospital in Coulsdon for some time, while your mother made out a busy suburban housewife life for herself, often rushing from her typist training to pick up your siblings from Chipstead Valley School in her beloved sky-blue Mini Cooper. He was eager to go back to Kenya when he finished his studies and was admitted to the Royal College of Psychiatrists in early 1986, so they left and settled in Nairobi. He took up a job at the University of Nairobi, and you were born there in 1989, but in 1991, he took another job at the then new Department of Mental Health at Moi University in Eldoret, where you eventually grew up. On his final trip to the UK in 1997, he sent you a postcard from St Giles and brought you a red toy bus. You must have lost the bus when you moved house in 1999, a year after he passed on, but you still have the postcard.
At the earliest opportunity after your conference, on a Thursday afternoon, you set out aboard the Southern Line from Victoria Station. In western Kenya, the lake named after the queen who married her first cousin dominates the landscape of your ancestors: it is ‘true north’ for your people, the Luo of Kenya, who settled on its shores after drifting south along the Nile, from present-day Sudan via Uganda into what is now Kenya. They marked their territory in the lake basin, announcing their intention to stay permanently by building defence infrastructure: earthen reinforcements known as Gunda Bur, and a modest 500-year-old approximation of Great Zimbabwe, now designated as a world heritage site in Migori: Thimlich Ohinga. The lake’s original name is Lolwe, but even popular song lyrics – “Victoria, Dala gi Mama yo, Victoria Dala gi Baba yo” – claim Victoria, the dead, white and incestuous queen as home. In the UK, the coincidence that you boarded the Southern-bound train to your past at the station named for that same monarch was not lost on you. The 35-minute ride took you 35 years back in time. Time travel can be surprisingly banal.
On arrival, you relished how familiar it all felt. Coulsdon was always marinated in nostalgia in your mother’s accounts, and to your naive ear, it sounded like paradise (lost). Everything worked there, and the mail was delivered to the door! (She still keeps her mail order catalogues from 1986 to prove it). Since dusk was imminent, you rushed to get a picture before darkness fell, reluctantly foregoing precious views of the small, hilly town, a welcome respite to central London’s tree-less streets. Final rays shining through long thin clouds provided a dramatic effect for when you finally spotted the row of houses. With each step, the coordinates fell into place in an imagined culmination of destiny. You stood in front of the door where your brother was pictured in 1985. Your breathing accelerated as you attempted to absorb the ephemerality of the moment. Your brain, quite possibly on the brink of hallucination, desperately re-enacted scenes that your body remembered from mining the family album all those years ago.
The place looked exactly like it did in the pictures your brother sent; even the hedges had conspired to present themselves in exactly the same way. Barring some paint peeling off here and there, and the dark moss that covered the pavement and gathered between the red bricks of the facade, No. 31 had aged incredibly well. You knocked on the white door on a whim, then panicked, realising that the bucketloads of nostalgia you had brought along would not necessarily defuse a potentially hostile reception. A lady wearing her bathrobe over her pyjamas emerged out of No. 30 to your left, a bag of trash in hand. She placed it outside the door, then, slightly startled to see you there, tied her bathrobe at the waist and leaned out a little more.
“Do you know if they’re around?” you asked, pointing to the white door before you.
“Not sure. Was there a Black Honda Civic down there?” she asked, craning her neck to look at the cars parked on Deepflied Way.
“Didn’t see any,” you offered without looking, relieved that no one was in. Come to think of it, it was unlikely that they would be thrilled by an unfamiliar stranger calling at dusk.
“It’s alright, maybe another time,” you added quickly. She retreated, and you resumed surveying the wide window of your siblings’ former bedroom on the upper floor of the building. You realised you had not taken a picture of No. 31 (was this real if you didn’t post it?) and that the necessary lighting was getting worse by the second. You scrambled for your phone, whose screen went dark just as you saw the battery warning flashing. Luckily, you had taken a few shaky shots while approaching: a selfie and a shot of the whole block. They were grainy due to low light, but good enough for the family WhatsApp group. Behind several filters and with a few tweaks, they would be delectable enough for the Instagram feed, you assured yourself.
You were born three years after your family left this house and this country. Yet, dusk on Deepfield Way felt like home. You discreetly wept all the way back to Coulsdon South Station, marvelling at the setting sun in the horizon between muffled snorts and sobs. A dramatic but slow soundtrack befitting the moment played in your head, and you ‘told’ dad how glad you were to have retraced his steps as if he was right there beside you. The sight of a father on an evening walk with his child at that exact moment triggered a few more tears before you forced yourself to stop crying (pathetic). You blew your nose and instantly felt the fresh evening air rush into your previously clogged nostrils: with it a sense of relief that you had made it before dark…that you had made it at all.
The tears, you insist, were not attributable to your mother’s inherited nostalgia because having lived in Europe, you know that paradise is a ridiculously haughty proposition. It was something else: saudadé. You’ve been told that’s what the Lusophones call it: a deep emotional state of profound melancholic longing for something or someone that one deeply cares for. The feeling carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never be had again. The tears were an acknowledgement of your father’s earthly journey, the vagaries of diaspora life, and the intense feelings of retrospectively encountering your family’s past in spatial terms.
You settled into a bench on the platform at Coulsdon South, watching the passing trains and checking the overhead displays intermittently for information on the London-bound train. It would be a few more minutes, during which the platform was quickly filling up with people headed home, or to meet friends for after work drinks. A made-up and costumed little girl, presumably on her way to a Halloween party with her family, diligently worked the platform with her brother, asking for sweets and money for their still-empty Halloween buckets. They passed you two times. The third time, as her brother swiftly moved to accost some new arrivals to the platform, she stopped.
“Trick or treat?” she asked confidently, holding her green bucket up to you. You had no sweets, but you would be travelling back to the Eurozone the next day, so you were happy to get rid of loose Pound Sterling change. You smugly dropped a little over two pounds in the bucket (generous!).
“Have any notes?” she retorted, visibly perplexed.
The London-bound train arrived on the platform screeching.
Eric Otieno Sumba is a writer whose work has been published by Contemporary And, Africa is a Country, Sleek, Nataal, Frieze, Texte Zur Kunst, Gropius Bau Journal, and Griotmag, where he is also a contributing editor.