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Welcomed home with open palms in Kenya

December 23, 2008|Edmund Sanders

NAIROBI, KENYA — Those aren't chestnuts roasting on the open fire; it's goat. And rather than Santa Claus and tree ornaments, 'tis the season here for fermented porridge and summer evening strolls.

But there's one Christmas tradition that Kenyans share with much of the world: the annual trek home for the holidays, and all the stress that entails.

Each year at Christmastime millions of Kenyans crisscross this predominantly Christian nation, leaving their jobs in Nairobi, the capital, and returning to ancestral homelands.

For many, the trip "upcountry" is like a journey back in time. They leave modern city comforts, such as running water, paved roads and electricity, and spend a few days or weeks living much as their great-grandparents did, in mud-brick huts with dirt floors, straw mattresses and oil lamps.

An office manager from Nairobi finds herself fetching water from the well and carrying it home in a bucket balanced on her head.

A businessman forgoes his Scotch nightcap for busaa, a traditional concoction of flour, water and yeast that ferments into an alcoholic glop.

"When you go back home, you have to do things in the traditional way," said Moses Araya, 47, a University of Nairobi administrator. "I like it because it reminds me of how I was brought up."

Most Kenyan men like Araya return home to tiny huts or two-room shacks that they've built on their parents' land. In the past, sons would start their own families there, but nowadays, as people relocate to the city, such dwellings sit vacant for most of the year. Upon return, sons and their families spend the first two or three days of their holiday just clearing out the cobwebs and termites.

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'It's payback time'

For many, the trip home can also be expensive. No matter how poor you are in the city, you're Bill Gates in the eyes of your rural relatives. So even housekeepers and gardeners in Nairobi, earning as little as $3 a day, are expected to return home with armloads of gifts -- usually cash, used clothing and bags of sugar.

"It's like you have to pay a tax to go back home," said Morgan Liyosi, 28, an information technology worker. "It's payback time for the family."

Children are usually happy with spare coins, but parents and other immediate family members expect more. Even neighbors sometimes put the bite on visiting city slickers. It's not unusual for the urbanites to spend a month's salary in handouts.

"For the past couple of years, it got so expensive I just didn't go," Liyosi said. "But there comes a point when your parents make an issue about it."

He says he doesn't object to helping relatives and acknowledges his good fortune in having a well-paying job. But life in the city is more expensive than the country.

"My father is a farmer, but I'm sure he has more money left over at the end of the year than I do," he said.

Rising urbanization spawned Kenya's tradition of going home for the holiday. A century ago, most Kenyans lived and died in the villages where they were born. But as men flooded into Nairobi in search of work, Christmas holidays became one of the few times to see the wives and children left behind.

Kenyan law gives workers a one-month annual leave, a throwback to the period when people needed several days just to travel home, sometimes on foot. Schools still shut down for the entire month of December.

For security guard Timothy Shironye, 51, Christmas is a rare chance to see his wife and children. Twenty years ago, when he could no longer support his growing family by farming, he relocated to Nairobi. He was joined by his eldest son, now 19, but the rest of the kids live with his wife, about a six-hour drive away.

"Economically it's just not possible for us to be together," he said.

With rising food prices, there's no money this year for extras. But he'll use his $40 bonus to bring home flour, oil and 5 liters of pineapple juice, a special treat for the kids.

Years ago, Shironye spent a couple of weeks at home, but this year he'll only get three days off. Businesses are staying open during the holiday season and employees are finding it harder to take off for an entire month. Rather than returning to the farm, contemporary Kenyan families are deciding they'd rather spend a week at the beach. Young people born in the city are losing their connections to the family homesteads.

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Dreaded question

Alice Njuba, 34, said she dreads the question she faces every year when going home: When are you getting married? Her situation is complicated by the fact that her father is a priest and she's the single mother of a 12-year-old boy.

Now working as an embassy cook in Nairobi, Njuba is the most successful sibling in the family and helps her parents financially.

But at Christmas, she still finds herself at the proverbial kiddie table. As an unmarried woman, she's not allowed to build her own house on the family compound. Even when she saved money to invest in her own plot of land, she had to buy in the next village.

"As a woman, I'm not allowed to build anything locally," she said.

But Njuba said she doesn't mind.

Traditions are what make the trip special, she said.

"My father will slaughter a goat and we will all sit as a family," Njuba said. "It's just nice to go home."

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edmund.sanders@latimes.com

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