Finding home

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When you start approaching 30, it feels like everything is closing in on you. Life develops a certain urgency to it. Wherever you look, people start talking about what you should or should not do. What you need to have achieved by now. On social media, they tease endlessly. Every day you are reminded to take your supplements and multivitamins before your bedtime…at 8pm! Then there is your family looking at you funny because you owe them an offspring. With just four months to turning 30, my mother is now on my neck about doing things my fellow adults have been doing. This is interesting because all along she’s always treated me as a child, her child. Her bone. Chogo min ohero. Then out of nowhere, she switched gears on me; asking when I am planning to get married, children and a piece of land to beat my home, because I am not getting any younger. 

At 29, I am not old – regardless of what KOT might think. But that doesn’t mean I do not fantasize about old age. I try to imagine what life would be like at 70, if I ever live long enough to see it. I imagine that I will be sitting on my veranda with my rickety joints and terrible backache, reminiscing about how I felt old at 29 and laugh. At 70, I want to have my own slice of the earth by Nam Lolwe, preferably in Homabay. My mother would definitely not approve because she would rather I buy a plot much nearer to our home in Siaya. Then again if we are being honest, chances are that she may not be around in the next 40 years.

Still, Siaya and Homabay are not that far apart. 2 hours on the road or across the lake by boat and I am already there. So I can still have my home along the shores of Mbita, or somewhere in Rusinga Island. If you have been on those sides, then you understand why. If you haven’t, it’s such a shame you haven’t lived at all.  There are many things that will steal your heart in Rusinga Island,  if you allow it. It is a tiny island in a corner of the world where nobody knows. But it turns into a city in the early hours of the night. A ghost city.  I would want to say you need to climb a hill at sunset, but that is only for you to get the best view. There is that moment after sundown called blue hour; a sweet moment right after the sun has dipped but just before dusk. When the world is inked in blue, yet not one bit sad. 

Standing on that hill, you will see boats trailing into the lake. From that distance, they look like little ants wading in a pot of water. Those are fishermen. They set out into the lake in the evening and do not come back to the shore until morning with a catch. As soon as the night falls and the sight of the lake disappears into the black, lanterns in the fishermen’s boats come alive. And in a matter of minutes, where the lake used to be is covered by dots of light for as far as you can see. It is like a glistening city. Not a city per se, but if you didn’t know any better, you’d be forgiven to think it is one. It is a ghost city. It is in this place and its slow charm that I want to spend my golden days. I do not think I will be working at the time. 

If I will be, it will not be to chase invoices and accountants who are always on leave when it is time to pay up. It will be for the undulating search for a sense of meaning. I will have a desk by a window facing the lake, where I’ll sit staring at a computer. Either writing a story, or editing a photo, with the warm sunrise on my face and a soft wind on my bare chest. Truth is, creatives never retire. Yet, I want to age doing things I love. Just like Amanda Seel-Mkare. 

Well, Amanda doesn’t live in Homabay County. She is over 700km away in Kilifi. On a typical day, sleep disappears from her eyes at 6am, and she opens her beading workshop by 7am. All day, she is pushing papers in her home office till 4pm, when she closes up and goes for a walk by the beach with her dog. She cannot work herself like she used to, because at 68, her body is just not what it once was. It has been touched by time. She has loved and she has lost, but these days she doesn’t mind being alone. If anything, she welcomes it. She craves solitude. Age does that to you, I presume, where days feel numbered, and so spending time on people who do not mean something is an extravagance. If there is anything that occupies real estate in her mind is perhaps what will happen to her Zinj Designs workshop when she is too tired to run it herself. It is her life’s work, after all. A vocation that she found herself in by sheer serendipity. An accident of adventure. 

Amanda Seel-Mkare story does not start in Kilifi, or even Kenya. It starts in England, where she was born in 1952, and then crosses the Atlantic to America where her son was born, then back to Europe. Portugal, to be precise, on a little slice of paradise called the Azore Islands. In this place, she’d shed 25 years of her life as a lecturer of African Literature. She was quite taken by akina Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe – the OGs of the African literary scene.  

When I called Amanda to interview her for the #RealPeopleRealStories campaign by Facebook Africa, and she mentioned she studied those writers, I felt pressure. How do you write about someone who spent that much time studying and teaching a Nobel Prize winner for Literature? In many ways, I dreaded what she would think of this story and this blog. Would she compare? God, I hope not. After raising her son to a point where he could stand on his own two feet, she felt like she needed a fresh start. she packed her bags, bought a one-way flight, and found herself in Kenya in 2003. She says that when the plane hit the tarmac at JKIA, she cried.

Not for what she’d left behind, but because it felt right. At the time, this country was also going through a kind of fresh start. A dictator had just stepped down after twenty-four years of tough rule. If she felt overwhelmed on that plane that day, it must’ve been in chime with the collective sigh of relief of an entire nation. She started teaching at a grammar school in Mombasa, then at the British Council, and a short stint at Kenyatta University, Mombasa Campus. It was while teaching down at the coast when she stumbled on the idea that – twelve years later – still wakes her up every morning at 6am. Beadwork.   

Her beading business started with a dog. Well, a dog collar. She was looking for a dog collar for her good boy, and when she couldn’t find something she liked, she had one made. It was made of leather and hundreds of little colourful beads, some of which spelt out the name of her canine. She adored it, and showed it her son back in the States. He loved it too. In fact, he loved it so much that he goaded her to have more made and then he’d sell them on eBay for her. And just like that, Zinj Designs was born. It was a simple idea, all the best ones are. 

If she was surprised that there was an extensive market for beaded dog collars in the West, she didn’t notice. She was too busy to interrogate what she was feeling at the time. In between quitting her teaching practice, marketing her collars, getting an assistant (Kyalo Mwangi, who still works with her to date), there was no time left for that kind of sentimentality.

The more the orders grew, the more beaders Kyalo hired to meet that demand, and as the business found its legs, it moved from Mombasa to Takaungu where Amanda lives now. Her home is her workshop. And she shares it with about sixty other people – mostly local women they’ve trained – who come in after the crack of dawn, and leave in the afternoon when the sun turns soft again. 

During that time, Zinj grew from just dog collars to making other things. Bags, bracelets, handbags, sandals, whatever. Amanda’s mindset has changed too. At first, she chased after trends, trying to do what everyone else was doing. Then she sat back and thought about why she even started all this. It was because she had a hunger for a certain individuality, a uniqueness. So she tore off her drawing pad and began anew. This time, with a clearer mindset. 

Starting over, after all, is a language she speaks rather fluently. There have been times when Zinj Designs ground to a halt. First, in 2008 when the sun stopped shining in Kenya and everything stood still in the wake of a nasty post-election violence. Then in 2020 when a deadly virus crossed oceans and landed here and life as everybody knew it changed. The Kilifi County ordered the shutdown of all factories, big and small, and for months it seemed like Zinj would collapse. 

It didn’t. 

These days she is not bothered about what other people in her industry are doing. She is not scared that exceptionality comes at a price and sometimes her stuff might come with a heavier price tag. It is the cost of standing out. If anything it is easier to sell something expensive so long as it is good, than to sell something average for an average price. When she takes her afternoon walks by the ocean, as she watches her dog chase after the salty waves of the Indian crashing ashore, she is thinking about how her new line, The Origins. A line of beadwork that tries to emulate how the traditional Kamba beaders of old used grain to make ornaments.   

Sometimes, however, she thinks of where she came from. She thinks of England, where she started, and America that gave her a son, and the Azore Islands of Portugal where she left a little bit of her heart. All these places, though, never quite felt like home. Not in the way Kenya does. She has no regret of leaving all that behind to settle in Takaungu. A small unknown place in Kilifi where nothing ever happens. It is quiet and removed, and birds sing in the morning and her 68-year-old heart hums along from time to time. 


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