I went to a conference on refugees and migration at the Tahrir Square Campus of American University on Friday, May 13, 2011. I was chatting with some of the attendees at the reception. I was telling them about how the mixed aborigines in Australia would be taken away from their families, stripped of their language, and raised in the church. The idea was to make them European, white, civilized. A similar process occurred in the United States. Native American children were removed from their families and educated at church schools. If they attempted to speak their native language, they were beaten. The funny thing is, some of these Aborigines, and some of these Native Americans would go through this whole process, and then run away, and somehow, some way, they would find their way back to their tribal people, and make a home with them.
I tell this story for many reasons. It is sad. It is unfortunate that man could try to take away another person's culture, but I also tell this story because it resonates with me: returning to your roots. It is not just a saying. I have felt the need to go back to the land of my ancestors. I have heard the call in my blood.
When I was a young woman, I felt ill at ease. I was working in America. I had a high profile job in Washington DC in the mid 1990s. I was in my late twenties, beautiful, making very good money, and I had a lot of prestige. I was working at the United States Department of Justice doing environmental work. On paper, it was the world's greatest job. Yet, I felt empty to my very core.
My mother was an immigrant, God Rest her Soul. She came to the United States in the late 1950s, to attend college at Occidental, in Los Angeles. She came on some kind of a missionary scholarship. I have not exactly figured out the details of it, but I will ask my uncle.
While at Occidental, my mother, Wairimu Tabitha Gethaiga, met my father, James David Bowman, who was studying physics at Caltech. They fell in love and got married in 1965, even though in most of the country so- called "interracial marriage" was illegal. They moved to New Mexico in the early 1970s where my father was a nuclear physicist at Los Alamos National Labs. My mother died (very unexpectedly) in her sleep of summer pneumonia in Los Alamos in 1992. I was 24 years old.
I grew up in New Mexico. I didn't learn my mother's language, and I did not get to spend much time in Kenya as a child. We went every so often. It averaged out to about once every seven years. Apparently, we spent a bit of time there when I was very small. My father said I was annoyed I could not speak with any of the other children. He says I was completely quiet for a few weeks, and then suddenly began speaking in Kikuyu. I believe it, because I took my children to Kenya for two months when I evacuated them from the Egyptian Revolution, and they came back speaking fluent Swahili (all except for the smallest one, who doesn't say anything yet, except unn unn.)
So, we visited when I was two or so. I remember another visit when I was about 12 (1979) although it is possible we went before that, I just do not remember. I took a very special trip alone with my mother when I turned 17. We had a wonderful time, and I figured out that I have a half brother, John Ndegwa, who apparently is the son of Central Banker Duncan Ndegwa, but that my friends, is another story, and a long story as well. It was the ultimate mother-daughter bonding trip. My mom was very social, and very glamorous, and we hobnobbed with Kenyattas, with bankers, with the creme de la creme. It was like being a long-lost celebrity.
I went off to college, and I started law school. Life was rolling along. I can remember thinking to myself how incredibly lucky I was, how blessed I was. How God had really shown me special favor in my life. I remember that summer was the happiest summer of my life. And then my mother died. I never felt lucky again.
All of this is to say that the remaining years of my life were spent trying to fill that emptiness. I quit that fancy job. I got a divorce. I moved back home. I took all my money, and applied to graduate school, although I already had a perfectly good job. I spent nearly ten years in graduate school (a masters and a Ph.D.) traveling to Africa, learning Swahili, and generally learning everything I could about myself and my mother's culture. I still do not speak her native language, but I am beginning to.
Here it is 2011, about a decade or so after I quit my fancy Washington DC job. Here I am with a Ph.D. from Harvard, a handsome, kind, and hardworking husband who happens to be from my mother's tribe, and three gorgeous children. Amazingly enough, I am living and teaching in Africa. My oldest is a daughter, born in Nairobi hospital in 2005. She is named after my husband's mother. She has one Swahili name, Mariamu, and one Kikuyu name, Njoki. Njoki, fittingly, means "return" in Kikuyu. I am not rich (yet) and I am not famous (yet). I do not have everything I want in life, and I have not accomplished all of my goals yet. But I have noticed, rather recently, that the gnawing emptiness and the disabling unease seem to be gone.
My Egyptian-American student MM just graduated with a degree from a very good masters program in public affairs in the United States. He was born in Cairo. He grew up in New Jersey. He came back to Cairo, and has been trying to get a job here. He is about the age I was when my mother died. I have been trying to help him. He did not really visit Egypt much as a child, but he tells me that he has always wanted to come back and get involved in politics, and help his country. He returned to his homeland. How could he not? It's in the blood.