The River And The Source

Guest Writer
13 January ,2015

This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s new e-book, – Thoughts on Home, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

by Gragory Nyauchi

A Greek friend once shared with me the difference between Ancient and Modern Greek; in ancient Greek, words weren’t just words – they carried weight and concepts and whole philosophies behind them.

To use the word sacrifice, for example, one had to call to mind love and pain and tragedy, and in some cases even futility. The purpose of language was twofold, to communicate and to philosophize, to state what you wanted to say and to state your point of view of the world as a whole, physical and metaphysical. Swahili does that sometimes.


It’s not just the home you call home, it’s not your house in the city with your family and friends. Instead, it’s your real home. The one in the countryside, the one that carries gallons of your blood and kilos of your flesh.

The word carries with it a concept designed to combat the alienation and isolation that surely faced the first generation of rural-urban migrants. It told you that there was a real home waiting for you once you went and did what you had to. That first generation had children – children who grew up in the city, children who only knew the city, divorced from the culture of ushago and all that goes with it. Children who felt alienated and isolated there instead of here. But still they used the word ushago, diluting it and changing it, making it false. At least that’s how I feel. I don’t call it ushago, not in my mind at least. My ushago is Nairobi, and Gwassi is where my father was born.

I visited it for the last time two years ago

It’s by the lake, right by Lake Victoria. The mystical source of the great river. There are islands dotted all over. Migingo is a motor boat ride away, there are also a lot of close islands, one of which is Kiwa. There is no ferry to Kiwa. The traffic is not that demanding. Instead there is a boat that fits about thirty and rocks its way there. The boat is nothing special, wood carved to make a hollow that floats on water on the back of which is a motor that pushes it along on those occasions when the wind takes leave of its sails. You sit on these benches five apiece and wait to be taken across. At the beginning of the trip there is sound coming from everyone. The conductor demanding payment, and the people making fun of us city-goers as we cramp in and try in vain to fit. But the lake must be heard, and soon all this noise fades away, slowly, slowly, ever so slowly it ebbs like colour from cloth. A dark hue of noise becomes the white grey of quiet that is only possible near a large body of water. The silence of the wind finds your ears and that silence is one of the most beautiful songs nature can play you. A wealth of age and experience exists in that silence and as if on cue everyone sat quiet to listen and to look.

On the pancake shaped Kiwa we experienced a different lifestyle to even the rest of Gwassi. The twenty acres had a law of its own – as such places seem to. The demarcation between marketplace and domestic zone was purely theoretical. On our way to the only bar we found housewives frying fish just outside their homes in huge pans within smelling distance of the marijuana we could whiff being smoked openly, since the police never come here. We bought fried fish at KES 5, each asked for some salt and went to sit by the shore of the lake and listen some more to that song as we enjoyed our meal

Give it enough time and Lake Victoria turns into the River Nile.

It’s hard to explain the sheer size of the Nile. It’s the second biggest river in the world, a life giver to two of the biggest countries in Africa – but what does this mean? It means it’s huge.

I can remember the first time I saw it flowing through the streets of Cairo. It looks like a lake is finding its way through the city; the waters have millions of little waves in an expanse that takes the space of ten highways. A map of Egypt shows cities built near the river hugging their mother, afraid to let go. The railway runs almost parallel to it since this is where everything is found, and yet it is still impossible to fathom the necessity of this river until you have an aerial view.

In Luxor, we climbed the hill that separates the Valley of the Kings from the temple of Queen Hochipsou. At the top of the hill the land before you is desert and sand. Deserts are bright, the sun bleaches the sand leeching it of all colour so that the assault on your eyes is now twofold, the blaze on top and its reflection below.  Suddenly, the desert stops and before you there is lush green, plants and plantations – the power of irrigation. A kilometre passes and there is the Nile, another kilometre, the desert. There is no preparation for the change in colour from white to green and back to white, it just happens. Immediately it’s green, the Nile, green, immediately it’s white.

The night before, we had taken a Nile boat known as a faluka to the other side of Luxor on the promise of a good shisha place. We piled into the boat and the quiet of the water piled into us. I looked out over the water to the millions of little waves frolicking. Calm waters seem to have more waves than turbulent ones. There is no huge show of strength, the kind that takes swimmers back to the shore instead there are millions of little ripples like creases on a cheaply laundered suit. They speak of untold power. A certain wiry strength you find in people who have grown up farming. The Nile tells you of strength and of history. A river that gave rise to Pharaohs and pyramids, to an elaborate 731-god religion, an almost indecipherable language and temples as colossal as the debt Egypt owes this river. Yet it doesn’t shout out its significance, it doesn’t spend its time trying to make you understand its importance. Its lack of assumption is enough.

We got to the other side as the stars sank into complacence, content to twinkle in place till sunrise. We sat down and ordered our shisha. One thing most people will be surprised about when they go to Luxor is the prevalence of hashish. It’s everywhere in every offer as if it’s all tourists do, hashisha [my own term] is also quite common.

Our eclectic group of travellers sat down and got to talking. Pretty soon the conversation turned to the dangers of the Nile, more specifically crocodiles, which in turn led to reminisces of home.

“…actually my brother killed a crocodile in the Amazon. He just went up to it and cut off its head, they’re very lazy after they have been eating and you can just walk up to it and cut off its head. Thwack!” said the Brazilian.

“My father killed a guinea pig by mistake once.” Briton.

“Is this really the time to bring up a dead guinea pig?” Greek.

One thing that happens to many people when they are away from home is that they start to remember it. They conjure up in their heads and in their dreams things about this place that are too bright to be real. If they miss it, they miss it with such passion as you would think they have been expelled from paradise. If they are glad to be away from it, they seem to have escaped a torture chamber. The feelings for this place threaten to eclipse its reality and you find people hunting all over a city for a taste of ugali.

At the same time though, this moment on the Nile, this moment too felt just the way home should. It was comfortable and perfect in itself, a small sliver of my life that just felt right. I wouldn’t say that the Nile was my home but this moment on it was a home for me. We enjoyed it but it was peppered with longing for the places we had come from. Thinking about that night I can’t help but feel a longing for it too.

This is what home means to some people, it’s not just a place but a time in a place. It’s not just this time but the fact that it’s past or in the future. Longing and desire are the walls and the roof of home. It’s not really home unless you’ve lost it or you are working towards it. This is not true for everybody, but at times I feel it is true for me. Home in the strongest sense of the word is an expression of things I lost, home for me too is ushago. David Foster Wallace said it best when he wrote that our endless and impossible journey home is in fact our home.

Gragory Nyauchi is a lawyer, avid traveller and an aspiring writer. Follow him on Twitter @gmagaria

This essay is taken from Brainstorm’s new e-book, – Thoughts on Home, which is available for free. DOWNLOAD IT HERE to read more such essays.

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