Poet Warsan Shire writes: “No one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying – leave.”
The phone is ringing late at night. You ask, Hooyo who was on the phone?
You watch your mother’s eyes water, hearing faint signals across continents.
Her voice is trembling. She is struggling to make words.
She has only ever known mourning from faraway distances. Her father died the day she landed.
You cannot take your eyes off her.
You watch her try to make sense but her lips move like walls closing in on each other.
She tells you your great uncle has died.
You have never experienced a death like this. Your body doesn’t know how to react, except to flood your eyes with saltwater
You are ten years old.
You are walking along the sandy streets of Garissa with him and his wooden walking stick.
You are met with trouble. Ali the biter, or ‘al qaniinyo’, has come to claw at your small frame.
A wooden stick is flung to protect you.
You stay in that memory.
You are back in the village.
You are sitting near him joking about how you miss your mother’s cooking. How all you eat is the bread and butter from the local shop.
Your malaria vaccination pre-travel did not work. You have been infected.
The nets you sleep under have holes in them. Now you have holes in your body.
But you are not without help. You are in and out of hospitals. Your great uncle pays for the best of treatments; money is no object.
The care he gives you warms you, even though your body is deeply cold.
You are woken by the chatter of adults. Men in thobes walk into your room.
You are self-conscious. Your mattress has been reduced to your washroom.
The reading begins. The sheikhs pray and recite with gentle spits of water in your direction.
This act is healing; not just your sickly body, but your faith as well.
Your mother and you have separate memories of this man.
She remembers the cheeky uncle who let her out of her all-girls school early to watch movies.
The bachelor uncle who didn’t have a wife or child until deep into his fifties.
She is on her way to Nairobi airport. Her uncle has come to see her off.
He tells her that her father is getting better. He is out of hospital, and back at home.
She is excited hearing the news. She tells him she doesn’t plan to stay in Australia.
She is coming back.
She has returned with one parent buried, and another on their deathbed.
It has been over a decade since she’s been back.
Her uncle tells her, you don’t know how proud your father was of you.
She is overwhelmed. She has just visited her father’s grave for the first time.
You connect with the grief that fills your hearts with deep sorrow.
You both sit.
She wants to speak but the words are too big for her mouth. They are stuffed with sadness she cannot swallow.
Her eyes are ageing with grief. Staring into her is knowing the cost of migration:
It is second-hand trauma as bodies fall.
All you know is a loss too far away to hold.
You try to piece together the words, from the hurt in her voice. It breaks whenever she mentions his name.
You comfort her with affection. But you both reek of what could have been; delayed trips, lapsed phone calls, and ties broken by the harshness of time and distance.
Now all you are, are faces awash with the weakness of regret.
You are tired. The act of crying is lost on you both.
Your tears are hands trying not to shake.
The call is over.
The last time she saw her uncle she had just buried her mother.
No one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear saying – leave.
Ahmed Yussuf is a writer and journalist, and is co-curating the anthology ‘Growing Up African in Australia’.
A pan-African writers' collective and publisher