The first day I arrived at the homestead here in Kenya, I met the older couple I’d be staying with for the next three weeks.
They invited me to call the Papa and Mama, and they began to call me “daughter.” We drank a lot of tea that evening and they told me about their 7 children, 6 of whom are married. They told me about my “brothers” and “sisters” and my “nieces” and “nephews”, the family members in Africa I never knew I had.
We stayed up talking for quite a while, and by the time we went to bed, it was settled. I was family. Or, as Mama said in Swahili, “Familia.”
I woke up the following morning to the sounds of a rooster crowing outside my window, birds chirping in a nearby tree, the donkey braying in the pasture, and the cows moo-ing in the tall grass on the far side of the garden.
And, just outside my door, I heard Mama’s voice say something like, “Dirty.”
A few minutes later, she called again, saying something that sounded like, “Dirta.”
I thought Mama was talking to another woman, and then I realized she was saying, “Daughter.”
“Yes, Mama?” I called.
She came into my room and sat on the edge of my bed. “Daughter, good morning,” she said. “The tea is prepared for you.”
I got out of bed and walked into the main room to see a tin tea kettle with chipped pale yellow enamel, a white ceramic mug and a small metal bowl of brown sugar with a small tea spoon.
I sat down at the table, and Mama poured me a cup of tea. She pointed to the kettle. “You are weary from traveling,” she said. “You will drink it all.”
At first, I balked at her suggestion. The kettle probably held eight mugs-full of tea and I couldn’t imagine drinking that much in one sitting.
And then I thought, this woman has nearly seven decades’ worth of experience living in Kenya, and perhaps I should listen to her wisdom.
I sat there for most of the morning journaling and drinking tea. And, as it turns out, I must’ve been dehydrated from my two days of travel because I did end up drinking the entire kettle of tea — and a bottle of water on top of that.
Later that evening, I met most of Mama and Papa’s grandchildren, sons, daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law. We all sat in the main room together and ate a dinner of rice, fish and a sauteed green vegetable that tasted like a cross between kale and swiss chard.
At the end of the evening, Mama gave me a hug, and pointed to the room. “Familia,” she said again. “Your African family.”
Two days later, their son-in-law suddenly left their daughter for another woman, leaving their daughter and her two young sons with only 100 shillings, the equivalent of $1 USD.
Their daughter and grandsons came to live with us, and they’ll be here for the foreseeable future. The daughter sleeps on the bed in the corner of the living room, the older grandson sleeps in a cot at the foot of my bed, and the 4-year-old, whom I’ve nicknamed Little Man, sleeps in bed with me, because I have a full-size bed and the only mosquito net in the house.
The first night, I held Little Man and sang to him while he cried for his dad. When he stopped crying, I laid next to him and rubbed his back until he fell asleep. In the middle of the night, I discovered he’d peed the bed, so I changed his clothes, changed the sheets, and put him back to bed. In the morning, I rode a moto taxi with Little Man and his brother and dropped them off at school.
The experience of living with Mama and Papa, and sharing my personal space with Little Man and his brother, has gotten me thinking a lot about family.
God has given me a great biological family, with biological parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews that I love.
And God has given me other “adopted” family members, too. I have a handful of really close female friends, and we all call each other “sister.” I don’t use that word lightly. When I call someone “sister,” I mean that I’m here for keeps, I’m available any time of day, I will love them through the valleys and dance with them on the mountaintops of life.
I love being part of a family — both the family I was born into, the African family I’ve discovered here, and the other family ties I have created in the U.S. with people I’ve “adopted.”
But I also realize that being included in a family is more than reaping benefits of belonging and hospitality and inclusion. It means not only taking what I need, but sacrificing what I have in order to meet others’ needs.
“Daughter” and “sister” and “aunt,” the words that often get applied to me, are more than titles. They are roles that require responsibility and availability and action.
Being part of a family means being willing to create space — whether it’s emotional or physical — for those who need a place to rest.
It means loving them through the long nights of life until a new day brings crowing roosters, braying donkeys, mooing cows, chirping birds….and a Little Man laughing me awake.