In 2014, I was sitting with Samuel, a middle-aged Kenyan man of Luo ethnicity, in his Nairobi office. At his desk, we pored over architectural plans for a new bungalow he intended to build on ancestral land in western Kenya. Samuel is a successful businessman born and bred in Nairobi, where he has constructed a large urban house for his family of five. But he explained that building an upcountry homestead – which he called ‘dala’ – was an essential project for him, not only to achieve a good life but also a good death. ‘You know’, he said, ‘for us we are Luo. We cannot be buried in Nairobi. After I pass on, they must take me home. I will be buried at that place I will build’.
For most of those who identify as Luo, fundamental to their sense of ethnicity and belonging is a strong identification with a specific landscape: the rolling hills and lakeside regions abutting Lake Victoria and bordering Uganda. Like Samuel, these days many Luo were born and live outside of this landscape, making their lives in Nairobi, across Kenya, elsewhere in Africa or further afield, yet it remains a place that most will still refer to as ‘home’ – even if they have never lived there. Parker Shipton has termed this an ‘ideology of attachment’ (2009: 7): a sense of place that connects Luos to the land, but also to each other – both the living and the dead. The desire to build a homestead, or dala, within this landscape remains a strong one for many Luo, as Samuel's words emphasised. Especially for Luo men, constructing a dala can be a lifelong preoccupation that requires not only land and building materials but also the cultivation of kin relations, and is understood to only be finally completed by burial within it (see Cohen and Odhiambo 1989).
Historically, the dala was where a Luo man built a house for his wife, and where the placenta and umbilical cords of their children would be buried (Geissler and Prince 2010: 129). The dala nurtured their household, and after the deaths of husband and wife it was abandoned and left to disintegrate. Meanwhile, sons inherited their portion of their father's land and built their own dala nearby. The materiality of the dala and the sociality of its residents are intertwined: built structures leave their traces and remains, making genealogical relations visible across time and generating a sense of emplacement in a landscape of kin. In this way, Luo practices of building, inheriting and burying are also acts of kinning: rather than kinship being predetermined, it is produced through actions that work to assemble and stabilise kin relations incrementally over time (Howell 2006; Abram and Lien, Introduction this issue).
For contemporary Luo such as Samuel, who live beyond geographic Luoland, this process is complicated by their lack of permanent residency. Their desire to build ‘back home’ is part of a desire to belong to place and to kin – to dwell – but one that may be challenged in various ways: by lack of capital (financial and social), problems of language, access to land, the suspicions of neighbours and the challenges of distance. This article explores the efforts of Nairobi-based Luo to build a dala as they seek to dwell within a landscape that they call home, even if they have never lived there. It examines the entwined processes of kinning and building through the construction – physical and figurative – of a rural home, and the challenges this can bring for those who have had a primarily urban upbringing. Their relationship with a rural landscape is provisional, subject to multiple conditionalities – rural and urban – that mean ‘home’ sometimes never comes to fruition.
Multiple scholars of Luo communities have examined how the land is understood to nurture Luo households, with generations and homesteads described as moving across the land, while the decaying remains of old settlements root intergenerational inheritances into particular locales (see, for example, Geissler and Prince 2010; Shipton 2009; Wilson 1961). To the extent that ‘home is not primarily an enclosure but a conduit, an opening from which life pours forth’ (Geissler and Prince 2010: 121), the work of making dala simultaneously reaches both backwards and forwards in time, building connections between past and future kin. But in many cases, this generative flow remains an ideal. Practices of home-making can be disrupted by shifting economic and social circumstances, topographical limitations or the devastations of illness and death, which can undermine idealised modes of making dala and maintaining kin-based dwelling (Cooper 2018; Geissler and Prince 2010). For urban Luo, who may only visit western Kenya a few times a year at most, home-making can be particularly tricky, as their connections to place and kin are often more tenuous. This can sometimes be materialised in the landscape: incomplete or abandoned homesteads can indicate ruptured kin relations, with consequences for future generations. In one case I examine, one family's broken dala is understood to have been contaminated by a series of violent and suspicious deaths that shattered not only kin but also landscape and inheritance more broadly. In such ways, though they generate enduring traces in the landscape, relations between family, land, house and burial are always contingent, with consequences for future generations of kin as well as inheritances from the past.
Though landscape and kinship may be mutually constitutive, the character of this relationship is not predetermined. In the making of dala, we see how materialities of place and landscape intersect with the ambitions of urban Luo to secure certain kinds of futures for themselves and their families. In this context, ideas about belonging and kin are also about belonging to the future: hoping, strategising and making plans, securing a home and family continuity. For Luo in Nairobi, this has long been a heightened concern as their urban future has often been precarious. Under British colonial rule, Nairobi was made deliberately unhomely through laws and labour systems that made it difficult for those designated ‘African’ to permanently reside in the city at all, necessitating the maintenance of a rural home (Lonsdale 2001; Smith 2019). Today, urban dwelling is still far from secure, while several generations of urban life have fragmented family connections to a rural home. The research for this article was undertaken as part of a larger research project about Kaloleni, a colonial-era public housing estate in the east of Nairobi, which at the time of my fieldwork was slated for demolition (see Smith 2019). The research examined the challenges of making a home between the remains of colonial urban planning and a possible future of urban dispossession. This uncertainty intensified some Kaloleni residents’ desires to reanimate latent rural kinship bonds and to renew efforts to make a home in western Kenya. This they hoped would be a more secure way to ‘pass on’ – to both attain a good death and leave a legacy.
Land and Kin
The anthropology of landscape has long shown how landscape is never simply ‘out there’, separate from human preoccupations, but shapes, and is shaped by, human interaction. Tim Ingold has proposed that landscape is ‘an enduring record of – and testimony to – the lives and works of past generations who have dwelt within it, and in doing so, have left there something of themselves’ (1993: 152). How following generations make claims over such residues of dwelling and placemaking is often fraught. The ability to make claims to belonging often relies on genealogical knowledge and practices of remembering and connecting to the traces of past kin who dwelt there and thus helped to make the landscape. In northern Botswana, Christopher Morton has proposed that the construction of a Tswana lolwapa, or homestead, ‘interweaves processes of remembering through the activity of building over time’ (2007: 159). Morton shows how the lolwapa is overtly understood in genealogical terms, and the practices of repair prompt generational remembering that also help to evoke and sustain kin relations within a wider landscape. In this way, relations are assembled and ‘homestead and family biographies . . . are bound together as part of a mutually interpretative relationship’ (2007: 176).
Such literatures show how landscapes are produced through acts of placemaking and building that make visible the linkages between the past and the present, cultivating a sense of belonging. But the making of place is also pragmatic, the consequence of small decisions and limitations. It also looks towards the future: somewhere to realise certain hopes and aspirations, and to cultivate forms of belonging that are yet to be, rather than assured from the past. When Samuel spoke in more detail about his dala-building project, he articulated how practicalities, as well as temporal tacking back and forth, shape the making of a dala, drawing together ancestral inheritances and future aspirations:
Ok, so where I'm building my dala, that is home for me; that is my dad's place, and his dad's place before him. They are buried there. That is in Siaya. Before my dad died, he showed me the land which was mine, and the portion for my brother. Though the land is somehow small, by the way. It's taken time – you know, my business only started earning a few years back, and there were school fees and our house here in Nairobi [which both took a lot of resources]. So, to start with I just marked the fence and then juuzi [recently] we built a temporary house. Now I'm ready to build this one [he pointed to the bungalow designs], which is for Eva [Samuel's wife]. It will be her house, that is how we do things. It will be a place for relaxing, where we go for vacation . . . but one day we will retire here.
I knew that, some years previously, Samuel and Eva had bought quite a large parcel of land in another part of Luoland closer to Kisumu, a purchase that they were very proud of and of which I had seen numerous photos. I asked why they had not built a house there instead. Samuel replied:
Ah no, that is not possible. Dala is for home. It must be ancestral [i.e. built on ancestral land]. That land that I bought, it is for farming. Ok, there are some people, some Luo, who don't have land – that is, ancestral [land]. Maybe their fathers got lost in the city so now they don't know their home, or they were cheated, or someone grabbed it. Those ones, sometimes they are building on land they have bought. It's ok, but for me, no. I must build at home.
Samuel's words suggest that linkages between past generations and future homes are not predetermined but require effort to build and maintain, and that practices such as urban migration or land-grabbing can upend them entirely. The articulation between historical attachments to landscape and contemporary politics and conflict are one of the most enduring themes of Africanist land scholarship (Lund and Boone 2013). In Kenya, tensions between kin-based claims to ancestral land, land dispossession and privation, and the ways that colonial and postcolonial law have shaped land tenure and private property are foundational to understanding conflicts over value, accumulation and ethnic belonging that underlie much of Kenyan politics (Berman and Lonsdale 1992; Manji 2020; Shipton 2009). Agrarian land tenure reform since the 1950s introduced individual titling, and since the 1980s land in Kenya has been increasingly financialised as collateral on mortgage loans. In his work on the effects of mortgages in Luoland, Shipton (2009) argued that many Luo objected to the way land was being turned into transactional property, retaining a more expansive conception of land as a place for cultivating and sustaining kin. In a landscape where there is a segmentary lineage system, many neighbours are also kin, and settlement layouts make kin relations visible on the ground as homesteads and graves. Shipton argued that for many Luo ‘mortgaging the land is mortgaging the ancestors and gambling against kinship and the social fabric itself’ (2009: 176). However, this distinction between socially reproductive land and financialisation may be rather too clear cut. Part of the value of land for most Luo is undoubtedly as a place for sustaining kin (living and dead), and financialisation can certainly alter how this happens, but it does not necessarily constitute ‘gambling against kinship’. As a diverse literature on mortgaging and owning property has shown, mortgages are not solely financial instruments but also part of attempts to secure kin-based futures, to cultivate home and belonging (Ciocanel 2022; James 2021).
In his comments, Samuel distinguished between land as property that was to be used for agriculture, and land with a deeper association to deceased kin through generational inheritance and burial. His words imply that, at least for some Luo, while the sale of land is increasingly common, not all land is regarded equally. For Samuel, the bought land and the inherited land were both part of his family's plans, a way of building a more secure, and pleasurable, future. But practices differ and – as Samuel pointed out – access to any land at all is far from guaranteed. As new financial arrangements and changing patterns of tenure and titling take hold, and as Luo themselves move further afield, the generative association between land and kin remains vital (see Geissler and Prince 2010). But the capacity of land to realise connections to living and dead others, and thus to cultivate relations to the past and the future, is not intrinsic to land itself but produced through forms of practice – such as building and burial – that have one eye on the future as much as the past.
Ideas of Home
When I met Stephen and Jemimah, a Luo couple in their sixties, in Kaloleni in 2014, they were laying plans for their move west. Stephen told me, ‘I'm thinking of home in the near future . . . I've got my home; I have a piece of land’. Jemimah nodded. ‘You know, after retirement that is when we can go back home’, she said. Over years of saving and occasional return visits, Stephen had built his dala near the area of Maseno on land granted to him by his father. Though Stephen had been born there, he left when he was ten to stay with an uncle in Nairobi. Jemimah had been born in Nairobi, where she met Stephen in the 1970s. They married, worked and raised their family in the city. Jemimah had never stayed in the landscape to which they would be relocating for more than a few weeks at a time. Yet she still referred to it as ‘back home’. Many of those I met during fieldwork in Nairobi spoke of their relationship to western Kenya in this language of ‘return’. Yet many had been born in Nairobi or did not (yet) have access to land on which to build. As with many diaspora communities, physically, they were not returning to a former place of residence, rather their comments alluded to a deep sense of belonging. But their aspirations were also future oriented, about making a life and a home that could sustain them and their family physically and morally, by locating their sense of Luoness within a specific landscape.
Across the history of Nairobi, it was common for families to extend themselves between a rural home and a city life. This pattern of rural–urban interconnectivity in part has its roots in colonial labour policy, which for much of the period of British rule tried to prevent the permanent urban residence of Africans, tolerating their presence primarily as migrant labour. Even by the time of Kenya's independence in 1963, only three per cent of Nairobi's inhabitants had been born there (Van Zwanenberg and King 1975: 269). The colonial view was that Africans should be sustained by their rural households, giving rise to what John Lonsdale (2001: 208) termed ‘straddling’, where savings from urban labour were invested in rural households. However, Lonsdale cautions that we should not attribute straddling to colonial policy alone. With its looser kin constraints and opportunities for new types of prestige, urban life offered new freedoms, though it could also be precarious – socially and economically. The pattern of ‘one family, two households’ was a practical means to maintain interests and influence both in Nairobi and a rural home place. In this set up, wives and young children tended to remain in western Kenya with responsibilities for managing farmland and maintaining rural ties, while older (especially male) children stayed in town with their fathers, seeking waged labour (Parkin 1978: chapter 1).
In more recent decades, maintaining a rural home has remained crucial for many in Nairobi, as it has for urban migrants across Africa, and has even increased in importance as urban livelihoods have become more insecure and informalised (Geschiere and Gugler 1998). From the perspective of Luoland, Paul Geissler and Ruth Prince suggest that this era of economic uncertainty has brought the return of urban migrants: ‘after an era in which the Luo family spanned village and city . . . its members are now all thrown back to a rural home’ (2010: 50). However, as seen from Nairobi, this looks a little different. Kaloleni families are unusual in the longevity of their urbanisation; along with those who came to the city to work on the railways, they were some of the earliest settled Nairobians (Ng'weno 2018). Retrenchment, economic informality and precarity have deeply affected life in Kaloleni too, making city life harder, but also fragmenting connections to rural kin. Now in their second, third or even fourth generations, some Kaloleni families have maintained close rural ties, but others no longer have the resources to maintain a footing in both settings. Nevertheless, even in the absence of tangible connections, their attachment to a sense of Luoland – and the desire to be buried there – remained surprisingly powerful.
For Kaloleni Luo, their sense of attachment to rural kin was thus often as much imagined as it was based on the kinds of shared experiences that Janet Carsten (2000) has argued are so central to relatedness. That is not to underestimate the power of imagined belonging, however, as scholars of diasporic dreams of return have articulated (Åkesson and Baaz 2015). Elizabeth Cooper, in her work with Luo adult orphans near Kisumu, has shown how ‘kinship that no longer seems to exist according to any obviously tangible measures may actually be lying in wait, sustained through a combination of imagination and ideological fidelity’ (2018: 34). The Nairobi-based Luo I encountered were would-be returnees rather than orphans, but this sense of a latent network of kin that, with enough commitment, could be (re)awoken would resonate with many of them. They imagined a future of rural belonging, away from the chronic uncertainty of life in Kaloleni, where they could build a home. This contrasts with scholarship on wealthier Nairobians, which has shown how their social and aspirational worlds no longer look to rural Kenya but are oriented within Nairobi – or to cities internationally (Spronk 2014). I did encounter this among some younger people in Kaloleni, notably Stephen's son Calvin, who had ambitions to buy land near to Nairobi, but they tended to be the exception.
At the time of this fieldwork in 2013–14, the possibilities of cultivating a rural home had taken on a new sense of urgency, due to recent news that Kaloleni would be part of a massive urban renewal programme reshaping swathes of eastern Nairobi (see Smith 2017, 2019). Initially announced as part of Vision 2030, the Kenyan Government's infrastructure-led blueprint to turn Nairobi into a ‘world class’ city by 2030, the uncertainty of the project threw the future of the neighbourhood into doubt. Tangible information was hard to come by: timelines were unclear and no one seemed to be able to say what might happen or when. But previous urban renewal projects in Nairobi had been far from transparent, with land-grabbing, elite capture and corruption rife (Ng'weno 2018; Rigon 2014). Given such precedents, residents began to mobilise themselves via different kinds of anticipatory actions, which I have discussed at length elsewhere (Smith 2017, 2019). While some residents campaigned vigorously about their right to remain in Kaloleni, others began to make alternative plans.
Hassan had lived in Kaloleni all his life, and his now-adult sons also lived in the estate. But in 2014 he was in the process of tracking down various members of his paternal kin, with whom he had fallen out many years earlier, in an effort to reignite relations and – he hoped – strengthen his long-dormant claim to a small parcel of land near to Busia. ‘[O]ur worries are that when they [demolish] these houses, they'll build modern houses . . . we won't get, and we cannot afford. . . . So even our children are thinking “so, we move. We move now or we wait, and we cannot afford”’. As Bettina Ng'weno (2018) has powerfully explored, for long-standing urban residents, regeneration projects engender acute anxieties about displacement and eviction, and the sudden need to rebuild belonging elsewhere. Though they might be able to name a rural setting called ‘home’, this is often abstract rather than practical; it is in the city where the everyday cultivation of social connection has taken place. Hassan's desire to pre-empt the renewal project shows how curtailed futures can awaken ideas of home and ancestry, not as part of a nostalgic sense of heritage but to build social connections that might lead to a place to make a home.
Though ideas of home may be reconfigured by wider processes, for Nairobi Luo, going ‘home’ is usually premised on the existence of a dala. During fieldwork in western Kenya in 2014 and on subsequent visits, I stayed with Dominic and Judith Nyanya, the parents of Tom, my host in Kaloleni. Dominic gradually built his dala over several years, at his natal home in Ugenya. He poured savings from a life's urban labour into his inherited parcel of land. The arrangement of Dominic's dala was fairly typical, though it also indicated his greater resources compared to his neighbours. It was built along the slope of a hillside, with entry by a narrow gateway in a dense euphorbia hedge. At the top of the dala, facing the gateway, was a five-roomed bungalow made from whitewashed concrete with a corrugated iron roof, water tank and large cement veranda. A solar panel was installed on the roof. In front of the main house were a series of smaller structures: to the left, a kitchen and a bedroom where the daughters and other visiting women could sleep. Below were the simba, or bachelor's huts, of each of the sons.
In the construction of dala, the placement of the homestead and the structures within it reveal a common Luo emphasis on directionality and flow in which kin relations are inscribed into the landscape. As Geissler and Prince (2010) have evocatively shown, more than simply a place of dwelling, dala facilitate the flow of one generation to the next, unfolding in time and space. Dominic's dala was built ‘below’ or downhill (mwalo) from his father's, while the simba within it were positioned downhill from the main house. Each son should build in sequence from oldest to youngest, first building their simba within their father's dala, and then later following their brothers in founding their own dala. In this sense, homes are better understood as ‘processes rather than containers, temporal openings rather than spatial enclosures’ that enable the flow of life (Geissler and Prince 2010: 134). To build uphill or out of order would be to risk this generative/generational flowing forth, inviting problems of disordering and contamination.
Unsurprisingly, as Geissler and Prince elucidate, such ideals can be hard to fulfil in practice. Aside from other contingencies, it is unrealistic that over multiple generations sons would always be able to build downhill from their fathers, given the limitations of topography. Relationships between kin, homes and land are connective and powerful, but cannot be assumed to harmoniously structure social relations, as the prolific critiques of structural functionalism have long shown. Rather, making dala is conditional on life trajectories, intersubjective practices, access to land and innumerable other processes. However, for Luo who have lived most or all their lives away from western Kenya, these contingencies can be amplified by the imaginative as well as pragmatic effects of distance. In turn, this can intensify desire for belonging that fulfils an idealised order of things, but it can also reconfigure ideas about what a rural life might constitute.
In their article on making a ‘good village life’ in western Kenya, Gemma Aellah and Aloise Okoth vividly evoke the imaginative and improvised practices, as well as the ‘ideas of time, future permanence and commitment’ (2019: 104), that go into an active construction of village identities. Cosmopolitan experiences gained from diasporic life inflect the way rural home-making takes shape, modulating the wider landscape as a result. Such processes are far from new in western Kenya. In their lyrical book on the Luo region of Siaya, David Cohen and E. S. Atieno Odhiambo (1989: 57) noted that in the 1940s and 1950s, Luo urban migrants were renowned for the poor quality of their rural homes. Men were teased by rural kin for not founding a dala of their own, and also for failing even to care for their simba within their father's dala. When a body was returned to the countryside for burial, the decrepit state of the rural home was a topic of much comment. By Kenya's independence in 1963, new economic opportunities appeared, offering significant upward mobility for many urban Luo. Eager to demonstrate their achievements to rural kin back home, new styles of building began to emerge. While the ultimate aim remained the foundation of a dala, this was postponed to later and later in life and became more closely associated with retirement. Meanwhile, the significance of the simba was heightened: for urban Luo, ‘The investment in the enhanced simba became a new and primary symbol of “making it”’ (Cohen and Odhiambo 1989: 58).
In the Nyanya family, there are four adult sons, all born in Kaloleni, none of whom have (yet) made their own dala. But Dominic's dala contained only three simba, those of the oldest three sons, constructed in different shapes, sizes and materials (Figure 1). Charles, the oldest, moved out of Kaloleni and bought a house in another Nairobi neighbourhood for his family, but lives for much of the time in China, where he is an English teacher. When I visited, he was partway through building an ‘enhanced’ simba: replacing an old mud structure and rusted mabati (corrugated iron) roof with a multi-roomed brick building with large windows, more in the style of a bungalow. Tom's simba was built in what he called ‘style ya kitambu’, or the style of the old days: a deliberate attempt to build a ‘traditional’ Luo simba. It was a round mud structure with a central pole supporting a pointed thatched grass roof, though in a concession to newer materials it also had a small glass window. Ben, the third-born and a mechanical engineer in the Kenya Army, had built a single-room, square brick simba with a mabati roof. Gavin, the youngest, had no simba at all. As their mother Judith put it to me, ‘he got lost in Nairobi and now he never comes home’.
Tom's ‘simba ya kitambu’ – his version of a ‘traditional’ house – resonates with Aellah and Okoth's description of their interlocutor's mud and thatch home and his nostalgic – yet playful – efforts to forge ‘a rural cosmopolitan neo-Luo identity’ (2019: 117). Though Tom could have chosen to use purchased materials such as mabati (corrugated iron), which is much more common these days than thatched roofs, he preferred to use grass harvested from a valley nearby. He explained, ‘Me, I like things from those days. Also Owino is my cousin. The grass comes from his land, so he is also happy that I want it’, indicating how kin networks both facilitate and are facilitated by the labours of housebuilding. I asked if a thatched roof required more maintenance and repair than mabati, as that seemed to make it an unusual choice for a man who rarely manages to make the long trip home to Ugenya. Tom nodded in agreement. He explained how his brother Charles laughs at his continued use of grass, then went on:
For Charles, when he comes here – maybe every two, three years – he has money, so people are happy to see him. For me, I don't have [money]. I can't keep helping everyone [financially]. But you know, me, I'm social. I call Owino and ask him to check the roof, bring more grass. Then when I come, I help him in the shamba [fields], we sit together.
Though it later emerged that Tom in fact paid Owino for the grass, his words clearly showed his desire to present himself as socially embedded, able to build and maintain a simba by connecting with his rural kin on an equal footing – ‘we sit together’ – in a way that Charles perhaps found more difficult.
The way that Tom foregrounded the acts of kinning that go into making a house also sheds further light on Gavin's lack of simba, and his positionality within the family. When his mother remarked that Gavin had ‘got lost in Nairobi’, her words suggested how his failure to invest in rural kin relations, developed through repeated visits home, is made present through absence, by the failure to build. For Judith, Gavin's lack of simba was an indication of his orientation towards life in Nairobi and his lack of commitment to family and home. But I knew Gavin from Kaloleni, and knew he was struggling to get by. With no regular work and no permanent accommodation, he lived almost hand to mouth. Embarrassed, he did not want to discuss this with family back home. This left him with few resources – financial or emotional – to invest in his family's rural homeplace, a situation that compounded his sense of self-failure, as he was left with neither a secure urban base nor a supportive network of rural kin. It was this absence of relations, more than the lack of simba, that made him feel he could never go home: ‘who is going to talk to me there?’, he said.
For those Luo who had managed to cultivate a rural home, managing social relations could still be problematic. As noted by scholars and rural communities the world over, city-dwellers who relocate or retire to the countryside often seriously underestimate the challenges of rural life, from unreliable services and a more limited range of goods on offer, to problems of integrating into local networks (Gallent 2007). In addition to such practicalities, for Kaloleni Luo ‘returning’ to western Kenya, the move presented challenges related to cultural knowledge, genealogical history and family tensions. It was also a highly gendered experience. In the patrilocal, patrilineal pattern of Luo kinship, a woman is generally still seen to ‘marry in’ to the clan of her husband and so also into the landscape in which his clan dwells. The construction of dala is typically undertaken by the man, who builds a house, known as ot madung or the main house, for his wife. Geissler and Prince describe how, across her lifecourse, the ot madung ‘manifests the incorporation of the woman, through her children, into her husband's lineage’ (2010: 129). However, as they explore, in the wake of widespread social change, as well as the AIDS crisis, female-headed households are increasingly common. Unmarried women are generally regarded as belonging to their natal home, but, because they are expected to marry into a husband's home place, as adults, single women can have precarious relations to natal kin (Cooper 2018). Nevertheless, I found that some single women from Kaloleni did seek to build an attachment to place ‘back home’ and managed to make it work.
In May 2014, I visited Pam at home near Kodero village, not far from Kisumu. This was the birthplace of Pam's father, who as a young man had managed to get a mission school education before leaving for Nairobi, where he trained as a bookkeeper. Eventually he met Annet, a coastal woman whose first language was Kiswahili. They married and moved to Kaloleni, where the children were born and brought up and where Pam's sister still lives. Now in her forties, Pam trained as a primary school teacher in Nairobi before getting posted to a school near Kodero, prompting what she described as her move ‘back home’, though she hadn't visited the place since she was a small child.
Initially, Pam stayed with her grandmother in the dala where her father was born. She quickly found she had ‘a lot of catching up to do’. Having been raised speaking only Kiswahili and English, she had to learn DhoLuo, which she found challenging: ‘people laughed when I tried to speak. Even when I used the right words, they knew I was mtu wa nje (Kiswahili – a person from outside)’. Almost as hard as learning a new language was a rapid education in the minutiae of family and kin. ‘All around are dala for my family – so many! I didn't know I had so much family. That is when I came to know who I really am, and about my clan’, she said. ‘Before, I didn't care about that stuff. In Nairobi, people just know you are Luo and that is enough. But here they want to know all your relations!’ She explained how she had to learn the subtleties of long-standing resentments and interclan tensions, ‘some going back even to my great-grandfather’. She went on, ‘I had no idea. I came to be mwalimu (teacher) but outside of school I was the one learning.’1 Pam's experience suggests that for ‘returning’ Nairobi Luo, while the location of rural kin can define where one calls ‘home’, that does not presume that returnees are already emplaced within that milieu. Rather, Pam described a process of active kinning and temporal reckoning: projecting backwards in time to acquire historical understanding of tensions and relations that she hoped would establish her future dwelling in the community.
After her father retired in 2009, Pam's parents fulfilled the Nairobi Luo dream and moved back to Kodero, her father having established a dala of his own just a few years earlier. They lived in a temporary house in the dala, but sadly before they could construct a permanent one, and only two years after leaving Nairobi, they both died. She took me to see their graves at the back of the compound: two identical concreted graves, each topped with a metal cross and a plaque. After their deaths – and with her siblings’ agreement – Pam decided to move into her parents’ dala and into their house, where she still lives. She has never married, and lives alone. She has two older brothers, one of whom lives in the USA and the other in Nairobi, neither of whom have built a simba within the compound, nor have shown any interest (in Pam's eyes) in establishing their own dala. But the siblings have clubbed together to fund the construction of the permanent house that her parents wanted, which Pam will live in. The construction of the new house will still leave nowhere for the brothers to sleep if and when they should return, even for a visit, as according to Luo norms, brothers and sisters should sleep in different structures, with the brothers each in their own simba, making this a slightly unusual financial arrangement. According to Pam, the shared investment in what would essentially be her house is an indication of the closeness between the siblings even over considerable geographic distance, as well as their reliance on her to take care of the dala, and the few fields surrounding it, following the death of their parents.
This resonates with Cooper's (2018) work on the increased significance of the natal home and sibling bonds – bonds of both affection and pragmatism – following parental death. Although Pam did not use the word, the joint efforts of the siblings to build a house could be seen as an example of them seeking to (re)constitute themselves as joot, a DhoLuo word for people of one homestead (see Cooper 2018: 39). Pam explained that, as a woman, she could not establish her own dala, and as she was single and unlikely now – by her own admission – to marry, she would not be moving into the landscape of a husband's clan. But she was the one caring for her parents’ dala, and she wanted to make it clear that she belonged at this natal home. Even though she had ‘family all around’, as she put it, she was fully aware of potential intra-familial jealousies and tensions over inheritable land. ‘My uncles have a lot of sons’, she said, raising her eyebrows, hinting at the possibility that extended family might try to claim land that Pam and her siblings saw as theirs. As the Introduction to this Special Issue highlights, caring for the future of family property, ensuring its continuation beyond current generations, is part of accepting the responsibility of inheritance and thus an act of kinning, and of passing on. Building a permanent house helped Pam (and also her siblings) root themselves more firmly into place, while the support of her siblings – and especially her brothers – demonstrated a family solidarity even in their physical absence, and their commitment to a familial future in Kodero.
Navigating a return home, and securing a future of familial belonging, is not a linear process and can play out over multiple generations – inducing diverse challenges and crises along the way. This became apparent during a visit to Victor's home in a beautiful spot on the shores of Lake Victoria. We walked through a landscape littered with the traces of buildings and fences, some made of mud and others of concrete. Sitting down on the ruins of an old wall, Victor told me his family's story. He and his siblings were born and raised in Kaloleni, and the firstborn son, John, still lives there. By the 1980s, their father, Ounda, was a well-established artisan in Nairobi and had used his savings to establish his own dala here at his natal home. Financially, emotionally and through investments of labour, Ounda was literally preparing the ground for a more permanent return to the land of his birth. But before he could realise such dreams, this idealised narrative of return was brutally cut short.
One day in 1987, Ounda was resting in his shamba when he was ambushed and killed by a gang armed with pangas (machetes). This was apparently the upshot of an ongoing land dispute with a local politician who had been encroaching on Ounda's land. Instead of acquiescing to a ‘bigger’ man with considerable power, Ounda resisted and eventually lodged a formal complaint. The ambush soon followed and although the attack was never officially linked to the politician, local opinion was in little doubt. Following his death, the homestead went into decline. Ounda's widow returned to Nairobi to stay with one of her daughters; the sons no longer returned to the land and the wider family felt uneasy and insecure. Meanwhile, in their urban lives, all the sons went on to be very successful and as adults decided to try and rekindle their relationship to their father's natal home – apart from the oldest brother John, who remained resolutely urban. At different times, the other brothers each began to build their own dala, their projects reaching various stages before tragedy struck. Chris, a successful businessman, died in what were described to me as ‘mysterious circumstances’, his unexplained death possibly a jealousy attack in which he was poisoned. Albert committed suicide and then, in January 2014, a few months before my visit, the youngest brother Jeff also died, from long-term complications after a violent altercation in which he was struck with a hammer.
This series of tragedies and bad deaths was shrouded in uncertainty, generating much local discussion and suspicion. The debate revolved around the way the family had constructed their homes over the years, which had obstructed the proper generative flow of dala and thus of kin. A neighbour named Oketch told me that he could never be comfortable living at that place. In an echo of the title of Geissler and Prince's book, The Land is Dying, he said, ‘The land is poisoned’. Oketch explained how the oldest brother John had remained in Nairobi, disconnected himself from ‘home’ and refused even to visit, yet the younger brothers all constructed homes. One brother also sold a parcel of land that, according to some, included a long-forgotten grave. By upsetting the proper sequence of sons’ building practices and prioritising financial return on land rather than honouring a site of ancestral attachment, the flow of dala had been cut. This had attracted chiraa, a haunting affliction that can invite misfortune and even death (see Geissler and Prince 2010: chapter 4).
Although Oketch described this very neatly, such understandings of causality are far from fixed. The making of dala has always been a matter of improvisation and pragmatism, of balancing ‘proper’ habits (chike) with limitations of terrain, finances or family dynamics, a messiness that generated ‘space for the interpretation of past events’ (Geissler and Prince 2010: 118). It was when misfortune occurred that a retrospective diagnosis of chiraa might be made. The landscape of Victor's home was scarred with remains of structures abandoned at different stages of completion and, despite the beautiful location, it was a melancholy place. Perhaps the most abject, in part because it was so fresh, was the abandoned house the youngest brother Jeff had constructed just before his death (Figure 2). A relatively luxurious permanent house near the shore of the lake, inside were expensive light fixtures, tiled floors, a modern bathroom and leather sofas, all barely used. It stood empty, with cobwebs stretching between the handles on the fitted kitchen cabinets.
Once a materialisation of a successful family's prestige and urban success, these remains persisted as enduring markers of absence: a long-standing monument to bad death. It was not hard to see why so much tragedy might invite speculation, and that some had turned to chiraa for a deeper explanatory cause. Victor himself told me that he was now shunned by his wider kin in the area, saying ‘I no longer feel at home here. But where do I go?’ With the loss of his job he had minimal funds, and the looming regeneration of Kaloleni meant that a return to the family's house in Nairobi was impossible. As well as a place of growth, the home can be experienced as ‘a site of stagnation and indeed as an origin of death’ (Geissler and Prince 2010: 125) in which relatedness can be destroyed as well as made. Victor's family's practices of building, inheriting and making place – which had begun with the hope of future belonging – had become not so much acts of kinning as of de-kinning (Abram and Lien this issue), attempts at return that had had the effect of poisoning kin relations, leading to Victor's sense of unbelonging.
Returning ‘home’, and in particular being buried in a rural dala, remain crucial to many urban Luo understandings of a successful life. For those Luo I met in Kaloleni, or who had recently left Kaloleni to return home, this was usually a project that relied on resources gained in city life, as well as access to land and the cultivation of rural kin relations. Although many Kaloleni Luo spoke in a rather essentialised way about ‘home’ and ‘return’, their desires to build a rural home were usually focused on living towards the future rather than a nostalgic sense of a lost past. Kaloleni Luo are unusual in having lived and made their social worlds in Nairobi for several generations, meaning that their sense of kinship to a rural homeplace is often more abstract and imagined than grounded in the everyday practices of relatedness foregrounded by Carsten (2000) and others. In the context of increasing urban precarity, most acutely the potential demolition of Kaloleni itself, some Kaloleni residents have started to reanimate latent rural connections in an attempt to build a more secure future.
Others who have already returned have found rural life much more complicated than they anticipated, prompting new forms of self-education and understandings of genealogy and clan. They grapple with the complexities of making dala properly and the kinds of responsibilities this places on them to ensure productive inheritance and the generativity of future kin. This is often predicated on ensuring that home and houses enact spatial and relational trajectories appropriately, enabling generational growth and the flow of dala across the land. But this is a process full of improvisation and contingency, in which homes are less stable than they can first seem. Rather than ‘reified like maps or blueprints’ of kinship, homes are ‘sites of domestic practice’ that extend across time (Geissler and Prince 2010: 140). Sometimes such practices can be deemed suspect if not properly undertaken, inviting retrospective interpretations about the causes of misfortune or death. In such ways, the efforts of returnees to ‘pass on’ requires temporal as well as spatial work that seeks to build proper connections between the living and the dead as well as to unborn others. Such acts of kinning are rooted in a deep attachment to landscape but also look towards the future, as part of attempts to realise personal and familial aspirations. In all its social and material contingency, this idea of belonging to the future is at the heart of dreams of ‘return’.
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