When I moved to America at age six, I became a ghost.
Crossing the Atlantic ocean, I left behind family, customs, and traditions. I remember the day exactly, July 11th, 2005. My mother had coordinated a family gathering for our last day in Nairobi, Kenya. Our two-story house was overflowing with every one of my 65 first cousins, each ready to issue their goodbyes. Also in attendance were my aunts, uncles, relatives, and possibly the whole congregation of Nairobi Pentecostal Church. I was never going to see my friends again.
I would always return to this place a stranger, a prodigal daughter. I would never walk those streets as a born and raised local ever again, sticking out like a sore thumb with my new American clothes and broken elementary Swahili.
I moved at a young age with a past that would haunt me as I moved through social landscapes. My parents worked various jobs and struggled to pay for a life that we, along with the rest of America, were chasing. Something seemed off. Why did we move to a country to be poor, when we were prospering back home? My mother could not answer these questions because she was asking the same of this society.
Consumed by the performance of progress and social mobility, my family was one that didn’t look forward to holidays. The look on my father’s face would say much; the Maina’s had nothing to offer. Within all of this, I remember yearning for the effortless bliss of being in Kenya, when holidays didn’t have to do with presents, but rather presence. I remember one Christmas spent on one of my uncle’s farms. Peeping through my mother’s protective hands, I gasped as I heard the goat squeal, but later, was overjoyed at the delectable soup. Aside from the times spent with kin, once we migrated it seemed as though we had lost our grounding in our heritage.
I began to question my own identity when the financial crisis of 2008 hit and my family’s main concern became our survival. I was a teenager and, consequently, I became isolated. I began to question this country and the gravity with which my family began to separate, while in the same apartment. Was this the success people spoke of back home? For my parents, success was always defined by how many cars you had or how big your house was. But our American life was not measuring up.
Having to make sense of my new surroundings, I chose to explore the narratives of those who came before me. Somewhere in the midst, I decided to pay attention to my mother’s mother. Not understanding much about grief then, I wouldn’t have been able to bear the things that I would learn.
My grandmother is a no-name woman. The tiny details of her life were delivered to me like little pieces of a puzzle that I don’t know how to put together. I must’ve been around 8 the first time my mother spoke of her mother to me. “She died when I was little,” she said to me.
When my tenth birthday came around, I sparked up just enough courage to ask how. The answers I received left me with even more questions. My mother began the story with the words “Don’t go telling anyone this, people said she was crazy.” Maxine Hong Kingston’s novel Woman Warrior: A Childhood Amongst Ghosts, starts with these lines, “You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “ what I am about to tell you.” (Kingston, p. 3). I can’t help but notice the resemblance between this and my mother’s words.
My grandmother was described as having demons, conversing with spirits, and not at all normal. Mental illness was and still is, considered a taboo. The villagers who didn’t want anything to do with her gossiped relentlessly. This pushed her into isolation, and she took her own life. This act of unfamiliarity would cause her to be forgotten, with no name to mark her existence. She has since been known as “The Forgotten One”. The secrecy around her death brought up more questions. Did she ever get help? How do you know this? Who found her? How did she commit suicide? These unanswered questions were to remain exactly that: unanswered. Has my grandmother been cast to an afterlife of shame and loneliness?
Being reminded of the mysterious pasts of the women in my family, I began a defining relationship with silence. The quiet of her history followed me as I grew up. Should I inform someone if I had more questions or felt some type of way? Do I stay silent? Are all questions stupid? Do I sacrifice my health in the name of social capital, much like my parents? The secretive legacy has equated to a loss of her identity and much dissolution for me with my ancestry.
Our voice is our identifier and as we move through society, we can pull from or resist our forerunners.
Since then, my distorted understanding of mental health and communication clouded my mind. I deduced mental health as something not to entertain, not to think of, and not to tell anyone about. Whatever I felt, whether it resembled depression and anxiety, was never to be spoken about. I learned not to ask for help. I was haunted by the villagers’ comments. She was crazy repeated in my head constantly. I wondered if I would be able to get over what was eating at me or else it would kill me like it killed my no-name grandmother. Often, I felt that by writing off my mental illness, I too participated in the othering that was done to my grandmother. My family’s history was full of trauma so big and scary leaving me a soul devoid of a clear history, with a confusing present and a mystifying future.
I came here with an unfinished past, and when I speak, I risk attracting the attention of the villagers, allowing the possibility of other-ing. Regardless of my current reluctance to participate in the tradition of outcasting, I was ashamed to share my story with depression or my bouts of anxiety over the years. In my quiet place, did I assimilate or mark myself as a foreigner?
Kingston’s novel helped me cultivate one of many understandings of what it means to leave the land you know and become an American. Her mother, Brave Orchid shows us that as ghosts, we are bound by our silence. I kindly leave you with this last excerpt from the first chapter, “No Name Woman.”
“My aunt haunts me—her ghost drawn to me because now, after fifty years of neglect, I alone devote pages of paper to her, though not origamied into houses and clothes. I do not think she always means me well. I am telling on her, and she was a spite suicide, drowning herself in the drinking water. The Chinese are always very frightened of the drowned one, whose weeping ghost, wet hair hanging and skin bloated, waits silently by the water to pull down a substitute.”