When my parents built our house, they had a very clear vision of what they wanted. They designed the main floor to be bright and open, with pale yellow paint and lots of windows. The floors are a rich mahogany wood and host an assortment of boldly patterned rugs and potted ferns. Most importantly, however, my parents made sure that our house was spacious.
Written by Sarah Dickens
Growing up, whenever there was some sort of gathering in our community—birthday party, church function, New Year’s Eve celebration, you name it—everyone always met in our home. There always seemed to be more than enough room for everyone to mingle about or settle in comfortably. I realized that my parents did not just want a roomy place to live in for the heck of it. They had a keen sense of purpose in mind: to create a place for everyone to gather and feel welcome.
In my grade 8 year, our entire family went to Kenya to visit the town my dad grew up in. We stayed in a farmhouse in Kilifi, where an African woman named Jackie worked as our housekeeper and cook during the visit. One evening, she invited our family to her daughter’s birthday celebration, and we all eagerly accepted.
When we arrived, the first thing I noticed was the cracker box size of Jackie’s hut. The roof was a sloped, shaggy mass of branches and grass, and the walls were made of densely packed mud. The windows were simply square holes carved out of the building. With a wide, beaming smile and outstretched arms, Jackie beckoned us inside, and our entire group squished into the single, dimly lit room of the hut. There was no golden trimmed carpet or plush couches for lounging; instead we perched on a snug cluster of carved stools and watched as Jackie, her husband and daughter all brought out large dishes of chapatis, nyama choma, and maandazis.
After whispering a quiet prayer over the food in Swahili, Jackie’s husband invited us to dig in. We crowded around their small centre table, and they watched us begin to eat before joining in. Each part of the meal was plain but so deliciously simple, and I couldn’t help but notice that there were no folded napkins or opening appetizer, and certainly not the same sense of breathable space to relax into. Yet in this pocket of a hut with the tattered siding and mismatched floor mats, I sensed an overwhelming and undeniable warmth that went beyond the sweltering weather outside.
It was in the lack of extravagant presentation with each homemade dish, and the cross legged way that Jackie and her family sat on the floor while we occupied the stools. It was in the way that they offered each and every member of our family a fourth and fifth helping of food until we said yes, and how their laughter bubbled and burst out of them as my sisters and I tried to repeat back phrases in Swahili. There was something so startlingly homely and unpretentious about this family’s way of celebrating with guests.
Just as the last mandaazi and cup of chai was polished off, I noticed a low buzz of voices and footsteps outside the mud hut that was growing louder. Within minutes, the door was thrown open and a wave of men, women, and children poured into the cramped space. I soon found myself rapidly shaking hands, giving out hugs, and chatting with this group of lively neighbours that somehow all managed to squeeze into the room. The children hesitantly approached, but once we smiled softly at them and said hello, they began to crowd around our family and touch our hair in fascination.
With a gracious sweep of her hand, Jackie greeted everyone in a string of rapid Swahili and then repeated herself in English, warmly thanking each person for coming to sing to her daughter, Shani. She began to clap a steady beat and sing out a joyful Kenyan tune in which everyone immediately joined in with in loud, confident voices. I simply watched as this circle of boisterous strangers clapped their hands and swayed from side to side, without inhibitions or a care in the world. I marveled at the fact that somehow, the mud hut was holding not only two families, but an entire pack of neighbours. And somehow, I didn’t mind the mixture of claustrophobia and celebration that thickly enveloped the air.
After another round of chai and several more rounds of me and my sisters having our unusually straight hair braided, the party ended and we all piled out of Jackie’s hut. Our family loaded into the car and waved goodbye to the group, who stood in a huddle on the dry grass, calling out cheery farewells.
There was no painted china or seven layer chip dip, there wasn’t even enough proper seating. But in all honesty, I would trade it in every time for another cup of spiced chai and Jackie’s sunny, open-armed way of saying, “there is always more room.”