The tie that binds

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I’m beginning to see the wisdom in keeping an ocean between oneself and one’s own relatives. Family is the tie that binds, but while one end undergirds human civilization, the other is a noose choking away our individuation. We enjoy occasional meals, exchange Christmas cards but the reason we are always vexed is the notion that the thinnest tendril of shared DNA makes their shortcomings our responsibility.

There’s nothing that makes you more insane than family. Or happier. Or more exasperated. Or more secure. All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Families are messy. Sometimes the best we can do is to remind each other that we’re related for better or worse and try to keep the maiming and killing to a minimum.

There is no such thing as a “broken family”. Family is family, and is not determined by marriage certificates, divorce papers, and adoption documents. Families are made in the heart. The only time family becomes null is when those ties in the heart are cut. If you cut those ties, those people are not your family. If you make those ties, those people are your family. And if you hate those ties, those people will still be your family because whatever you hate will always be with you.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that you can’t give up on your family, no matter how tempting they make it. It doesn’t matter if they hate you, or embarrass you, or simply don’t appreciate your genius for finding ways to unblock the bathroom whenever it blocks. They are still your family.

You must remember, family is often born of blood, but it doesn’t depend on blood. Nor is it exclusive of friendship. Family members can be your best friends. And best friends, whether or not they are related to you, can be your family. Friends are the family you choose. It makes me think that perhaps the capacity for friendship is God’s way of apologizing for our families. I don’t care about whose DNA has recombined with whose. When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by your side without flinching are those you call family. The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof but that happiness is only real when its shared. It is perhaps the reason why Mbukinya coaches are always full during the December holidays because all the Wanyonyis and Wafulas are going back home to share that happiness.

Parents of course play a huge role in all this family talk. And in the African culture I think part of being a parent is trying to kill your kids repeatedly throughout their childhood. I am sure everyone here has an incident from their childhood where an attempt was made on their life by their parents especially mothers. Moments where you had to ask yourself if that woman was actually your mother or she is just some stranger who took you in and now wants to put you out of your misery because you are eating too much food. Food you don’t know where it comes from. That was my mother’s favorite question when we were growing up. Whether we knew where the food we were eating came from. No one ever stopped or even paused for a moment. We figured that threats and murder attempts were just a way of life for us.

Have you also ever noticed how parents can go from the most wonderful people in the world to totally embarrassing in three seconds? All parents damage their children. It cannot be helped. Youth, like pristine glass, absorbs the prints of its handlers. Some parents smudge, others crack, a few shatter childhoods completely into jagged little pieces, beyond repair. Parents are the only ones obligated to love you; from the rest of the world you have to earn it. Parents are like God because you want to know they’re out there, and you want them to think well of you, but you really only call when you need something.

I also believe that parents, if they love you (which they do), will hold you up safely, above their swirling waters, and sometimes that means you’ll never know what they endured, and you may treat them unkindly, in a way you otherwise wouldn’t if you knew what they were going through. That’s what people do who love you. They put their arms around you and love you when you’re not so lovable. And sometimes they will do things they hate for you. That is what it means to be family. If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.

My mother used to tell me that when push comes to shove, you always know who to turn to. That being a family isn’t a social construct but an instinct. To you who are parents, I say, show love to your children and please stop trying to kill them. You know you love them, but make certain they know it as well. They are so precious. Let them know. Call upon our Heavenly Father for help as you care for their needs each day and as you deal with the challenges which inevitably come with parenthood. You need more than your own wisdom in rearing them.

I have learned that to be with those I like is enough. That is perhaps owed to my discovery that being related is no guarantee of love! I have been burned and tossed countless times by family members. We don’t exactly love each other in our family. Some of us are sworn enemies. But we make do for the sake of others. Truces are called whenever need be for the sake of greater good. I may not always be with those I like but when we’re far apart I will always want them to remember that they will be with me right inside my heart. You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world but a world lives in you. Or maybe some of you will say they don’t live in a world but at home. Which would bring us to something else.

What is a home? My favorite definition is “a safe place,” a place where one is free from attack, a place where one experiences secure relationships and affirmation. It’s a place where people share and understand each other. Its relationships are nurturing. The people in it do not need to be perfect; instead, they need to be honest, loving, supportive, recognizing a common humanity that makes all of us vulnerable.

Home is people. Not a place. If you go back there after the people are gone, then all you can see is what is not there anymore. Home isn’t where you’re from, it’s where you find light when all grows dark. Home is where you are loved the most and act the worst. Like dogs. You will love your dog but it will still pee on your door mat. How many of you have dogs at home? I am a dog person. I love dogs. A dog reflects the family life. Who ever saw a frisky dog in a gloomy family, or a sad dog in a happy one? Snarling people have snarling dogs, quiet people have quiet dogs, dangerous people have dangerous ones. And I had a dangerous one, his name was Soldier. Man, that dog was huge and ruthless. I cannot count the times my mother was reported to the chief’s office because his silent but mischievous son and dog friend were attacking children from some other part of Ngofofo village.

But I had to turn a page when Soldier got kidnapped and held hostage by some Masai Morans in one of our hunting expeditions. Whether they killed him or tamed him to be theirs I do not know and will never know because I never saw him again since that fateful evening.He was badly wounded and he was too huge for me to carry (I was 13 and in form two and really small) so I left him behind. All I can remember is the cries of agony he was letting out. I know you might be wondering why I refer to that dog as him, he was a good friend of mine. I grieved for almost a whole year when I would go home for the holidays and he wasn’t there. I still feel the pain of losing him today. There comes a time in your life when you have to choose to turn the page, write another book or simply close it. I have never had another dog since then. The loss was huge and grief makes a monster out of us sometimes and sometimes you say and do things to the people you love that you can’t forgive yourself for. Terrible things were exchanged between me and my mum and other people after Soldier went missing. It is years later that I came to understand that I was grieving but didn’t exactly know how to.

Family isn’t something that’s supposed to be static, or set. People marry in, divorce out. They’re born, they die. It’s always evolving, turning into something else. But let us make one point, that we meet each other with a smile, when it is difficult to smile. Smile at each other, make time for each other in your family. This is part of what a family is about, not just love. It’s knowing that your family will be there watching out for you. Nothing else will give you that. Not money. Not fame. Not work. We should love our family enough to never make them choose.

Unfortunately, some family members are so psychotic that no matter how hard you try to forge a healthy relationship, nothing will help. Now that you’re an adult, take refuge in the fact that some things are beyond your control. You owe it to yourself to steer clear of people who are harmful to your health.

No one fights dirtier or more brutally than blood; only family knows its own weaknesses, the exact placement of the heart. This is the trouble with families. Like invidious doctors, they know just where it hurts most. The tragedy is that one can still live with the force of hatred, feel infuriated that once you are born to another, that kinship lasts through life and death, immutable, unchanging, no matter how great the misdeed or betrayal. Blood cannot be denied, and perhaps that’s why we fight tooth and claw, because we cannot, being only human, put asunder what God has joined together.

In the real world, you can’t really just split a family down the middle, mom on one side, dad the other, with the child or children equally divided between. It is like when you rip a piece of paper into two: no matter how hard you try, the seams never fit exactly right again. It is what you can’t see, those tiniest of pieces, that get lost in the severing, and their absence keep everything from being complete.

A dysfunctional family is basically any family with more than one person in it. No one’s family is normal. Normalcy is a lie invented by advertising agencies to make the rest of us feel inferior. So, have a little fun. Soon enough you’ll be dead and burning in hell with the rest of your family.

When you love someone like we do our family members and have to let them go, there will always be that small part of yourself that whispers, “What was it that you wanted and why didn’t you fight for it?” The most confused you will ever get is when you try to convince your heart and spirit of something your mind knows is a lie. You cannot let them go. It’s not that simple.

You need to make time for your family no matter what happens in your life. It’s very hard to grow up in a perfect family when you’re not perfect-no one is. You may be as different as the sun and the moon, but the same blood flows through both your hearts. You need them, just as they need you. You cannot say no to the people you love, not often. That’s the secret. And then when you do, it has to sound like a yes. Or you have to make them say no. You have to take time and trouble.

Strangers are just family you have yet to come to know. Family isn’t blood. It’s the people who love you. The people who have your back. If you surround yourself with the good and righteous, they can only raise you up. If you surround yourself with the others, they will drag you down into the doldrums of mediocrity, and they will keep you there, but only as long as you permit it.

True friends never fail on understanding, forgiving and being there for one another no matter what situation they might be in; or having between them because it doesn’t matter whether it’s two males or females, love should always be there as if we are brothers or sisters or if they are what we call best friends.

It’s a commonly expressed and rather nice, romantic notion that we are all “sisters” and “brothers.” Let’s be real. Fact is, we might be better served to accept that we are all siblings. Siblings fight, pull each other’s hair, steal stuff, and accuse each other indiscriminately. But siblings also know the undeniable fact that they are of the same blood, share the same origins, and are family. Even when they hate each other. And that tends to put all things in perspective.

Until recently, no one knew of the conflicting impulses that warred in me for a long time-not even myself. At some point in my life (most of my teenage years and part of my early twenties) I was conscientious, the kind of person who believed that others around me were so much more important than I was, and believed I was letting everybody down. Through long periods of soul-searching and introspection I have learned to be honest- a quality I cannot say I possessed a few years back. I was quite the master of deception living behind veils of lies and omissions. But that changed with time when I finally found myself and became the kind of person that will naturally open up about all I feel and want in this life. My virtues had made a trap for me; these two good qualities had collided painfully. For a long time, I felt I could not be honest without disappointing everyone I loved. It was a hideous conundrum for me. It was as if the world had been designed to make me unhappy.

One reason for that might perhaps be the fact that I spent most of the said time angry at my father. A father has to be a provider, a teacher, a role model, but most importantly, a distant authority figure who can never be pleased. Otherwise, how will children ever understand the concept of God? Mine wasn’t all those things because he was never really there as much as I would have wanted him to be. That doesn’t mean I do not have some fond memories of our time together. It is not until much later, as the skin sags and the heart weaken, that children understand their stories, and all their accomplishments, sit atop the stories of their mothers and fathers, stones upon stones, beneath the waters of their lives. Perhaps I am what I am today because of how he was. If he had been different, I might have turned out differently but who knows? That also just struck an interesting thought in my mind just now: I actually don’t know my grandfathers from both sides. We could excuse one for being deceased but one (my father’s father) is still alive and we don’t have a relationship. However, I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be.

The way to help heal the world is you start with your own family. The depression belongs to all of us and later, when you’re grown up, you realize you never really get to hang out with your family. You pretty much have only eighteen years to spend with them full time, and that’s it. So much of what is best in us is bound up in our love of family, that it remains the measure of our stability because it measures our sense of loyalty.

I once heard a story about a woman who had survived the genocide in Rwanda, and she said that there was now nobody left on the face of the earth, either friend or relative, who knew who she was. No one who remembered her girlhood and her early mischief and family lore; no sibling or boon companion who could tease her about that first romance; no lover or pal with whom to reminisce. All her birthdays, exam results, illnesses, friendships, kinships-gone. She went on living, but with a tabula rasa as her diary and calendar and notebook. I think of this every time I hear of the callow ambition to ‘make a new start’ or to be ‘born again’. Do those who talk this way truly wish for the slate to be wiped? Genocide means not just mass killing, to the level of extermination, but mass obliteration to the verge of extinction.

With friends, if you keep making an effort to reach out and you keep getting hurt, you eventually stop trying. But it’s much harder to give up on family. Somewhere deep down you want it to work so badly that you keep making the same mistake over and over again. In the end you just say “Fuck it”. That’s really the attitude that keeps a family together, it’s not “we love each other”, it’s just “fuck it man”.

You are born into your family and your family is born into you. No returns. No exchanges. I always hear people talk about ‘dysfunctional families.’ It annoys me, because it makes you think that somewhere there’s this magical family where everyone gets along, and no one ever screams things they don’t mean, and there’s never a time when sharp objects should be hidden. Well, I’m sorry, but that family doesn’t exist. And if you find some neighbors that seem to be the grinning model of ‘function’, trust me – that’s the family that will get arrested for smuggling gold from Congo in their SUV in the middle of the night or having ties with the Al-Shabab.

The best you can really hope for is a family where everyone’s problems, big and small, work together. Kind of like an orchestra where every instrument is out of tune, in exactly the same way, so you don’t really notice.

Yours truly,


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About The Philosopher King

Writer, philosopher, painter and a student of life and politics. Follow on Twitter @cj_njoroge. Instagram @cj_njoroge

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