RHOME 2023 - Keynotes

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor


Author of the well-received Dust (Knopf, 2014), and the Dragonfly Sea (Knopf, 2019), Kenya-born Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor obtained a BA from the Kenyatta University, an  MA from the University of Reading, UK, and an MPhil (Creative Writing) from the University of Queensland, Brisbane.  From 2003 to 2005, she was the director of the Zanzibar International Film Festival. Her story, “The Weight of Whispers”, earned her the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2003. Her other works are to be found in different publications, including National Geographic.  For her artistic achievements, Owuor, in 2016 was awarded the (Kenya) Head of State Commendation. She is currently working on her next novel.


Phantom Fires in Broken Hearths: That Homing Instinct

Like many, I am haunted by African Nobel Prize winner, Naguib Mafouz line: ‘Home is not where you were born, home is where all your attempts to escape cease.’ When I posted it on twitter one night, within twelve hours it had been commented on, liked, and retweeted over 30,000 times, by people from all over the world—I stopped counting. Most of the replies were haunted, poignant, a little heartbroken, as if Mafouz had given words to that which aches and quietly niggles, for which we had no metaphor before, given that more often than not, as humans, we are compelled to believe we are home, or at home, in the places and spaces into which we are born, or in those where we find ourselves. Among some of the Luo nations of Eastern and Central Africa, there is a notion of home that involves a series of ceremonial steps. Home is not a house. Home is made through ritual and invocation, the culmination of which is the establishment of a hearth supported by three round river stones, a hearth that is consecrated by light and flame, a hearth that must never be doused. From this hearth’s embers other fires are lit, including future fires of a family wake. The warm hearth is one of the signs of a living home, as is the sound of children’s’ laughter and the roaming of livestock. Presiding over the hearth is the figure of ‘the mother’; fire-keeper and custodian of meaning, which home is also about. I am mostly curious about those human crevices where the unspoken lies, where we hide our surreptitious knowing and secret silences. I wonder if a clue regarding our general sense of home and home-seeking is hidden in the notion, not much in use now,  of ‘pilgrim’ (from Latin ‘pelegrinus’, “a dissimilation of Latin peregrinus "foreigner, stranger, foreign resident) or “wayfarer to a holy place”, where holy also means “that which must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be transgressed or violated”. Is it perhaps this wholeness, this sense of completion that we desire in our destinations, an arrival that breaks through to inhabit our deepest essence, so we might exhale and declare, “Here I now am!” ? As close as we come to these in the places of splendour, a sense of completion always remains just out of our grasp, doesn’t it? Is it disquiet from the suspicion that the passageway into ‘home’ in its fullness must be through some “valley of the shadow of death”? Is this death the same as that experienced by home-losing/ home-seeking soul who must flee home's hearth when, in the words of poet Warsan Shire, “…home[becomes] the mouth of a shark, … the barrel of the gun…that chased you to the shore’? In what, then does the instinct of and for home rest? 

This is a causerie that reflects on exile, hauntedness, navigation, boundaries, migration, longing and belonging. It is interspersed with lyrics and insights from the works of assorted writers.

Keywords: Home, Hearth, Exile, Instinct, Boundary

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