A Return to Kenya—and a Lesson in Homecoming

My mother-in-law immigrated from Kenya to England as a child. Fifty-five years later, she returned in search of memories—and she brought the whole family along.

Kenya
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

The sweet perfume of orchids enveloped me as I stepped off the plane and onto Kenyan soil. Though I had never been here before, I felt a strange sense of familiarity. In the two years since I married my husband, I’d grown accustomed to lilting Swahili phrases sprinkled among English ones, and to the rich aroma of freshly roasted masala mogo that always filled my in-laws’ house.

And now, here we were—myself and 23 other members of my husband’s family—in their home city of Mombasa. Our goal, on the surface, was relatively simple: to immerse ourselves in the birthplace of my husband’s maternal family. We planned to walk along sandy beaches where my mother-in-law swam as a child, to visit the buildings, parks, and monuments that held her memories. This was not just a vacation, but a long-awaited homecoming.

In February of 1968, my mother-in-law left Mombasa, traveling to London with her parents and six siblings. Kenya had gained independence from British rule five years prior—which resulted in a growing diaspora of Kenyan Asians who migrated out of the country due to changing economic policies and citizenship requirements. The government passed laws that made it impossible for non-citizens to work, own property or businesses, or access public services like healthcare and education. With their livelihoods gone overnight, Kenyan Asians like my mother-in-law had to find new places to live.

My husband’s grandfather and oldest uncle were the first to arrive in England, in search of new opportunities. They came with a handful of shillings they accumulated after selling furniture and other dear possessions back in Kenya, but money was still tight. My mother-in-law joined them the following year, at just four and a half years old. She recalls stepping off the plane at Heathrow Airport to piles of snow and frigid rain, instead of the tropical climate she knew and loved. With no coats, boots, or even sweaters, her family was woefully unprepared for this new chapter.

Mombasa, Kenya
Photos by Kiran Mistry and Anand Mistry

Fifty-five years later, during our week-long trip, I saw fragments of my mother-in-law's childhood unveiled. In Mombasa, my mother-in-law pointed out the daily walk her mom used to take to pick up fresh spinach and potatoes to feed the family of nine. We explored the local Hindu temple, which served as a religious base for the budding Asian community in Kenya, and admired its layered pyramidal towers, colorful stonework, and ornate carvings of deities tracing back to the ancient Hindu Vedas scriptures. We visited the primary school where her older brothers studied (and we even dug up old ledgers that codified their grades). It was heartwarming to see the joy on her brothers’ faces as they mocked each other over who earned the highest grades or won the most football matches. The competition remained fierce even decades later.

“I wish my parents were here,” I heard my mother-in-law say throughout our visit, running her thumb gently over the two gold bangles adorning her wrist. And in a way they were. The bangles—their wedding gift—provided a tangible connection to her parents and land of birth. Though these bangles weighed little on her wrists, they carried the heavy burden of inheritance and longing.

On the day we made the visit to her childhood home, I studied my mother-in-law’s face, awash with emotion as she stood in front of the familiar blue gate to her old apartment building. She described running through the rotunda as a little girl, falling off her tiny bicycle here and gashing her nose open on the concrete. We stepped inside the house, now a massage parlor, and she showed me the room where she shared a bed with her sisters and reminisced about a beloved doll.

Motorbikes, Kenya
Photo by Kiran and Anand Mistry

London is now home for my mother-in-law and her siblings, but here, amid mango trees heavy with fruit, my family’s roots stretched deeply into Kenyan soil. I wondered whether my mother-in-law felt a sense of reconciliation, of coming full circle, when she returned to Mombasa. Was Kenya still her home?

I think about the concept of home a lot lately, especially after moving from New York to London last year. To me, home is more than just a physical space, but a sanctuary woven from the threads of roots, identity, belonging, and family. It’s like a tapestry where each thread represents a facet of our existence. Our personal histories and connections to our homeland interlace with how we’re shaped by heritage and traditions, a sense of warmth and acceptance, and the people who offer us unconditional love—without whom the weave would unravel.

I love my home, in spite of its imperfections. The physical distance of being across the pond has not impacted my curiosity whenever there’s news. But, as my husband and I start thinking about starting our own family, I think about legacy more than ever before. What stories will we pass down to our children? What parts of our backgrounds will we choose to emphasize or omit?

I admire how my mother-in-law has made a conscious effort to expose her family to the reality of her ancestry. Instead of shielding us from the aspects of Kenya that pained her, she wanted us to understand the truth of her situation and wrestle with the full picture of it. As a tourist, it didn’t tarnish the glow of the country in any way for me, but rather deepened my respect for the locals who are working hard to make their homeland a better place. Sometimes parents curate the narratives that shape their children’s understanding of themselves and the wider world, but she taught me that the fairest approach is to simply lay out the full tableau—both the breathtaking and the heartbreaking—and to give one’s children the option to make their own convictions.

For me, the geographic coordinates of what I call "home" have shifted, but my pride in my American roots persists, encompassing both the positive and negative experiences that define this characterization. I can only hope my homecoming with my future family will be as bittersweet.

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Pooja Shah is a London-based freelance journalist from New York City. She covers travel, lifestyle, fashion, beauty, wellness and cultural trends. Pooja's work has appeared in a variety of publications including CNET, HuffPost, Elle, Vogue, and more. Pooja has a Juris Doctorate and practices law alongside her journalism career. Follow her on Instagram, or at her website.