Monday, February 16, 2015

Walking Home by Eric Walters

Thirteen year old Muchoki lived in the town of Eldoret with his parents and his seven year old sister, Jata. His family had a house on a small piece of land, livestock and a store in the market. He had many friends and relatives. Muchoki's father is Kikuyu, his mother Kamba, so he is Kikukamba. Everyone knew who was Kikuyu and who was Luo or Kamba. It didn't matter because they lived and worked side by side. Then one day, Muchoki and his family learned that it did matter.

Muchoki and his family, along with relatives, neighbours and people they didn't know found themselves being attacked. They sought refuge in a church from the mob armed with machetes, clubs and torches hoping that they would be safe on sacred ground. Instead, the church was set afire. Only Muchoki, his sister and his mother survived the mob. They now live in a tent in a refugee camp that holds over twelve thousand people, surrounded by barb wire and guarded by soldiers.

Muchoki's mother is suffering from malaria and very weak. This leaves Muchoki to care for his sister who attends the refugee camp school while he goes outside the camp to gather firewood. One day he meets a boy, Jomo, who with his sisters has come to collect firewood. Jomo tells Muchoki that he is Meru and that his family is waiting for their father to come from Isiolo to take them home.

One night Muchoki's mother tells them a story about the origin of her people, the Kamba, which means 'people of the string." She tells them that the Kamba began when a boy and a girl ran away to be together when their families forbade them from marrying. To be able to find their way back to their homes some day, the girl tied a string to the door of her home and let it out as they fled into the night. They married and had a child and wishing to return home to show the child to their parents they followed the string home, only to find that it had broken. They could not longer find their way home.

When Jomo decides he is going to go outside the gates to kill a gazelle for his family, Muchoki accompanies him. However the two boys do not kill a gazelle but instead encounter a Masai warrior who has brought down a gazelle. Because Muchoki scared the gazelle into the path of the Masai he gives Muchoki a share of the kill. On their way back into the camp, Jomo raises the ire of one of the camp guards but Muchoki smooths the situation over by inviting the guard to share their meal of the gazelle with his family. It is an act that will have significant repercussions for Muchoki and his family in the not to distant future.

The guard comes to dinner that day and Muchoki and his mother learn that he is from the Kalenjin tribe which massacred Muchoki's father and the other Kikuyu people. However the guard tells them that what happened was terrible and that he is a Kenyan first and a Kalenjin second.

When Muchoki's mother dies of malaria the man in charge of the camp tells him that he and his sister will be taken to different orphanages to live. Muchoki is deeply upset by this and determined not to be separated from his sister, he makes plans to leave. The Kamba soldier who had dinner with them helps Muchoki by telling him to leave that night, before the matron arrives in the morning to collect his sister. With the soldier's help and the money he gives Muchoki, they leave the camp that night and head to the road leading to Nairobi. Like his ancestors who tried to follow the string back to their homeland, Muchoki is determined to find his mother's family in Kikima.


In 2011, Eric Walters along with his friend Henry Kyatha, four children from the Rolling Hills  Orphanage and four young Canadians, made the same journey Muchoki and Jata undertook in Walking Home. They walked "from an internal displacement camp on the Mara, up the Rift Valley, down to Nairobi, through Kibera, along the Mombassa highway, to the mountains of Kikima." Along the way they interviewed, videotaped and wrote about their experiences and this adventure became the basis for the novel. It is this personal journey that gives a tone of authenticity to both Muchoki and Jata's characters as well as the to the large cast of supporting characters in the novel.

One of the strongest themes in the novel is that of the personal journey. Each of us experiences our life as a journey, both a physical and an inner spiritual one. Not only does Muchoki undertake a strenuous physical journey of almost 200 km but he also experiences a personal inner journey that forces him to change the way he thinks about those who have grievously harmed him and his family.

Muchoki's family who are Kikuyu, were attacked by Luo and Kalenjin. Muchoki is now fearful of these people and does not trust them. When he forms a polite friendship with one of the guards at the gate and invites him to dinner he learns that the man in a Kalenjin. Muchoki's response is one of anger.
"I tasted bitterness in my mouth. If I had known he was Kalenjin, I would never have invited him to our tent, never offered the invitation to dine at our side."
However, the guard does not respond in the way that Muchoki expects. Instead he tells him that he defends all Kenyans and that the violence "is nothing more than an excuse for people of violent natures to act violently." He blames the Kenyan politicians who have divided the people as tribes instead of uniting them. The soldier tells them that "An eye for an eye will leave everybody blind." He also tells Muchoki's mother that if "...I can repay her kindness, I am at your service."

Despite what has happened to him in Eldoret, Muchoki finds himself forced to trust in the Kalenjin soldier. This soldier not only helps him and his sister leave the camp, he also gives him directions and money to take the matatu (bus) part of the way to Nairobi. After the soldier hears Muchoki's story of the massacre in the church at Eldoret he tells  Muchoki, "It is important that Kalenjin show friendship to Kikuyu and that Kikuyu do the same to Kalenjin...You must try to do this."

This causes Muchoki to wonder if he could show kindness to the people who have caused great harm to his family, wondering if this is being disrespectful towards his murdered father's memory. But the soldier warns him that "You cannot fight evil by becoming evil...The only cure for darkness is light."  The soldier warns Muchoki to not let the evil deeds erase the good that remains in him. Still at this point Muchoki states that while he will remember the Kalenjin's act of kindness, it in no way makes up for the murder of his father and his family.

While they are walking towards the road that will take them to Nairobi, Muchoki and Jata come across a church. The minister asks his congregation if they are not justified in killing out of revenge for the murders of Kikuyu by the Kalenjin and Luo. When the congregation gives its approval of such, he tells them that the commandment given by God to Moses, Thou Shalt Not Kill was written in stones so that people might know it was eternal and firm. The minister tells them they may defend themselves, but they will not attack and they should spread peace. This causes Muchoki to reconsider his determination to seek revenge for the killing of his father.
"It is easy to say those words, sitting here inside this church where there was so much, where it seemed as if nobody had lost anything. Would he still be saying the same things if his father had been murdered? Would I kill the men who killed my father if I had the chance? Yes. It would be my duty. Would I kill those who were innocent, even if they were Kalenjin or Luo? I knew  what I would have answered in the weeks that had passed before we were helped by the two Wilsons, before I'd heard his words."
Further along in their journey, Muchoki and Jata are helped by Omolo, a farmer who sells oranges in Nairobi. Muchoki agrees to help Omolo push his cart up the hills of the city in exchange for a few oranges. However when Omolo is threatened by thugs who want to steal his donkey and cart of oranges, Muchoki scares off the attackers. When Omolo hears that Muchoki's father was Kikuyu, he apologizes as he is Luo and the Luo have killed many Kikuyu in the riots. Omolo offers Muchoki and Jata a place to spend the night but Muchoki is frightened when he learns that he will be staying inside a compound with Luo. Instead Muchoki is given a safe place to stay and Omolo walks with them through Nairobi so they can safely begin the next part of their journey.

Finally when Muchoki and Jata are in Nairobi, and Jata begins to question him on why God allowed their family to be murdered, Muchoki reveals how his encounters with the soldier, the minister and Omolo have changed him.
"I had once felt that it was my duty to avenge my father. But now, when I thought of the sergeant and the minister and Omolo -- when I thought of all the people who had helped us along the way -- I knew that I had already chosen a different path."

Muchoki and Jata also meet Masai warriors twice in the novel. According to Muchoki, the Masai have a reputation of being short of temper and fearless. While he is afraid of them, in both his encounters with the Masai they treat him kindly and return his respect. Through all these encounters, Muchoki learns the important lesson of treating others with respect and of forgiving others, even when a great wrong has been done.

Walking Home is a gentle treatment of tribal violence in East Africa. Written for children, Walters covers the brutal violence in a way that is not graphic yet conveys both the magnitude and the far-reaching effects of the terror that children like Muchoki and Jata experience. A country is seriously affected when entire families are destroyed. The displacement of families from homes and livelihood affects the health and education of children and severs their connection to the communities they have lived in. All of this is effectively portrayed in Walking Home. Muchoki was a good student, third out of forty-seven students and hoping to attend at least a provincial school, if not a national school. His father owned a prosperous business and the family was doing well enough that Muchoki had never known hunger. All this changes with the murder of his father and the loss of their home.

A map of Muchoki and Jata's journey would have been a wonderful addition to the novel. Walters has provided readers with an array of multimedia resources at as they read the novel.  For example in the first chapter, readers can listen to Eric read the opening two paragraphs, they can view pictures of the tents in a displaced person's camp 100 km from Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. Readers are very much encouraged to check out the multitude of photographs, videos and log entries for each of the books chapters.

Walking Home is a well written, engaging novel that will help North American young people understand life in Kenya and may encourage them to reach out and become involved in helping their brothers and sisters in Kenya, a country rich in resources and blessed with its greatest wealth of all, its diverse and unique people.

Book Details:
Walking Home by Eric Walters
Canada: Doubleday
290 pp.

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