Before You Go

A daughter's letter to her dad: 'You never let me forget where I came from'

Before You Go: Taslim Jaffer and her father visited Mombasa, Kenya, where both of them were born, during a once-in-a-lifetime trip. It was a journey drenched in memories and love.

We have recently returned from a trip to our birthplace, Mombasa, Kenya, after having been in Canada for 40 years. Because we left Kenya in my infancy, I considered this the first time I saw my first home. It was a place I had grown to love through the memories you and Mom shared with me. Over my lifetime, I have collected fragments of what life was like in a small, tight-knit community where it was more like two degrees of separation—not six—between people.

Through your wistful recollections, the photo albums Mom kept, the delicious East African-Indian cuisine we dined on, the languages of Kutchi and Kiswahili you exposed me to and the pride with which you spoke of Kenya’s beauty, I felt a connection to a place clear on the other side of the world. Never have I been more thankful for such a rich upbringing than now; that exposure allowed me to feel much more at home than I otherwise might have in a place I so desperately hoped would welcome me in some way.

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On the last of the three airplanes we had to take to return home to Vancouver, you asked me, “Did you write what you wanted to write about Mombasa?” You knew my plan was to record as many of the sights, sounds, tastes and emotions as possible, and you watched me fill pages in the flat we shared. But reflecting on the experience, I think the most important thing I will ever write in connection to that trip is this letter to you, thanking you for the gift of it.

I know you didn’t have much interest in returning to a place that held ghosts you had no desire to revisit. Losing your father and two of your brothers during your childhood was traumatic and had lasting repercussions. But without you by my side, I could not have made such a distant and deep journey. Being in a place where Mom had been young and healthy and very much alive made her feel that much closer. As you know, losing her to scleroderma 10 years ago, when I was a new mother myself, was a huge blow for me. You sat patiently with me in Mombasa, waiting for the grief and the sobs to subside. You opened your own heart to me and shared stories that revealed missing pieces of our history.

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You made Mombasa a living, breathing entity by taking me out of the still photographs of my baby album and placing me in the heart of this fascinating city, humming with tuk-tuks and matatu vans. I became a part of the meandering streets of Piggott Place, where Bhadala women sell freshly fried bhajia and where shaggy goats wander. I was among the throng of people on the Likoni Ferry, which inched across the Kilindini Harbour and took us to the south coast—with beaches so white they nearly blinded me, the sand giving way to the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean.

Ah, the warm, salty sea bath. I remember when we first swam in it on Diani Beach. It was just the two of us, and I kept telling you not to go out too far. And you laughed as you put your feet down on the sandy bottom and stood to your full height; the water barely reached your chest. You saw right through my casual suggestion and knew I was worried something would happen to you. The truth is, that is a worry that pulses through my veins, whether we are at home in Canada or bobbing in an ocean under the equatorial sun. And you are always, always trying to ease my worries with your easy laugh and happy-go-lucky attitude.

Since we’ve been back, several people have asked me, “What was your favourite part of the trip?” Without hesitation, I’ve replied, “Being with my dad.” I’ve gone on to tell them how I’d start my day by sitting up in bed at the sounds of you puttering in the kitchen, turning on the gas stove and getting the fixings ready for the first chai of the day. In anticipation of a new day with you, I’d push aside the mosquito net and open my bedroom door to see you greet me with a laugh. “Heyyyyy, good morning, baby!” Oh, it is so nice to still be your baby!

Our morning and evening rituals of chai and chats were the perfect bookends to our days. Inevitably, some conversations would turn to the reasons why we left 40 years ago and the results of this decision. You wanted to give your family a home that could offer security and opportunity. Kenya was increasingly politically unstable, and there was the ripple effect of the fear from Idi Amin’s rule in neighbouring Uganda. I am so thankful that you chose to raise me in Canada and ecstatic that Mombasa is also now accessible to me. You never let me forget where I came from, and when I needed to understand it more—to connect with it more deeply—you indulged me in this once-in-a-lifetime father-daughter journey. It was a chance for me to walk the streets of my great-grandparents, grandparents and the two amazing people who raised me, and for that I am forever grateful.

This article appears in print in the June 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Dear Dad…” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.


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