Thirteen-year-old Muchoki hates the smell of fire in the internally displaced people’s (IDP) camp in Kenya where he lives with his ailing mother and seven-year-old sister, Jata. Just weeks earlier, they were forced to flee their home in Eldoret when political tensions and tribal loyalties caused violence to erupt, pitting neighbour against neighbour. Muchoki and many others from his tribe had fled to the village church, seeking sanctuary. But their enemies cared nothing for the tradition of church as safe haven, and set it ablaze. Muchoki’s father distracted the assailants so the family could flee. He died even as he saved their lives.
Now in the IDP camp, Muchoki struggles to help his mother, as he daily lives in fear that she will die of the malaria that has repeatedly plagued her. His mother’s stories give him strength, especially the story of his mother’s people, the Kamba, who are also called “the people of the string.” His mother relates how a young couple wanted to marry, against the wishes of their parents. They decided to leave home and tied a string to the door of the girl’s parents’ house, hoping to one day find their way back home. But, to their dismay, the string broke and they never found their way home again, set adrift in a strange world.
When their mother dies, Muchoki is shocked to discover that he will be separated from Jata when they are sent away to different orphanages. Muchoki forms a bold plan. He decides to follow “the string” back to his mother’s ancestral home.
With the help of a compassionate guard, Muchoki and Jata set out on the journey. Over several days they travel more than 150 kilometers, walking most of the way. All the while, Muchoki worries that his mother’s parents will not welcome them, since he understands that they were unhappy about their daughter’s marriage to a young man from another tribe – Muchoki’s father.
Raised in a vibrant church community, Muchoki and Jata try to understand God’s will. Jata asks, “If he [God] loves us, why did he let all those people die at the church? Why didn’t he stop those men from killing everybody? . . . Did God make those men kill our father?” Muchoki struggles with the same questions even as he attempts to answer his sister.
On their journey, the children encounter unexpected kindness from people who are members of tribes other than their own. As Muchoki tries to come to terms with his hatred for his father’s murderers, the goodwill of others begins to change his heart and emotions. He learns that “you cannot fight evil by becoming evil. . . . The only cure for darkness is light.” Though he still longs to avenge the death of his father, he comes to a decision: “I would not take the life of one who meant me no harm. I would not do to another what had been done to me.”
Eric Walters’ heart-wrenching novel for young adults sensitively and age-appropriately deals with the harsh realities of life in Kenya during and after the political problems that plagued that nation several years ago. In order to live into the journey of his fictional characters, Walters, along with several African and Canadian children and one other adult, walked the route that Muchoki and Jata journey in the book. Photographs, mini-articles, maps, audio and video segments, and author’s notes found at ericwalterswalkinghome.com comprise an informative digital companion to the book. Icons in the book’s margins point readers to information on the website.
Though this book is written for young adults, it is relevant for anyone who cares to learn more about the lives of internally displaced people and refugees.
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