Living With Kids: Elizabeth Deng

Walking through Elizabeth’s House is like walking through an Art Gallery. Clean white walls, bright lighting and inspiring and thoughtful art on every wall. Some of the art by Elisabeth herself. Other pieces by other amazing artists, and some by her kids too. She and her husband and her family live in Nairobi, Kenya. Elizabeth is Nigerian-American and her husband is South Sudanese-American and they’re both as inspiring as their lovely home is. Welcome, Elizabeth.

My family has lived in Nairobi, Kenya for 8 out the past 10 years. I am Nigerian-America, my husband David is South Sudanese-American.  We met in law school in New York. After law school we lived together in Juba, South Sudan and were both working on human rights issues. But after our first daughter was born, we moved to Nairobi, Kenya. When she was six months, we took her to Juba and hoped to live there. But then war broke out in December 2013, and we were evacuated by the US embassy back to Nairobi. After that experience, we decided to settle in Nairobi. It is a beautiful, safe place to nurture children. 

We have one photograph in our home, part of an NGO campaign, of a South Sudanese woman with writing on her hand — it says “Peace will give us our home back.” The photograph is a daily reminder to me of the impacts of conflict and the importance of peace. The message is personal  because the South Sudan conflict did absolutely take away our vision of making Juba our home — I hope that someday peace will give it back

I am a human rights lawyer and currently work with Oxfam — an international humanitarian and development organization. David is an independent consultant who does research on human rights, transitional justice, and development issues. 

I feel so content every time I tell people that I have four kids. Chloe is 9, Priscilla is 7, Kathryn is 5 and Emmanuel is 18 months. My husband likes to remind me we have a fifth — Nala, the dog. I don’t think if we were living in the US, we would have managed to have four kids. But Nairobi is a great place for young families — we have had wonderful nannies, and have found so many playgroups and activities for the children. Our children are thriving.  

I wanted to share our home with the Design Mom community because I had this premonition that we may not have as much time to enjoy this home as I would have hoped. In another month we’ll be packing up, moving back to the US where I’ll start training as a foreign service officer with the US Agency for International Development (USAID). We’re about to embark on a life that is much more transient — where we’ll be moving every 3-4 years or so. I don’t regret putting the thought and energy I have into this home — I can’t live in a space without constantly thinking about how it can be a bit more comfortable, more beautiful. 

Our house is in a residential area of Nairobi called Runda — where the UN offices and many embassies are. We chose this neighborhood because it’s near the school we wanted our three daughters to attend. When we first came to Nairobi, we lived in an apartment, in an area called Kilimani. It’s busy, a bit noisy, but a very convenient neighborhood especially for people who are new to Nairobi, and may not have a car. After that we lived in different, quieter residential areas in Nairobi — we wanted a garden as our family grew. 

This is the fourth house that we’ve lived in in Nairobi. We have actually only lived here for 6 months. We had to move because the girls were starting at a new school and I didn’t want them sitting in the car to commute 30 minutes to an hour. Here, they are less than 10 minutes from school. It was really tough finding this house. I looked at over 40 houses over a period of several months. It was emotionally exhausting — more with this move than others — I guess because things weren’t clicking. 

Our budget is more limited than what UN staff with housing allowances can afford to pay, and many houses just didn’t feel right. There was one thing that crossed about half of them off my list — tinted windows. I can’t understand why people put dark windows in houses. I knew I couldn’t be at peace where light couldn’t flow in.

I felt the burden on my shoulders not only of my own needs but of the whole family. I knew that my husband needed space for his grand piano — his passion — and that I needed natural light and space to do art, that Nala needed grass. For the kids, I wanted the yard to be big enough for the trampoline, slide, and swing set. I was desperate for my family to live together in a space we all saw beauty in, because I know this impacts our family life, our moods, how we interact with each other. Choosing a house is a heavy burden when 6 humans and a dog are relying on your judgement!

When COVID started, like everywhere else, we all started spending a lot more time at home! My husband and I used to trade places — he would go to Juba, and I would go to one of Oxfam country offices in the region. When he came, I left. It was exhausting. Honestly, I think COVID saved me from a breakdown. It also led to Emmanuel — in March 2020, I realized quite quickly that I wouldn’t have to travel for the rest of the year. So we decided to make another baby. 

It wasn’t until mid-2021 that my husband started to travel again, and early 2022 when I started going to to the office a few days a week. But we still work mostly from home, so spend most of our time in this house. That makes ensuring space in conducive to work and peace of mind all the more important. 

I started doing and selling cyanotype prints while I was on maternity leave in 2021. I had 7 months off! It was amazing to have time to pursue something I love — and of course spend time with Emmanuel. It was then that I chose to identify as an artist — it took some reflection, and courage to realize that I am and have always been an artist. As a child, I did every craft imaginable — painting, sewing, basket-weaving, knitting, pottery — I really tried everything. My favorite place to go was the craft store, to find some new supplies or new project. I love creating — decorating my house is one outlet for my creative energy. 

One thing I love about this house is the art studio — which is really a garage, with the door glassed over. We added the sink. I love having a space in the house where I can enjoy playing art (that’s how I like to put it) with my kids. A place where we can start a project, leave it to dry or to finish later, and go have dinner without having to clean it up and put it away. We have long open shelves on the wall full of craft supplies. The kids know they can go and take whatever they want and just follow their inspiration. (I put the acrylic paint out of their reach, don’t quite trust them with that alone yet!) Things get messy, but I try not to stress. I want them to enjoy creating. I love coming in here and discovering that they have made something random.

I used to feel guilty for not playing with my kids. I’m the youngest of four, so I never really experienced parental involvement in my play! But my mom would take me to the craft shop and signed me up for numerous classes. So I decided I should just do what comes naturally, and share with them what makes me happy, and that’s playing art. 

I love integrating my kids’ art into our home — I call them my free private commissions. Their kid-strokes are uninhibited and fresh. When I look at how their art interplays with the many “professional” pieces we have, I laugh to myself, I kind of feel like I’m tricking someone. I imagine what the well-known Kenyan artist Patrick Kinuthia would think knowing his piece is keeping company with a Priscilla Deng. Some of my own cyanotypes are also sprinkled into our home. 

Getting pictures custom framed in Kenya is easy and affordable, about $10 for a simple wooden frame that can be custom painted in any color. I take all of my pieces to Peter Kamau (PK), who has a shop in the Kuona artists collective. He has framed hundreds of pieces for me over the past 8 years. I take him several pieces a month, lucky his shop is around the corner from my office. When my kids finish working on something, they like to ask me, “Will you frame it?” I’m committed to being honest with them, so sometimes I say no and give them an honest critique — usually that they left a blank space or should put more time into it. But I guess I’m also not particularly picky because we have many, many of their pieces framed and on the walls. I know that it gives them pride, makes them know their work is appreciated, when I take the time to frame it, and then find a spot for it on our walls. It’s a way of recognizing that they are artists too.

In the art studio, I have two huge portfolios filled with the children’s art—the pieces that don’t get framed. I like to keep them and then use them to make collages. It’s a great way to re-purpose the kids work! They usually come out looking like scenes from some crazy, fantasy, lala land…you’ll have a marker drawing of a girl with crazy hair, a pink color-pencil bunny, blue water-color sky, some bit acrylic sunset, and a dinosaur colored in with crayon. I wonder if that’s what it looks like in my kids heads? We have three collages made with our children’s art—they are the first thing guests see when they come into our home.

One big challenge in my house has been managing school/play/activity schedules for four kids. We have a spreadsheet with everything on it, otherwise I’d go crazy. So every morning, we consult it numerous times double checking — does Kathryn have her swimming costume (as I’ve learned to call them in Kenya) and does Chloe have her games T-shirt?

I’ve talked a lot myself and not much about my husband, David. One thing I appreciate about our family dynamics is that he leaves the design choices to me. Sometimes I wish he gave more feedback on where this picture should go, or what color the new bookshelf should be. But ultimately I guess I appreciate taking control. 

But he takes full control of our home’s musical aesthetics! He’s an incredible pianist and fills our home with music. Growing up, I never had the opportunity to play an instrument so it is really satisfying to me that our kids are already musical. Chloe plays the violin, Priscilla plays the flute, and Kathryn plays the cello. Some of my favorite moments are when they all get their instruments out — with David at the piano and Emmanuel sometimes running around with a harmonic, and play music.

When I was decorating this house in December last year, I started with a thematic concept for each room. The piano room is cool water the living room is natural grey the playroom is happy nature the girls’ bedroom is flower garden. But overall, I wanted my family and everyone who entered my house to feel joy and fun, to feel intuitively and conclusively that this is a peaceful home where happiness lives.  

I also have made a point of including good luck charms in the house — my favorite is a gold Hamza by the doorway. That’s an Islamic symbol that brings good luck and protection. We have Tibetan prayer flags hanging in the yard too. We’re not a religious family, but I take comfort in feeling that our home holds blessings. 

One thing that makes decorating in Kenya so much fun is that you can get anything and everything custom made. All of my upholstered sofas were custom made—I choose the design, the size, the fabric. It doesn’t always turn out perfectly, or exactly how I imagined, but I love the process. 

My dining chairs were done by Tira Studio. I love African fabrics, especially indigo. I think it’s the natural, watery, cool feel. I chose the indigo fabric they used on these chairs. 

One design secret I have is custom made lampshades. You can take them any fabric and they can use it to make any kind of pendant or wall shade. I love lampshades with Indian floral block prints. In the kitchen I ordered some in black and white mud cloth, to match with the curtains. 

My latest find was the lip art coasters—check out the candied snot! They are so funky! I used double sided tape to hang them around a mirror in our entry way. 

It is only recently that I have started identifying as an art collector. My home is filled with the work of some incredible African artists

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Thank you, Elizabeth! What an inspiring home to grow up in. Art in a home is such an amazing addition. It gives the home such personality and interest. And Elizabeth is clearly a master at selecting, curating and displaying her art. I had to pause on so many photos to zoom in and admire the work.

I also love that Elizabeth realized that her time with her kids could be the most impactful if she spent her time sharing her passions with them. What a great way connect with your children and share things that are important to you. Not all of us are great artists, obviously, but what passion of yours could you use to connect with your kids? Are you an amazing baker? Do you love fitness and exercise? Do you and your kids have an ear for music? Or are you a great writer? What ways have you used to introduce your kids to your likes and hobbies?

ARTISTS FEATURED

John Muramuzi

Michael Soi

Patrick Kinuthia

Fred Abuga

Nike Okundaye

Dennis Muraguri


Photo credit to Drew Kamau. Living with Kids is Edited by Joshua Bingham. You can follow him on Instagram too.

Would you like to share your home in our Living With Kids series? It’s lots of fun, I promise! (And we are always looking for more diversity in the families we feature here. Single parents, non-traditional parents, families of color, LGBT parents, multi-generational families. Reach out! We’d love to hear your stories!!) Email us at features@designmom.com.

9 thoughts on “Living With Kids: Elizabeth Deng”

  1. Such a beautiful, thoughtful home! I love all the artwork and how you mix your children’s art right in with everything. I can’t believe you’ve only lived there 6 months- it feels so homey and welcoming <3 I'm inspired by the work you and your husband are doing. Hoping that your move back to the US is a good one for your family!

  2. What a great post and lovely home. I have lived in Nairobi for the last 10 years, and really appreciated so many wonderful art recommendations through this house tour. Really beautiful!

  3. So beautiful! We lived in Nairobi for years. Just left last year and missing it terribly looking at your home. We are on the 3/4 year treadmill. It’s hard, but it’s also amazing. My kids are comfortable anywhere, with anyone, in any situation. That’s the greatest gift from it. And thank you for the wonderful idea of a collage with the children’s art! I am definitely going to try that.

  4. What a gorgeous home! I love how eclectic it is and feel like the art ties it all together. Your home is a feast for the eyes and your guests probably notice something new each time that they didn’t see before. Enjoy your next journey, thank you for sharing.

  5. I’ve been experiencing Elizabeth’s serious and dedicated thoughtfulness setting up her new home in the US. Two things stand out: begin by getting all the walls painted pure white so the colorful artwork can stand out, and have a theme for each space to organize your design thoughts around.

  6. Such a beautiful home! I’ve borrowed a few lessons for our own house in Nairobi – especially incorporating my children’s art alongside other professional artists. I count myself as fortunate to have two of Elizabeth’s pieces in my collection.

  7. Very inspiring piece Elizabeth, you’re hous is spacious given the pictures you shared along this piece. Enjoy your new opportunity.

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