EDITOR’S NOTE: It had been a number of months since I’d heard from Binyavanga Wainaina, who was a frequent contributor to G21 Africa only a year ago. I was concerned as I knew he had health worries as well as the usual money worries that seem pandemic in the writing community. Then I received the piece that follows. It runs long for G21 article, almost four times as long as what we deem Web-appropriate. But it was so impressive that I decided to serialize it for our 300th edition. AND I felt it would be a suitable nomination for the Caine Prize in African Writing this year. I hope you ‘ll agree. — RA
Cape Town, June 1995 -There is a problem.
Somebody has locked themselves in the toilet. The upstairs bathroom is locked and Frank has disappeared with the keys. There is a small riot at the door, as dr*** women with smudged lipstick and crooked wigs bang on the door.
There is always that point at a party when people are too dr*** to be having fun; when strange smelly people are asleep on your bed; when the good booze runs out and there is only Sedgwick’s Brown Sherry and a carton of sweet white wine; when you realise that all your flat-mates have gone and all this is your responsibility; when the DJ is slumped over the stereo and some strange person is playing “I’m a Barbie girl, in a Barbie Wo-o-orld” over and over again.
I have been working here, in Observatory, Cape Town, for 2 years and rarely breached the boundary of my clique. Fear, I suppose, and a feeling that I am not quite ready to leave a place that has let me be anything I want to be — and provided not a single predator. That is what this party is all about:
I am going home for a year.
So maybe this feeling that my movements are being guided is explicable. This time tomorrow I will be sitting next to my mother. We shall soak each other up. Flights to distant places always arouse in me a peculiar awareness: that what we refer to as reality — not the substance, but the organisation of reality — is really a strand as thin as the puffy white lines that planes leave behind as they fly.
It will be so easy — I will wonder why I don’t do this every day. I hope to be in Kenya for 13 months. I intend to travel as much as possible and finally to attend my Grandparent’s 60th wedding anniversary in Uganda in December.
There are so many possibilities that could overturn this journey, yet I will get there. If there is a miracle in the idea of life it is this: that we are able to exist for a time — in defiance of chaos.
Later, we often forget how dicey everything was: how the tickets almost didn’t materialise; how the event almost got postponed. Phrases swell, becoming bigger than their context and speak to us with TRUTH. We wield this series of events as our due, the standard for gifts of the future. We live the rest of our lives with the utter knowledge that there is something deliberate, a vein in us that transports everything into place — if we follow the stepping stones of certainity.
After the soft light and mellow manners of Cape Town, Nairobi is a shot of whisky. We drive from the airport into The City Centre; around us, Matatus: those brash, garish Minibus-Taxis, so irritating to every Kenyan except those who own one, or work for one. I can see them as the best example of contemporary Kenyan Art. The best of them get new paint jobs every few months. Oprah seems popular right now, and Gidi Gidi Maji Maji, one of the hottest bands in Kenya, and the inevitable Tupak. The coloured lights, and fancy horn and the purple interior lighting; the Hip Hop blaring out of speakers I will never afford.
This is Nairobi! This is what you do to get ahead: make yourself boneless, and treat your strait-jacket as if it is a game, a challenge. The city is now all on the streets, sweet-talk and hustle. Our worst recession ever has just produced brighter, more creative Matatus.
It is good to be home.
In the afternoon, I take a walk down River Road, all the way to Nyamakima. This is the main artery of movement to and from Public Transport Vehicles. It is ruled by Manamba’s (taxi touts) and their image: a cynical, hard demeanour — every laugh is a sneer, the city is a war or a game. It is a useful face to carry, here where humanity invades all the space you do not claim with conviction.
The desperation that is for me the most touching is the expressions of the people who come from the rural areas into the City Centre to sell their produce. thin-faced, with the massive cheekbones common amongst Kikuyus — so dominating they seem like an appendage to be embarassed about — something that draws attention to their faces, when attention is the last thing they want. Anywhere else those faces are beauty. Their eyes dart about in a permanent fear, unable to train themselves to a background of so much chaos. They do not know how to put on a glassy expression.
Those who have been in the fresh produce business for long are immediately visible: mostly old women in khanga sarongs with weary take-it-or-leave-it voices. They hang out in groups, chattering away constantly, as if they want no quiet where the fragility of their community will reveal itself.
I am at home. The past eight hours is already receding into the forgotten; I was in Cape Town this morning, I am in Nakuru, Kenya now.
Mum looks tired and her eyes are sleepier than usual. She has never seemed frail, but does so now. I decide that it is I who is growing, changing, and my attempts at maturity make her seem more human.
I make my way to the kitchen: the Nandi woman still rules the corridor.
After 10 years, I can still move about with ease in the dark. I stop at that hollow place, the bit of wall on the other side of the fireplace. My mother’s voice, talking to my Dad, echoes in the corridor. None of us has her voice: if crystal was water solidified, her voice would be the last splash of water before it solidifies.
Light from the kitchen brings the Nandi woman to life. A painting.
I was terrified of her when I was a kid. Her eyes seemed so alive and the red bits growled at me menacingly. Her broad, face announced an immobility that really scared me; I was stuck there, fenced into a tribal reserve by her features. Rings on her ankles and bells on her nose, she will make music wherever she goes.
Why? Did I sense, so young, that her face could never translate to acceptability? That, however guised, it could not align itself to the program I aspired to ? In Kenya there are two sorts of people:
- those on one side of the line will wear third-hand clothing till it rots, they will eat dirt, but school fees will be paid.
- On the other side of the line live people you may see in coffee-table books. Impossibly exotic and much fewer in number than the coffee table books suggest. They are like an old and lush jungle that continues to flourish its leaves and unfurl extravagant blooms, refusing to realise that somebody cut off the water, somebody from the other side of the line.
These two groups of people are fascinated by one another. We, the modern ones, are fascinated by the completeness of the old ones. To us it seems that everything is mapped out and defined for them — and everybody is fluent in those definitions. The old ones are not much impressed with our society, or manners — what catches their attention is our tools. the cars and medicines and telephones and wind-up dolls and guns.
In my teens, I was set alight by the poems of Senghor and Okot P’Bitek; the Nandi woman became my Negritude. I pronounced her beautiful, marvelled at her cheekbones and mourned the lost wisdom in her eyes, but I still would have preferred to sleep with Pam Ewing or Iman.
It was a source of terrible fear for me that I could never love her. I covered that betrayal with a complicated imagery that had no connection to my gut: O Nubian Princess, and other bad poetry. She moved to my bedroom for a while, next to the kente wall-hanging, but my mother took her back to her pulpit.
Over the years, I learned to look at her amiably. She filled me with a lukewarm nostalgia for things lost. I never again attempted to look beyond her costume.
She is younger than me now; I can see that she has a girlishness about her. Her eyes are the artist’s only real success — they suggest mischief, serenity, vulnerability and a weary wisdom. Today, I don’t need to bludgeon my brain with her beauty, it just sinks in, and I am floored by lust: It makes me feel like I have desecrated something.
Then I see it.
Have I been such a bigot? Everything. The slight smile, the angle of her head and shoulders, the mild flirtation with the artist: I know you want me, I know something you don’t.Mona Lisa: not a single thing says otherwise. The truth: the truth is that I never saw the smile; her thick lips were such a war between my intellect and emotion, I never noticed the smile.
The artist is probably not African, not only because of the obvious Mona Lisa business but also because, for the first time, I realise that the woman’s expression is inaccurate. In Kenya, you will only see such an expression in girls who went to private schools, or who are brought up in the richer surburbs of the larger towns.
That look, that toying slight smile could not have happened with an actual Nandi woman. In the portrait, she has covered her vast ***uality with a shawl of ice, letting only the hint of smile reveal that she has a body that can quicken: a flag on the moon. The artist has got the dignity right but the ***uality is European: it would be difficult for an African artist to get that wrong.
The lips too seem wrong. There’s an awkwardness about them, as if a shift of aesthetics has taken place on the plain of muscles between her nose and her mouth. Also, the mouth strives too hard for symmetry, as if to apologise for its thickness. That mouth is meant to break open like the flesh of a ripe mango; restraint of expression is not common in Kenya and certainly not among the Nandi.
I turn, and head for the kitchen. I cherish the kitchen at night. It is cavernous, chilly and echoing with night noises that are muffled by the vast spongy silence outside. After so many years in cupboard-sized South African kitchens, I feel more thrilled than I should.
On my way back to my room, I turn and face the Nandi Woman thinking of the full-circles since I left. When I left, White people ruled South Africa. When I left, Kenya was a one Party dictatorship. When I left, I was relieved that I had escaped the burdens and guilts of being in Kenya, of facing my roots, and repudiating them. Here I am, looking for them again.
I know, her red-rimmed eyes say. I know.
A Fluid Disposition: Masailand
August 1995 – A few minutes ago, I was sleeping comfortably in the front of a Landrover Discovery. Now I have been unceremoniously dumped by the side of the road as the extension officer makes a mad dash for the night – comforts of Narok town. Driving at night hereabouts is not a bright idea.
The first few minutes out of the car are disturbing — it is an interesting aspect of travelling to a new place that your eyes cannot concentrate on the particular. I am swamped by the glare of dusk, by the shiver of wind on undulating acres of wheat and barley, by the vision of mile upon mile of space free from our wirings. So much is my focus derailed that when I return unto myself I find, to my surprise, that my feet are not off the ground — that the landscape had grabbed me with such force it sucked up the awareness of myself for a moment.
There are rotor-blades of cold chopping away in my nostrils: the silence, after the non-stop drone of the car,is as persistent as cobwebs, as intrusive as the loudest of noises. I have an urge to claw it away.
It occurs to me that there is no clearer proof of the subjectivity (or selectivity) of our senses than at moments like this. Seeing is always only noticing. We pass our eyes upon the landscapes of our familiars and choose what to acknowledge.
The cold air is really irritating. I want to breathe in — suck up the moist mountain-ness of the air, the smell of fever tree and dung — but the process is just too painful. What do people do in wintry places? Do they have some sort of nasal sensodyne?
I am in Masailand.
Not Television Masailand – rolling grasslands, lions, and acacia trees.
We are high up in the Mau Hills. Here there aren’t vast fields of grain — there are forests. Here impenetrable weaves of highland forest, dominated by bamboo cover the landscape. Inside them, there are many elephant, which come out at night and leave enormous pancakes of shit on the road. When I was a kid, I used to think that elephants use dusty roads as toilet paper like cats — sitting on the sand with their haunches and levering themselves forward with their forelegs.
Back on the choosing to see business: I know, chances are I will see no elephants for the weeks I am here. I will see people. It occurs to me that if I was White,chances are I would choose to see elephants — and this would be a very different story. That story would be about the wide, empty spaces people from Europe yearn to get lost in, rather than the cosy surround of kin we Africans generally seek.
Whenever I read something by some White writer who stopped by Kenya, I am astounded by the amount of game that appears for breakfast at their patios and the snakes that drop into the baths and the lions that terrorise their calves. I have seen one snake in my life. I don’t know anybody who has ever been bitten by one.
I can see our ancient Massey Ferguson wheezing up a distant hill. They are headed this way. Relief!
I am on a tractor, freezing my butt off, as we make our way from the wheat fields and back to camp. We’ve been supervising the spraying of wheat and barley in the fields my father leases here.
There isn’t much to look forward to at night here, no pubs hidden in the bamboo jungle. You can’t even walk about freely at night because the areas outside are full of stinging nettles. We will be in bed by seven to beat the cold. I will hear stories about frogs that sneak under one’s bed and turn into beautiful women who entrap you. I will hear stories about legendary tractor drivers – people who could turn the jagged roof of Mt. Kilimanjaro into a neat afro. I will hear about Masai people?– about so-and-so, who got fourteen thousand rand, for barley grown on his land, and how he took off to the Majengo Slums in Nairobi, leaving his wife and children behind, to live with a prostitute for a year.
When the money ran out, he discarded his suit, pots and pans, and furniture. He wrapped a blanket around himself and walked home, whistling happily all the way.
Most of all, I will hear stories about Ole Kamaro, our landlord, and his wife Eddah (names changed).
My dad has been growing wheat and barley in this area since I was a child. All this time, we have been leasing a portion of Ole Kamaro’s land to keep our tractors and things and to make Camp. I met Eddah when she had just married Ole Kamaro. She was his fifth wife, thirteen years old. He was very proud of her. She was the daughter of some big time chief near Mau Narok and she could read and write! Ole Kamaro bought her a pocket radio and made her follow him about with her a pen and pencil everywhere he went, taking notes.
I remember being horrified by the marriage — she was so young! My sister Ciru was eight and they played together one day. That night, my sister had a terrible nightmare that my dad had sold her to Ole Kamaro in exchange for fifty acres.
Those few years of schooling were enough to give Eddah a clear idea of the basic tenets of Empowerment. By the time she was eighteen, Ole Kamaro had dumped the rest of his wives.
Eddah leased out his land to Kenya Breweries and opened a bank account where all the money went.
Occasionally, she gave her husband pocket money.
Whenever he was away, she took up with her lover, a wealthy young Kikuyu shopkeeper from the other side of the hill who kept her supplied with essentials like soap, matches and paraffin.
Eddah was the local chairwoman of KANU (Kenya’s Ruling Party) Women’s League and so remained invulnerable to censure from the conservative elements around. She also had a thriving business, curing hides and beading them elaborately for the tourist market at the Mara. Unlike most Masai women, who disdain growing of crops, she had a thriving market garden with maize, beans, and various vegetables. She did not lift a finger to take care of this garden. Part of the co-operation we expected from her as landlady meant that our staff had to take care of that garden. Her reasoning was that Kikuyu men are cowardly women anyway and they do farming so-oo well.
Something interesting is going on today. There is a tradition amongst Masai, that women are released from all domestic duties a few months after giving birth. The women are allowed to take over the land and claim any lovers that they choose. For some reason I don’t quite understand, this all happens at a particular season — and this season begins today. I have been warned to keep away from any bands of women wandering about.
We are on some enormous hill and I can feel the old Massey Ferguson tractor wheezing. We get to the top, turn to make our way down, and there they are: led by Eddah, a troop of about forty women marching towards us dressed in their best traditional clothing.
Eddah looks imperious and beautiful in her beaded leather cloak, red khanga wraps, rings, necklaces and earrings. There is an old woman amongst them, she must be seventy and she is cackling in toothless glee. She takes off her wrap and displays her breasts — they resemble old gym socks.
Mwangi, who is driving, stops, and tries to turn back, but the road is too narrow: on one side there is the mountain, and on the other, a yawning valley. Kipsang, who is sitting in the trailer with me, shouts for Karanja to drive right through them: “DO NOT STOP!”
It seems that the modernised version of this tradition involves men making donations to the KANU Women’s Group. Innocent enough, you’d think — but the amount of these donations must satisfy them or they will strip you na*** and do unspeakable things to your body.
So we take off at full speed. The women stand firm in the middle of the road. We can’t swerve. We stop.
Then Kipsang saves our skins by throwing a bunch of coins onto the road. I throw down some notes and Mwangi (renowned across Masailand for his stinginess) empties his pockets, throws down notes and coins. The women start to gather the money, the tractor roars back into action and we drive right through them.
I am left with the picture of the toothless old lady diving to avoid the tractor. Then standing, looking at us and laughing, her breasts flapping about like a Flag of Victory.
I am in bed, still in Masailand.
I pick up my father’s World Almanac and Book of Facts 1992. The language section has new words, confirmed from sources as impeccable as the Columbia Encyclopedia and the Oxford English Dictionary. The list reads like an American Infomercial, Jazzercise, Assertiveness-Training, Bulimarexic, Microwavable, Fast-tracker.
There is a word there – skanking: a style of West Indian dancing to reggae music, in which the body bends forward at the waist and the knees are raised and the hands claw the air in time to the beat; dancing in this style.
I have some brief flash of ourselves in forty years time, in some generic Dance Studio. We are practicing for the Senior Dance Championships, plastic smiles on our faces as we skank across the room.
The tutor checks the movement: shoulder up, arms down, move this-way, move-that: Claw, baby. Claw!
In time to the beat, dancing in this style.
Langat, and Kariuki have lost their self-consciousness around me, and are chatting away about Eddah Ole Kamaro, our landlady.
“Eh! She had ten thousand shillings and they went and stayed in a Hotel in Narok for a week. Ole Kamaro had to bring in another woman to look after the children!”
“He! But she sits on him!”
Their talk meanders slowly, with no direction — just talk, just connecting, and I feel that tight wrap of time loosen, the anxiety of losing time fades and I am a glorious vacuum for a while just letting what strikes my mind strike my mind, then sleep strikes my mind.
Ole Kamaro is slaughtering a goat today! For me!
We all settle on the patch of grass between the two compounds. Ole Kamaro makes quick work of the sheep and I am offered the fresh kidney to eat. It tastes surprisingly good. It tastes of a slippery warmth, an organic cleanliness.
Ole Kamaro introduces me to his sister-in-law, tells me proudly that she is in form-four. Eddah’s sister — I spotted her this morning staring at me from the tiny window in their Manyatta. It was disconcerting at first — a typically Masai stare — unembarassed, not afraid to be vulnerable. Then she noticed that I had seen her, and her eyes narrowed and became sassy — street-sassy, like a girl from Eastlands in Nairobi.
So I am now confused how to approach her. Should my approach be one of exaggerated politness, as is traditional, or with a casual cool, as her second demeanour requested? I would have opted for the latter but her Uncle is standing eagerly next to us.
She responds by lowering her head and looking away. I am painfully embarrassed. I ask her to show me where they tan their hides.
We escape with some relief.
“So where do you go to school?”
“Oh! At St Teresa’s Girls in Nairobi.”
“Eddah is your sister?”
We are quiet for a while. English was a mistake. Where I am fluent, she is stilted. I switch to Swahili and she pours herself into another person: talkative, aggressive, a person who must have a Tupac t-shirt stashed away somewhere.
“Arhh! It’s so boring here! Nobody to talk to! I hope Eddah comes home early.”
I am still stunned. How bold, and animated she is, speaking sheng, a very hip street language that mixes Swahili and English.
“Why didn’t you go with the women today?”
She laughs, “I am not married. Ho! I’m sure they had fun! They are drinking Muratina somewhere here I am sure. I can’t wait to get married.”
“Kwani? You don’t want to go to University and all that?”
“Maybe, but if I’m married to the right guy, life is good. Look at Eddah — she is free — she does anything she wants. Old men are good. If you feed them, and give them a son, they leave you alone.”
“Won’t it be difficult to do this if you are not circumcised?”
“Kwani who told you I’m not circumcised? I went last year.”
I am shocked, and it shows. She laughs.
“He! I nearly shat myself! But I didn’t cry!”
“Why? Si, you could have refused.”
“Ai! If I would have refused, it would mean that my life here was finished. There is no place here for someone like that.”
I cut myself short. I am sensing this is her compromise – to live two lives fluently. As it is with people’s reasons for their faiths and choices — trying to disprove her is silly. As a Masai she will see my statement as ridiculous.
In Sheng, there is no way for me to bring it up that would be diplomatic, in sheng she can only present this with a hard-edged bravado, it is humiliating. I do not know of any way we can discuss this successfully in English. If there is a courtesy every Kenyan practices, it is that none of us ever question each other’s contradictions — we all have them, and destroying someone’s face is sacrilege.
There is nothing wrong with being what you are not in Kenya — just be it successfully. Every Kenyan joke is about somebody who thought they had mastered a new persona and failed. For us, life is about having a fluid disposition.
You can have as many as you want.
[Continues next week.]