Saturday, 8 September 2018

THE ACCIDENTAL AFRICAN


Before Sally became an accidental African (meaning African not by birth, blood or even by intentionality), she started out as an accidental adventurous. Or you might just call her an accidental escape artist.
Sally had always felt she had arrived in the Dr. Sweetness home by accident. Supposedly she was the last born and the apple of her father’s eye. But it had never felt right. The four-stories of that solid brick house never felt like her home. The 18th and 19th century furniture, inherited from her mother’s mother wasn’t for utility. It wasn’t something you could sit on, or study in or relax in generally. In fact, it contributed to that alienated feeling that inspired her to want to move out. Which is what she started doing from the time her big brother sold her his bike for one dollar. She was ten.
Somehow she found the cash. Then she walked the bike a few blocks till she reached the open field next to the Lake where she hung out in most summers. The bike had a miraculous effect on her. She never gave much thought to the concept of balance although she had taken dancing classes from the time she was four. But the moment she got on that two-wheeler, she felt like she could fly. Not a wobble nor any hesitation whatsoever. She was simply on the move, and frankly, she would never look back.
The rest of her childhood was a big blur. The biggest factor was her desire to claim the mobility that she acquired every time she got on that bike. It was an exhilarating feeling of freedom, but inevitably, she would have to return home to that brick house and those aliens called family that did their best to keep her ‘in her place’ which was to be seen but not heard.
The one thing that made sense inside the house was the way her older brothers flew away ever August and didn’t come back until the end of the year. Then they flew off again in January and they both were clearly relieved to be getting on the bus, train or plane, whatever means they used at the time to get away. How she envied them.
And then Sally’s turn came. She was told she could only get out if she got good grades, so she did her bit. Not too much but enough to get her admitted to a school that was out of town. But school still wasn’t far enough away for her. She did it for four years but then, once she got the piece of paper, she soon felt like she was in danger of getting stuck. What to do next?
That was when the biggest accident happened that literally changed her life. Her mother, who was desperate herself to explore the world but could not because she was strapped to her man as well as to the bricks and antiques and all the trapping of her social class. But one night, the mom (call her Marjorie) came to her bedroom, closed the door and handed her a form. “Fill this out right away,” Marjorie commanded with an assurance that she had rarely heard come out of that woman’s mouth.
It was an application to go away, to look for a scholarship to study anywhere in the world. It wasn’t something she had ever seen before but it was her wish come true. Here was an avenue of escape that was being handed to her by the most unlikely person, my mom. But she took Marjorie’s advice, filled it out, got called for an interview and presto, she was now free to go anywhere in the English-speaking world all expenses paid.
Here is where the second spectacular accident appeared. She had to flip a coin to figure out where she would go. It had to be a place listed among countries that were part of the sponsors’ global network. But she was advised: don’t pick Oxford, Cambridge or Edinburgh because part of the criteria for the final section of awardees relates to country quotas. If too many students want to go to country x, then you were unlikely to be called. But if you picked a place that wasn’t as popular, then your chances were much better.
So her two choices boiled down to either Singapore or Nairobi, Kenya. So you see how accidental it was for her to land in Nairobi without a clue what she was in for. She soon learned that most people who yearned to go to Kenya wanted to see a giraffe or a hippo, lion, cheetah or elephant. But not her. Sally was utterly unprepared to go to Africa, but did she mind? Hell no!! She was still wanting to escape the bricks and antiques and alien lifestyle of bourgeois privilege. She had survived this far this long in anticipation of accidentally finding a way out of the safe circumstances that left one unprepared to cope with the hazards of living accidentally.
Her oldest brother Charlie understood how she was desperate to get away but he warned her to watch out. Charlie had saved her several times when she had accidentally fallen into bad company, and he didn’t know how she would get along once he was not around to catch her before she fell off some edgy ledge. But for her, Charlie was also one of the aliens. As much as she adored him, he was still one of those who expected her to be seen and not heard. Yet he was full of contradictions. He also encouraged her to ‘be true to herself’, to be inquisitive and never to be satisfied until she got to the bottom of any mystery that came her way. But he also advised her to ‘keep your options open’ so when her heard that she’d linked up with an African man, he claimed she was doomed. But that came much later in her story. Before that happened, he was one of the best of the aliens. And besides that, she valued his example of escape. He was the first one to fly from the brick house and never come back, apart for the occasional visit. Otherwise, he was a man who treasured his freedom. And so did she.
2
By the time Sally reached Nairobi, she wasn’t sure if it was fate, or divine grace or a pure accident that landed her in the Mercedez Benz that took her and her fellow ‘scholar’, (a girl who’d briefly be her roommate) up to the Escarpment and finally to Naivasha to collect some English boy who was family friends of the owners of the car. She’d never been in a Benz before. Her father always drove a Cadillac so she wasn’t terribly impressed and realized she would never be a ‘wabenzi’. But she soon discovered that the make, year and model of car that one drove ‘defined’ a man’s social status. Not a woman’s however. The first women she met in Kenya were not Africans but white colonial memsabs whose lifestyle was largely domesticated and dull. Her sponsors at the time were all men so she got to know the British and the privileged life they still led despite Kenya having obtained its independence many years before her coming and accidentally sticking there.
But there was nothing accidental about the abhorrence she felt towards the people who clearly enjoyed lording over the locals who worked for them and got paid a pittance. That first day that she arrived in Nairobi, the driver’s name was Mwangi and he was happy to answer all her typical questions as he drove her and Joanne, the new roommate upcountry. It wasn’t his fault that he had to drive slowly in order to talk to them as well as stay on what were then narrow dual-carriage (and often treacherous) roads. But once they reached the sponsor’s home, they heard shouting out in the garage. The shouts got shriller as they continued nonstop. She was sure she’d never heard one human being scream at another in such a vindictive and vitriolic manner. As it turned out, Mr Bristow, the man whose home they’d stay in for the next week until they got their student housing sorted out, was bitter that Mwangi had gotten back ‘late’. From that moment on, she knew she wouldn’t be spending much time among the expatriates or among white people generally since Kenya was still steeped in colonial vestiges that didn’t look likely to go away soon.
So here she was. By accident she had found herself in the home of a ‘bloody’ racist who was swift to introduce her to the sort of lifestyle that privileged white people enjoy at the expense of the local Kenyans. Apparently, Mr Bristow and his wife had both been born in Kenya, but like so many British living there, they identified first and foremost with the UK. That was their true home. They were just here to make money and enjoy the luxurious lifestyle, including the cook, cleaner, gardener, nanny, driver and messenger all of whom were bound to do their bidding, but get paid poverty wages in the process.
She felt like a spy and a stranger living in the Bristows’ home and she was delighted to get out as soon as she and Joanne found a flat in Westlands. But even then, she couldn’t stay there long. Joanne was also an accidental partner with whom she had very little in common. For a while the two got along fine despite the fact that Joanne would come home from class and complain she couldn’t understand the Africans’ accents. She tried to overlook her imperious attitude, hoping it was just na├»ve and a matter of peasant upbringing. She initially didn’t want to admit she was living with a little racist. And besides, their sponsors had organized a whole series of safaris for them and it felt like it was part of her duties to her sponsors to stick with Joanne through it all. In any case, she’d never been to Lake Turkana, leave alone to the Indian Ocean or Mount Kenya.
But then came Jonathan Savage. His father was one of their sponsors and he had a house at the Coast where they were invited to stay. Joanne fell for Jonathan and vice versa, so that looked like a pleasant thing. However, he was a diehard white supremacist who openly disdained Sally bringing her Kenyan classmates home for tea at their apartment. And then there was his father whose invitation we took up the weekend before she finally got fed up with Jonathan’s racist rants against her African friends.
She and Joanne had gone to the Coast and stayed at the father John’s elegant beach house. John Savage owned a factory that made corn flakes and she wouldn’t have minded if he was just a flakey old English man. But in the evening, everyone had to have their drinks and since she never touched alcohol but swallowed lots of soda, she had to disappear to the outhouse across the lawn from the bar and game room. It was one more accident on her part to have run into John in the dark as she was returning from the ‘loo’. But the old man was intentional in his effort to grope her in the dark and scare the hell out of her. As he was already intoxicate, it wasn’t difficult for her to throw him off balance and dash back to where the rest of the group was congregating. But that was the last straw. The combination of the father and son was sufficient for her to start looking for ways to get out of that living situation and find somewhere else to stay.
So it wasn’t accidental that Sally left Westlands, especially as she’d already decided she wanted to complete a degree at the university and might have to stay an extra year to do it. The scholarship was only for a year, but she realized she could live humbly and stretch her sumptuous scholarship if she didn’t live beyond her means. She was still tethered to her sponsors who very kindly got her a motor scooter so she could get around the city with ease. It was a gift she could hardly turn down, but that piki piki paved the way for her to not only claim her freedom but also get into one ‘accidental’ circumstance after another.
3
Some of the accidents she fell Into were fortuitous, like getting so angry about African men and the way they aggressively pursued one of the few white women on campus, namely her. Out of that anger and frustration was accidentally born her writing career since she was advised to write about her frustrations. She was appalled that men could be so adoring of their mothers (as most men she met were), especially for the sacrifices those women had made to enable their sons to go to school. But then, she wondered how, on the one hand, these guys could be so good to that woman while treating their wives and girlfriends so badly. They seemed to be consistently insincere and inclined to forget things like commitments and loyalty and continuity of caring for the younger women in their lives. How many of them, who were out to woe her and get her into bed, were already married and having a kid or two or more. Yet they were the same guys who were most aggressive about getting into her pants. It wore her out and bored her stiff.
The story that she wrote appeared in a local magazine and it seemed to have a positive impact on readers since she got hired for her first journalistic job after that. It was to be the Women’s Editor at the Christian magazine called Target.
But way before Sally started that job, she was still at university and loving the intensity of having to live in the library in order to read all the book she’d been assigned by her Literature professors including Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Tolstoy was her favorite author by far, and Ngugi insisted Sally and everyone in her masters class read all of his writings, or as much as we could.
It was while on campus that she saw this lovely man leaning against the wall beside the Science Building hanging out with friends. He had the cutest cap and he reminded her for some reason of Samora Michel, the former leader of MPLA. Actually, the Samora correlation didn’t come until after they got to talking in Drama class and they discovered they were both reading Karl Marx and buying books from the Russian bookstore in town. That was the start of a blossoming friendship that seemed stimulating intellectually and also fun. They went out once, but then she realized that a woman was wise to not let her guard down ever or she would get into a compromised position. Was it accidental that she slept with him on that date? Yes well sort of. In any case, she didn’t stick around to find out. She enjoyed it too much, but then, she did not want to get snagged by any of these guys. So that relationship got postponed for a time. What had to come first was the invitation from her drama professor John Ruganda to join the Nairobi Univiersity Free Traveling Theatre. Her first impulse, and perhaps the smartest one, was to say no, no way. She had already experienced the mocking amusement that some students felt over this one silly white woman floating around their campus. But at the time she was living with an Australian woman friend who was married to a brilliant Zimbabwean professor and the woman, Serena was adamant that she should accept the offer.
“You will never get an opportunity like this again,” she told Sally. “You’ll get a chance to get to know Kenyans up close and that will be a rare learning experience. So do it!” Sally took her advice, and in the end, Serena was right in that she experienced something she’d never seen, felt or suffered so much with before. She’d never been so ostracized by people. But at the same time she learned so much. It was a form of mental torture the entire month that she was on the Travelling Theatre bus. The only time there was a reprieve was when she was on stage. But then she was such a spectacle in rural areas that children used to climb trees just to see her play the white prostitute who had a black boyfriend in an adaptation of one of Ken Saro-Wewa’s plays. They really laughed when she got into her twin kangas and join in an African dance. She tried to keep the beat and keep up with the others but it didn’t really matter. No matter what she did, she stole the show and some people in the cast were not amused by that. Then one cast member went through her backpack one night when she was asleep and swiped her diary. The following day in Thompson’s Falls, Nyahururu, they called her to a meeting at night. She was escorted by a set of fellow actors who served as guards as if they expected her to run away from what was to come. She had been advised by one of her Kenyan friends before getting on the bus, to keep a diary and talk to it because he anticipated that no one would dare be too friendly with her. The peer pressure would be too great, said Tsotsi, a lovely poet who was in her Lit class. And he was right. So she wrote and wrote, very personal observations about what she was seeing and feelings. It was no accident that I was made to read some of the parts they wanted to allege were racist or sexual or presumptuous.... After they passed judgment on my inner thoughts, they built a fire and burned that notebook. She assumed she would leave after that. But she stuck. The director continued to bring booze onto the bus every day and some of the actors got drunk regularly but the only persons I had to speak to were two Ugandans, one was Ruganda, the other was Magee, a really fine actor who was also ostracized for being a foreigner.
Anyway, once she got back she headed straight to find Samora Michel. Unlike the mean people she had been with all month and who had sworn that if she told anyone what they had done to her, they would come after her, Samora was kind. He seemed like such a gentle man who had deep insights into human behavior and intentionality. And this meant a lot to her because she had accidentally got herself stung many times over as if she had fallen into a bees’ nest. One other reason she ran to him was because the leader of the rat pack that picked on her most was his best friend, so he understood things about his behavior as well as the behavior of men generally and African men specifically, so he was happy to explain what had actually happened to her at Nyahururu with their classmates. In hindsight, she realized he didn’t understand everything but it didn’t seem to matter. She was just so swollen with pain that his demeanor was soothing and even healing. He felt like a real friend, despite that one night together when they felt like they could become more than friends. Lovers in fact.
And that actually happened. But she still feels it was accident. It began one day when they had spent the day together studying. Then he said he wanted to introduce her to his brother Elijah since the two were living together in Bahati. Sally still had her motor scooter but Samora made her leave it in town. He frankly preferred that she not ride it at all. So when they got off the Number 7 bus right in from of his tiny self-contained little house, (originally built during colonial times), they went in and he fixed her tea. They agreed to wait for Elijah to come so she could at least meet him. But then it got dark and Sally had no means of getting back to her flat. She had left her scooter in town. She never found out if that was his plan but it worked. The hour got later and later and finally she suggested she spend the night. There was only one single bed since she couldn’t sleep in Elijah’s room. But he promised that if they slept in the same bed, he wouldn’t touch her....Right! That was a laugh. By morning, the die was cast. By accident Sally had already begun her journey of becoming an accidental African.
(To be continued) 7 September 2018


 

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