Memories of Nairobi

For Christmas, my daughter offered me Say You’re One of Them from Uwem Akpan. By then the  book had already received multiple awards and national recognition. I didn’t read it immediately but finished it today two days after I turned the first page.
As I was reading the collection of beautifully crafted yet brutal stories telling of contemporary African children, the trip I made to Kenya in the late 80s rushed to my memory.
Africa was a continent I wanted to discover and Kenya was then a safe and exciting country to explore. I joined an expedition that left Paris for Nairobi where we met the two guides who accompanied us for two weeks through the Maasai territory where we camped and discovered the African wilderness.
I remember the streets of Nairobi filled with men, young and old, sitting on the sidewalks, talking and watching people pass by.
I remember accompanying one of the women of my group and searching for hours cluttered shops for feminine hygienic products.
I remember odorant markets that sell food and drinks, although we were reminded to avoid them if we didn’t want to get sick.
I remember the bus ride along the bumpy roads that took us to the wilderness.
I remember the sun playing hide and seek in the savanna.
I remember lionesses hunting zebras and antelopes.
I remember a giraffe paying me a surprised visit on a night trip to the makeshift bathroom.
I remember pink flamingos covering Lake Victoria and mosquitoes swarming over us, hungry for fresh blood.
I remember sumptuous sunsets which tainted the sky in colors that can’t be named.
I remember snow topping the Kilimanjaro and a sky bigger than earth.
I remember eating papaya for breakfast and drinking tea at night around a fire that kept wild animals at bay.
I remember waking up before dawn to watch female monkeys taking care of their babies with tenderness and patience I believed only existed among human beings.
And of course, I remember the long legged Maasai children running to us, flies flocking to their eyes as they showed us with pride the necklaces and bracelets they made with tiny colorful beads.
They carried a mix of seriousness, innocence and playfulness not that different from what I saw among the Parisian children I babysat. Intrigued by the way we looked they reached for our light skins and our blond hair. Only days later, we reached Mombasa along the Indian Ocean.
I had heard of a market walking distance from the hotel where we stayed and since I was tired of being with my group 24/7, I wandered away.
I remember countless unoccupied men sitting in clusters and observing the only white woman who hadn’t thought for one second that she was displaced in this very male place. None of them talked to me and I returned to the hotel made for tourists like me. I clutched the plastic bag that held the chess game I chose for the man I would marry a couple of years later and the colorful fabric I still use today as a tablecloth, feeling the burn of the men’s glare on my back.
When I left Kenya in the fall of 1986, I promised myself to return. Instead, I moved to the US in 1990 and never returned to Africa.
The first story in Owem Apkan’s collection takes place in now day Nairobi and guilt and shame tug at me because the memories I have of the city don’t include slums, violence, extreme poverty and galloping demography. Apkan writes about corruption, children who take adults’ decisions while being only twelve years old.
Did I miss all of that because I was a tourist, too young to see beyond what was before my very eyes? Was Africa already on the verge of collapse and did I live the following years, ignoring the signs already showing emerging problems? Unemployed men, countless children, lack of hygiene and threatening drought.
It is convenient to visit Africa and keep beautiful pictures of sunsets and wild animals. It is disturbing to read Uwem Apkan and realize that I haven’t really seen Africa.

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