Body in Motion

December 5, 2009, 6:39 pm
Filed under: africa, culture, home, kenya, Malawi, malawian culture

I am in a class that feels reminiscent of high school, except I am surrounded by colleagues instead of the kids I grew up with. The scene is the same though, half of us pay attention, a few participate; I think poorly of the instructor.

But suddenly I am awake and listening in Public Speaking 101.

A Malawian colleague asks what we say if someone asks a question after a presentation that we do not know the answer to.

“Just say you don’t know and you’ll have to check and get back to the person,” the instructor offers.

A look of horror fills faces.

“You can’t do that. You can’t say you don’t know. How can people believe you know what you’re talking about if you say you don’t know?”

“That’s true,” says another classmate. “You should just keep talking for awhile without answering the question.”

The Malawian heads in the room are nodding in agreement.

My mind tumbles back over the last two and a half years to all the the talking heads which seem to go on endlessly, to the times (I know of) that I have been lied to. It wasn’t a neo-colonialist attempt to fraud or please the mzungu, but rather a balking at admission of ignorance. How did I not know this? The three days I have spent listening to those around me discuss the merits of PowerPoint suddenly become worth it as I have one of those bizarre moments of cultural epiphany that makes sense of everything – at least for a moment.

These moments in my world of late are few and far between.

When I first came to Africa ten years ago, I spent the month of my arrival in a haze. There were herds of cows on the side of the urban highway, my housekeeper was always telling me I’d been lost when I came home late and people in the street called me mzungu. In the months following my emergence from the haze, things began to make sense.

That first stint, a new kind of logic came fast and furious. I learned how the line between urban and beyond is blurred. I discovered that in Swahili umepotea (you have been lost) is what you tell someone when you haven’t seen them in awhile. I accepted that I will always be mzungu. I became accustomed to jumping out the side of a matatu (minibus) on a Nairobi street corner, and ate -and liked!- Peptang instead of ketchup, and coveted the Sunday morning quiet when the rest of our houseful of people was in church. I made plans with friends ahead of time since the phone lines could never be trusted to work.

I fell in love over and over again: with savanna sunsets, with fish markets, with tiny pink bananas.

While my moments of confusion became farther between, there were always gaps. I never understood why, when I saw Bowfinger in a Nairobi cinema, everyone laughed at the scene where the Mexicans purposted corssing the border illegally are herded into the back of the film crew truck. Did the Kenyans know about Mexicans sneaking in the US? Was the scene intrinsically funny without the cultural context? Or were they laughing at some other connection I wasn’t aware of?

I learned more about cultural context in the time I lived with Kenyans in Nairobi than I have since then. Each country has its own idiosyncrasies but there are commonalities to be found in each region of Africa. Yet when I moved here from Congo, it was difficult to conceptualize how completely different a place Malawi is from where I had been.

Throughout m time in Africa, my sense of normalcy has remained in tact and the places I have lived have seemed for familiar to me than foreign, if only by virtue of being the places I have spent my time. Epiphanies about where I live don’t come so often: who marvels at the man selling bananas on the corner after passing him 4 times a days for months on end?

I have been in Malawi for nearly two and a half years now, longer than I have spent anywhere since I finished my education. There are things I understand from having lived and worked in the region before. Women don’t talk about their pregnancies, especially before they are showing. There are things I have learned since coming here. Malawians see the government as their parent. And there are things that I don’t even know I don’t understand.

In moments like the Public Speaking class, I am struck by how truly I am a stranger here.


February 5, 2008, 5:27 pm
Filed under: elections, governance, kenya, politics, travel

It was in the matatu on the was to Ol Kalau in the Central Highlands that I first saw the Great Rift Valley. I’m not quite sure what I expected – perhaps something in the nature of the Grand Canyon, maybe just an enormous crack in the surface of the Earth. It was so green and so vast and there were peaks that rose up from within the valley. Dormant volcanoes. As we descended down the road carved into the escarpment, there were baboons on the side of the road, lazily watching the Friday afternoon traffic go past. The winding road finally spread out across the floor of the valley. As we passed Lake Naivasha, I saw zebras grazing alongside cattle and trees whose branches reached out toward each other. Although the road was only barely tarmacked, thinking back I feel myself gliding along the bottom of the valley. It’s all a euphoric haze that cannot be matched.

Don’t think I haven’t been paying attention. Rafiki zangu, don’t think I haven’t been watching.

I wrote the above on the Great Rift Valley some years ago now. It was my first trip out of Nairobi on my first trip to Africa. My first zebra sighting. And the beginning of what can only be described as life-altering infatuation. In short, I fell in love the way you do when you are 20 and seeing the world beyond your doorstep for the first time.

I lived with a Kenyan family and ate ugali and tried to speak Swahili on a good day. I drank Pilsner baridi (being sure to throw a few drops from my glass to the ground for the ancestors) and stayed out at Carnivore til all hours. I tracked rhinos with the rangers in Nakuru Park. I attended NGO meetings in Kibera slums. I went down River Road.

Daniel arap Moi was in power. Kenya was a post-Embassy bombing multi-party democracy. World Bank was still trying to reform the civil service. No one had cell phones yet and internet cafes were still expensive. Raila Odinga was the main opposition leader.

Watching Kenya’s elections and stability unravel over the last five weeks has been heart-breaking. Kenya was my first home in Africa and I still consider the people I lived with there to be jamaa yangu (my family). I have sat down many times to write this blog post, combed through horrifying and depressing newspaper articles, spoken with Kenyans and I knew then and now, and wondered how to begin.

If you ask me whether I saw this coming, I could tell you that tribalism was alive and well when I was living there (I could have easily written a post similar to this on Kenyans). I could tell you that crime and corruption has shaken the credibility of what should have been a model African government. I could tell you that two years ago, I learned that the US government was watching Kenya for signs of political fragility.

But none of that really matters, because I would have told you that I did not believe Kenya would be willing to let herself collapse like this. Even now, watching the country crumble, I still can’t believe it. M, an award-winning Kenyan blogger whom I admire greatly, has seen it with his own eyes and it is well worth reading his thoughtful and sage words.

As for myself, ‘euphoric’ is no longer the word that comes to mind when I think of Kenya.

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