Nairobi is never silent.
It thrives on stories, peppered, salted, charred, broiled, natural, synthetic, and otherwise. We are a people addicted to stories. This explains the success of Dallas and Falcon Crest, from my youth, and the national passion for Mexican soaps.
Cutting across differences of age and gender, region and belief, shows like Esmeralda found a welcome home and an eager audience, created new ways of talking, not simply new topics of conversation. The more the intrigue, the greater the cliff-hanger, the more we loved it and craved it.
In retrospect, we were addicted in a mostly narcissistic way to our own modes of narrative and drama. Dallas and Esmeralda were less fascinating for the cultural differences they displayed than for their recognizability: we knew these men and women, these families with their squabbles and intrigues, their passions and disappointments, their quirky faults and, at times, boundless enthusiasms.
On some level, the fiction they represented mirrored the fiction we inhabited.
* * *
I use fiction, here, in a sloppy way, as a metaphor for something we might term the “unverifiable.”
* * *
All Kenyans are artists. And the first art we master is the art of gossip.
Even before the advent of the “super-fast” internets and cells, gossip traveled at an alarming speed, cutting across classes and genders, races and ethnicities, spicing up meals and brokering business deals. Even as children, we “knew” which leading figure had a mistress, where she lived, and the diseases they shared. We “knew” the color of furniture owned by the second wife of a philandering minister.
As children of repressive regimes, we understood, if only unconsciously, that gossip was a needed currency, especially when the wrong (right) words on paper led to a stay at the government’s pleasure, where one experienced the indignity of the footprint. We learned to read raised eyebrows and meaningful gestures, to speak in forked tongues.
If gossip was our first art, metaphor was our first language.
* * *
In many ways, Kenya is a country founded at the intersection of the verifiable and the unverifiable.
Over the past year, for instance, the “leaked” documents alleging mischief everywhere, from government offices to the Nation scandals, to secret deals hatched between religious leaders and political figures, have fed our appetite for what might be termed, paradoxically, unverified truth.
And here, I am tempted to speculate that Kenyans, unlike Americans, do not believe the “truth” will “set us free,” but we do think it might be very entertaining.
More recently, of course, the faultline between the verifiable and the unverifiable has turned into a deep crevice, and we balance on a precarious edge from which whispers have the power to create tragedy.
We cannot not listen. Too much depends on this. We can listen with care and a measure of skepticism, though not a skepticism that would be detrimental, if not fatal. We can be watchful without, one hopes, giving in to the paranoia that makes life unlivable.
What is at stake here extends beyond the play of verifiable versus unverifiable. We are at the torn seams of the livable and the unlivable, and the stitching is not pretty. We are, in places, pinned in position, awaiting the careful hands that might allow us to emerge clothed, but such stitches have the force of sutures without anesthesia. We are, to extend the metaphor, in the awkward and unwise position of being stitched as we stand in place, and the boundary between cloth and body no longer obtains.
I ask metaphor, here, to do a work for which I find myself unfit.