Used to the beefiness of the Midwest, I find the men here wasted, and it’s easy to understand why corn-fed philanthropists harp on HIV/AIDS. Dressed in poorly tailored too-big clothes, lithe bodies float, registering their resistance to the sartorial straitjackets of modernity.
Stick figures appear true to life.
I begin to understand, now, how the word delicate applies so readily here, the bird-like quality of hands and feet, the swiftness, the grace, yet with an odd clumsiness, as though shoes hobble what they should enable. I hated shoes until I was 8 and became scared of jiggers, and I probably project my own long-ago loathing onto the lithe bodies that lurch imprisoned by social demands.
At the airport, the immigration official spoke in English to the Indian woman ahead of me and switched to Kiswahili when he addressed me, though we were both in the Kenyan line. She was charming and promised to look for a book review I mentioned I was writing.
Interpellation is forceful—a switch in language, a desire to switch languages.
I find myself acquiring strange patterns, wanting to switch languages mid-sentence, because I can, but also because, in some way, it returns me here. To understand how the textures of a tongue flavor one’s speech, to use the languages in which I first learned to feel words, and also to obtain respite from the mono-lingual word I have inhabited for so long.
Yet also to see how language is solicited: my nephews, both of them, seem to understand or respond to Kiswahili better than English, so I polish long lost skills, grateful, in this one instance, that simple declaratives and interrogatives accomplish much, very much.
Words like “susu” make sense again.
There’s a lot to take in, and I have yet to go to the center of town, to River Road or Moi Avenue or Kenyatta Avenue, to Uhuru Park.
My geography, never very good, feels weighed down by new buildings, changed roads, new modes of transport: do I still take the 23 to get to town? Does the 6 still change into the 9? Should I risk a trip to my old schools? Will anyone I know still be there? There is a hint of Prufrock here.
* * *
It used to be that those who “returned” were described as “alienated,” psychically dislocated, socially lost. It has been some time since such descriptions applied; among certain Kenyans trips abroad, to Uganda, Sudan, Tanzania, South Africa, Mauritius, the US, Dubai (yes, I know it’s not a country) take place far too often to be remarkable. Returnees are no longer village curiosities.
I continue to wonder if alienation suffices as a description. One limps along, trying to adjust to others’ rhythms. It is this sense that time has become segmented, sedimented at places, vaporized in others, arranged in some ways, imploded in others.
One finds others in particular locations, but the geographies of the past no longer appeal, and have often changed.
* * *
Here, credit does not stand for what one owes and may one day pay, but for what one has to spend, what one has already spent. Credit, in its most quotidian form, refers to living within one’s limits, living aware of one can do, not an extension but a limit.
Everywhere there are metaphors.