Home remedies often seem startling in their effectiveness. The magic of a family recipe against the science of Coopers. Yet the body does not adjust as readily to the environment, and the brief respite I had when my there-allergy body encountered the strange here-allergens waxes and wanes.
I am irritated.
This, of course, is a metaphor for what happens as the social becomes comfortable with itself, the longer we rub against others. My visitor status gone, my nieces have returned to their pre-me idiosyncrasies, a startling strong-willed willfulness that intrigues, even when each “don’t play in the kitchen” must be repeated several times, enforced with a guiding (but never beating) hand, visually emphasized by a closed door and a rule, “you must knock to come in when we’re cooking.”
I am reminded that those things which excite (a synonym for irritate) one leave others unmoved, the distinctions between right and left, liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional abstractions without flesh, and I realize how impoverished my language has been over the years, that I have to build better transitions between act and abstraction: this is conservative, that is progressive, and this is why I support the progressive side.
To these baby steps are those incredibly big leaps I must make, the sotto voce abstractions that guide Kenyan life, rules about where to go for this, who to speak to for that, in this land without signs, lacking a social compass leaves one floundering, and survivor Kenya leaves one exhausted.
This is Kenya, I am told, where businesses have a certain logic, transport another, politics yet another, and I am not yet fluent in code-switching—like my niece, I repeat over and over until some kind person pats me on the head, hands me a sweet, and promptly ignores me.
And so the domestic has become metaphorical: my niece’s reluctance to go to bed, her lightning-fast switches between awake and not, her crankiness when she is tired, her seemingly-endless capacity for joy, her endless laugh, her desire for attention, all of these seem to describe both of us, or all three of us: her, me, Nairobi.
* * *
I continue to conflate, in my writing, the figure of the returnee and that of the been-to—been-to, one who has been abroad and returned. In truth, I am neither, my stay here too short to merit either title. Yet, the social does not allow “visitor,” not when I put children to bed, make lunch and dinner, and demonstrate to my niece, repeatedly, that I really do not know math.
I am told she gets endorphins from doing math. I saw it in action yesterday. Clearly, we do not inhabit the same intellectual world.
I consider the been-to MINE MINE MINE, as my niece puts it, and hesitate to write about this figure. But I must confess that I’ve never understood what it means to be selfish about an idea—ideas are many and only the immensely insecure hoard knowledge. No one person ever sees exactly the same as another, and this allows for intellectual exchange.
According to William Lawson, the figure of the been-to arrives into African fiction in the 1950s and becomes less prominent, or even disappears, in the 1970s. It’s a convenient narrative, yet, to make it, Lawson must forget his own claim: the been-to is not merely a figure who has traveled abroad and returned, but a philosophical figure whose tensions and contradictions embody the dense knottings of Afro-modernity.
Unable to negotiate there and here, the been-to falls apart, his philosophical idealism clashing with quotidian customs, here and there: he goes mad, goes to prison, retreats to inglorious isolation, is killed by his community, erases there to be here or here to be there. He builds secret rooms to be there and here, here and there, can not bridge the here he imagines with the here that is, the there that exists with the there that is.
African Survivor Modernity.
As Chinua Achebe clarifies in an interview with Lawson, the been-to is not every person who has been abroad—most return perfectly healthy and adjusted, with wives, cars, children, furniture, and anecdotes in tow.
I am, I confess, less interested in a psycho-biography of the been-to, a kind of “why does he fall apart?” (this figure is predominantly male)
Instead, it is what this figure tells us about Afro-modernity, about an Afro-modernity attentive to those small shifts in space and time that excite, stimulate (irritate); the guerilla warfare of an indifferent atmosphere and a too-sensitive skin.
It is as though modernity, Afro-modernity, is an allergen test on the been-to’s skin. And modernity’s scars differ, ever so slightly, from cosmetic scarification, and their textures beckon.