09.13.08

Here and there is the distinction between “oh” and “oooooooo.” One ejaculatory, a sound on the way to somewhere else, the other a complete unit of meaning.

This most familiar of Kenyan sounds resists translation.

I find myself extending one to the other, occupying the time of sound differently. Feeling my mouth shape itself otherwise, lingering on the extended sound that changes in flavor and texture, in those subtle tonal shifts that the “a b c” alphabet can never quite capture, where speech and music meet.

Like many Kenyans, I have linguo-tropism. My accent responds to my surrounding, my feelings, I withdraw into my off-American accent (Pennsylvania+ Washington+Oregon+Illinois, dominated by My Fair Lady) when faced with new, unexpected, or hostile situations. I slip into the serrated textures of Kenyan-ese when chatting with family; mostly, I move in and out of where I have been and who I have been, and every few days I get to say Foucault.

One’s response to others’ accents, others’ tones, much like the switch from one language to another, this fascinates me. When a Kenyan performs a formal shift from one language to another—not the easy “srip and sride” we tend to do—but actually chats in English on the phone and immediately switches to Swahili in conversation, something quite amazing happens. Bodies change orientation, tongues perform new dances.

Faces shift their facing.

And one adjusts, rapidly, similarly re-orienting oneself in the space of a few seconds, an act so automatic that it merits no mention. Yet it’s remarkable the faces we put on to meet other faces, to paraphrase Everett Standa.
* * *
Four-way intersections have no stop signs, and my nieces have gone into a prolonged, loud, never-ending singing frenzy.

I have not driven in seven years, and I wonder whether I remember the particular ballet of cut and inter-cut, stop and go, terminable and interminable. How to drive too fast across limited spaces, close gaps, create others, turn two-way lanes into 5-way highways.

Something about this dynamic start and stop, go too fast and not at all, something of this is captured in our intersections.

When smart people describe Kenya, usually Africa, as being at an “intersection,” I wonder how it translates.

Intersections are sites of improvised choreography, where the grace of allowing others to pass one day is modified by the urgencies of another day. And the rules about which order should prevail re-written at every turn.

We become intimate on the road.

Against this closed openness, I find myself having turned into “one of those Africans.”

Despite my general distaste for air conditioning, which I find both too hot and too cold, I find the lack of air in most buildings stifling. Bodies linger, perfumes stale, offices become layer upon layer of scents and histories, the nervousness, the apprehension, the excitement, the lust, the disapproval, all of it hangs in the air.

Buildings are awash in scent.
* * *
Nairobi forces one to re-conceptualize intimacy, when one can choose to be close to others, when one is forced into proximity with others, when one chooses to inhabit another’s scent, when one is washed over by others’ scents. Here, we are always rubbing along.

I return to Appiah’s idea of the “rooted cosmopolitan,” and wonder whether this is only possible if one embraces national belonging as a necessary form of deracination. The ideal rooted cosmopolitan, in such a scenario, develops aerial roots, can be in one’s country of birth or belonging only for short periods, is a citizen-visitor, marked mostly, I think, by an ability to perform citizen-ness.

Fitting in can be easy.

We begin conversations by saying that life is difficult and end by saying God will help. This ritual works in most settings.
* * *
My “oooooooo” is truncated, not sure how or whether it can move from the clipped “oh.”