Nairobi is tonal, like “African languages.” Words shift in meaning as they shimmer through the air, intonation changes everything, slight changes in facial expression speak volumes. Even whispers have their particular flavor on the tongue, and I daily rediscover my other fluencies.

In this land of a thousand smiles, each one distinct, only the uninitiated write “Kenyans smile a lot.” To say this is akin to noting that food has flavor, without distinguishing between the sweetness of basil and the earthiness of cumin.

A smiling waiter during a long-ago vacation played with white tourists while telling me “hawa ni wapumbavu.”

In this land of a thousand smiles, one dare not mistake smiling for benign intentions.
* * *
Good and evil modulate into necessary and unnecessary.

It is shortsighted to speak of hypocrisy.
* * *
Among those fluent in the idiom, conversations are punctuated, “I smiled like this” and “I smiled like that,” interspersed with smiles that further enhance the ongoing conversation.

At two, my niece has perfected at least 10 smiles.

She has learned which smiles should start at which side of the mouth, which ones should begin simultaneously, which engage one eyebrow, which two, which require one to partially shut one’s eyes, which require both eyes shut, which last for 3 seconds, which for 5.

Daily, she learns the intricate choreography that blends individual movements, daily she discovers that what some term inscrutable or friendly speaks.
* * *
My first year in the States, I had started to forget this intricate choreography, had adopted a stretch-lip smile, and my good friend John yelled at me. If I could no longer be fluent, at the very least I should retain the rudiments of sociality.
* * *
It is not enough to master the variations.

That leaves one confused, for each individual uses the variations differently, and the flirt on one face might be murderous or indifferent on another.

To be in the social is to constantly learn and re-learn, to switch from this to that, from here to there, and the most adept among us travel with ease from here to there, then to now.

2 thoughts on “09.18.08

  1. I am entirely without the ability to understand. What does “hawa ni wapumbavu” mean? Or is it something, as an outsider, I still wouldn’t understand even with translation?

Comments are closed.