Safari Kit Ltd. at Fairview Hotel tells a story about a Kenya that I do not recognize.

A copy of John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener leers at the nubile, bare-breasted women depicted on the overpriced postcards (Shs. 60). The accompanying captions, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and “African Jewels” deconstruct the ostensible distinction between tourism and sex tourism. Or make it ostensible.

I’m learning not to look at Africana sections in such stores, where reassuringly German and English names, tourist-friendly names, sell Tourist Kenya to Tourists.

The little sculptures of little African children are bucolic and unrecognizable.

Aggressive voices of business men
* * *
A security guard asks why I’m taking notes. Important people come here. I’m saved by my accent. I show him my notebook, dare him to read my scrawl, interpret its significance.

It never fails. I get a pass.
* * *
Aggressive businessmen talk loudly into their phones, in the language of exchange. “That will be x dollars which is y Euros and z shillings.” Their fluencies elude me, their pretensions are unremarkable.

Back to the bookstore.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the “most” African section lives in children’s books, where Mama Panya’s Pancakes: A Village Tale from Kenya, by Mary and Rich Chamberlain sits happily besides We All Went on Safari: A Counting Journey Through Tanzania, written by Laura Krebs.

In US libraries, Tarzan lives in the juvenilia section. In Kenyan tourist stores, Africans live in the juvenilia section, lovingly depicted by reassuringly European names.

I have often wondered how tourists visit Kenya and leave with their prejudices intact, their racial assumptions confirmed. It must be because we let them. Because we sell unrecognizable images of ourselves.
* * *
The well-scrubbed concierge wants me to leave, makes it clear I have no place here, because I don’t wear suits, don’t pay too much money to be shielded from that other Kenya, the one he has tried so desperately to escape.

Today will not be my Thiong’o moment.

My host is gracious and wonderful, and I remember the distinction between the bookstore Kenya, the Tourist Kenya, the Afro-colonial Kenya, and the Kenya of laughs and conversations and quick passions and sharp minds.

2 thoughts on “09.25.08

  1. Fairview is a relic of sorts. A blast to the past despite being in the middle of a rapidly changing Nairobi.
    It is sad that just for the sake of making some dollars the Kenyan tourism industry is more than happy to sell the primitive fantasy of Africa.
    Sadly a young black man who is not in a suit has no place in a hotel like Fairview……

  2. Ahh, see. I was too young and too poor before to go there.

    Still poor, but now I dare.

    It was interesting as an ethnographic experiment. I’m not sure it’s a relic. It seems to me that it’s an aspirational kind of place: where “we” want to be able to go, so we can speak loudly into phones of our accomplishments.

    But this is cynical view–and I’m trying to fight against cynicism, my own.

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