Everything feels new in Nairobi.
It’s difficult to decipher what is new and what is new to me. I am given directions that don’t compute, familiar landmarks re-named, destroyed, replaced. Place has shifted, space become foreign, and I rely on the kindness of strangers.
Daily I walk through someone else’s geography.
“Welcome home” requires translation. Karibu Kenya. Wii mucii. Umerudi.
A simple hypothesis: the newness of Nairobi is magnified by the uniformity of there, where a Target in every town, or a Walmart, a Starbucks or a Gap, a McDonalds or a Pizza Hut, these make landscapes familiar, distressingly and reassuringly so.
* * *
I turn to those old standards, the obituaries, which I learned to scour as a child, less because I knew the faces and more, I suspect, because I had seen my mother doing so and also to begin tracing webs of affiliations.
They do not disappoint.
Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and distant relatives (of the USA, of England, of KIE, of Big Company) are named.
The language of neoliberalism has taken hold, and individuals are now “Promoted to Glory.” On hearing this, my sister tells me that promotion is the right word, because many of those promoted here do nothing.
I still continue to wonder why “promoted” why not “retired.” Though I guess one cannot be “retired to glory.”
* * *
I wonder whether I have the energy to write something about returning home in one’s 30s, as though age, not time away, makes the difference. In some strange way it does.
In my 20s, a trip home was to meet others like me, similarly unsettled. Wandering around, being unsettled had not yet attained what it is now. Now, we speak of those who wander without aim with a particular tone, a certain, “but x was so smart, had so much potential.”
30 marks a certain dividing line, at least in the world of those who don’t stay in school for way too long. But this is easy. We know it. And this story is not worth telling.
But to write it’s not worth telling is also to ask about what happens to dreaming here.
My sister and I have been engaged in an ongoing conversation about the imagination in Kenya. We have a tentative hypothesis that the imagination is reviled, even feared. For this reason, C.S. Lewis, only the greatest Christian Humanist, is accused of having written a demonic series, The Chronicles of Narnia.
I’m not yet sure how to think about the imagination here: it’s a country where the most educated believe they might be cursed at any moment, will pay sacrifices to be un-cursed, where my overly qualified medical doctor of a father bought herbs from some weird mganga to fight thrombosis—his overgrown grave tells how well that worked.
I hesitate to write that we fear the imagination—only that what we consider pragmatism always has the edge.
How, then, to think of abstractions such as peace and ethics and care, of inter-ethnic reconciliation, of futures when the present is always filled with urgencies, is always a now-time?