This is the freedom of falling
And the beckoning edges
I had been wrestling with angels, and I
Hobbled by grace.
On cold days and on dry days
My pillow claims I have stigmata.
I continue to wonder what it means to risk identity.
On the plane, I am struck by the sad thought that now, in this place, my relationship to race changes again, and what has been unremarkable or unremarked upon becomes visible and impossible. What seems palpable now is a certain re-hardening of barriers that don’t exist, perhaps can’t exist, in my other world.
This is my race problem: idiosyncratic and home-grown, and not fully explained by the ways I’ve learned to think race, not just yet.
It started with the happy mission group in matching blue shirts, convinced about their power to do good as they re-shape our pentatonic scales with their happy hymns and child-friendly choruses. Bringing music to the Africans. Their conversation about what a privilege it is to “work” in Africa, how their supplies and teachings would bring much-needed light, their sanitary habits provide useful paradigms for Africans, their truth bring freedom to the benighted.
Lighting The Dark Continent.
Africans at the airport—we are so apparent to each other—look at the group with barely concealed disdain, at least Africans like me who have no patience with a newly conceived civilizing mission.
For me, arithmetic, grammar, and history were symbols of the enemy. I resisted them by refusing to let myself be overcome by them. In a word, they did not concern me for I had my mind on other things. I. whose ancestors had been slaves, had decided to be independent.
Three weeks later, I sit at arrivals waiting for my brother to return from Juba. Race is palpable here: the white tourists, the black and brown citizens, the very few black and brown visitors to family here, the business workers, those willing to pay Kshs 100/- for a bottle of soda and those who ask for hot water, and grudgingly part with Kshs 5/-. We have become used to—if not comfortable with—the harassment of brown bodies in the US, grudgingly concede it may not be fair, but, but, but just in case.
We must marvel at how the obscene becomes banal.
Here, in Nairobi, the flies cluster around the café at arrivals, anticipating the flavors of foreign flesh, scouts sent by their cousins, the mosquitoes, who daily feast on the iron-rich blood of foreigners. I remain bloated, not yet desiccated enough to say I really belong, not one of those many Kenyan men who double-loop their belts around wasp-like 26 inch waists.
These over-large garments created for other bodies that we don like sackcloth—it might be fitting that business-casual looks like sackcloth.
We have ice-cream. I give most of mine to my nieces, both of whom re-conceive the airport as a playground, playing with and around its barriers. Smart girls. They already know how to work the boundary zones, while we adults stay inside the lines and outside the lines, lined in and lining up.
I wonder if we lost something about the magic of airports: when villages and estates would line up to say goodbye and hello, when one’s face would be spattered with saliva by a grandmother, when younger brothers and cousins would compete to carry suitcases. And we waved. How we waved.
Now we leave alone and return alone, take taxis and abjure those hugs, those kisses, those handshakes.
Is this what it means to be a seasoned traveler? To have lost the flavor of belonging?
We have come to welcome my brother home, as part of the family unit, a sister, a brother, two nieces who will run into the boundary zone to claim “blood of my blood,” “bone of my bone.” Unlike me, he is not a stranger, not a voice heard over a phone over many years. And his welcome is splendid and loud and prolonged.
One could write about taking planes alone and arriving in strange cities, taking taxis and buses and the loneliness of dis-location. But this seems old, done, and the new vistas opened by travel compensate for what lacks, that nagging ache, that indescribable loss.
I wonder how to spell loss in cosmopolitan.
We part ways here, those who travel together while apart, who travel with purpose and because they can, who travel to Africa.
We travel to Africa, and Kenya is in it.
On returning home, I turn to my Illinois notebook and find a fragment:
The flower shop announced that the average age for a child to be molested is between 8 and 11. It exhorted parents to teach children the value of privacy.
I wonder if they sell bouquets: sorry you were molested.