Sunday, February 10, 2008

a little lament for Kenya

I suppose I took it for granted - the one place where everything would be fine - the country in Africa with the best chance of succeeding - that would succeed. I'm completely dismayed and I don't really know how to express it, because it's not 'mine' - it's not for me to feel dismayed - it's only the memories which are mine:

I saw my first shooting star in Kenya: the night we arrived at the coast - a few miles south of Mombasa - through the leaves of palm trees, slicing through a sky that was an ocean of Indian ink. I was 15.

I remember Kenya in 1997, when I was 17. It was our second visit; during a summer of student riots. I found Jack again, on the beach, where I'd met him two years before.

We drove to his house in one of the fringe townships of Mombasa. His house was one room in a single-storey concrete block of a building, with shared squat-toilets at the end of the hall. I couldn't see anything outside the window except other blocks just like this one (or in worse condition), separated by bamboo and palms and little straggly patches of jungle.

A friend arrived with fish and chips in newspaper - a moment of surreal incongruity! - and told us there was rioting in town and it was spreading through the streets. Admittedly, all the hotels had warned their guests not to leave the grounds. Most had locked their gates. Every foreign tourist had been 'tagged' with a hospital-style hotel armband. I'd left the hotel because I thought knowing a Kenyan and being 17 automatically guaranteed immunity to injury and death!

But the tag spelled trouble for Jack - if the police found us. And the riots were bringing both trouble, and the police (one and the same thing!), closer. His friend brought the car right up to the entrance, over the dust and mud, and I climbed into the backseat and lay down. Between them, they steered the car out of the township and onto the main coastal road from Mombasa and didn't turn on the engine until they were sure we were well away. Only from my position lying flat along the backseat did I notice that the car didn't apparently have any gear stick!

By the time we got back to the hotel it was dark. The gates were locked and guarded. Jack and I left the car and walked into the forest surrounding the hotel.

We followed the walls until we found a place we were sure was unguarded. He gave me a leg up, I hauled myself up onto the wall and dropped down the other side. The resort was silent - an uncomfortably conflicting utopia of manicured lawns and landscaped gardens. I ran over the darkened lawns, onto the lighted pathways, and into my room.

Naivasha and Lake Nakuru: at least 80 people have been killed in conflicts between tribes, in a place of outstanding natural beauty. The area looks positively Utopian.

For anyone who's read The Beach, the price of utopia is usually somebody else's suffering. During one of the nights we stayed by Lake Nakuru there was an almighty dog fight on the porch of the lodge where we were sleeping. They only ceased when something crept through the trees in front of the lodge, and all the dogs turned to growl at it, united.

A short boat trip took me and my family across the lake to an island. We were told it was entirely predator free and we could roam around at will and see giraffes and zebra. That was where a 15-foot python shot out of the earth and into the sky with the velocity and noise of an oil or gas explosion, less than two feet from where I was standing. Naturally my first instinct was to stand around and take photos! When we returned to the boat and spoke to the boatman, he revised his previous assurance by saying that the island was entirely predator free except for the python!

A bit more than a year later, Nakuru was also the place I returned to for 'training' with the AVs for my 'gap' year (mis)adventure!

But these were only my adventures. I took my adventures from Kenya and apart from the tourist money - which Kenya is now suffering massive depletions of - I had nothing worth giving. I made promises I couldn't keep, I had exotic adventures with other people's real lives, I walked naively into situations I didn't (couldn't) understand.

I have no place there - no right to a claim on anything but my own experiences and memories - and so am in no place to judge. But I can't help but feel sorrow for a country that gave me so much and is now turning in on itself. I despair of manipulative politicians using its people's ethnic allegiances to turn its own country into something dangerous and tragic.

I don't even know where Jack Malidzo is anymore...

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