Kenya

     Trespassing in Search of Soul Food

Throughout the white girl’s life there had always been a sacred place to sit and stare. The wide crotch of a maple tree, the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, a quiet hill….
But no place in Africa. Not yet.
After eight months of competing against homicidal mini-buses for space on the road and navigating the incessant demands and  bureaucratic tangles of everyday life in Kenya, Mark and Silla needed a break. Time away from noisy Nairobi and their five children. Just the two of them.
Twenty minutes north of their noisy new life, a small, quiet hotel was nestled in the rolling hills of Tigoni. The thorny acacia grows there, with its dramatic horizontal reach. Every daughter said Go!
While Mark read in the quiet, one-room cottage they had rented, Silla explored the steep garden falling to a narrow creek behind the Kentmere Club. Accustomed to daily walks in Wisconsin’s countryside, and having found no uncrowded place to walk in their new city, she longed to hike the hilly land bordering the Club.
An old woman was gathering tall grass across the creek. Silla asked who owned the land she was working.
“Koinange,” the woman said, twisting her slight frame around and sweeping her arms over her head like a dancer to show just how much land he owned. She added the long cry of a bird to indicate, “on & on & on!”
Determined to track down this wise fellow who had accumulated the most appealing land she’d seen, Silla snuck off in their low-bellied car as her husband took a well-earned nap. She found rest in the possibility of having a weekly escape from the barbed wire and frenetic pace of the city. As she bounced a mile up his deeply rutted, hard red clay driveway, Silla called out to the only person in sight, “Mr Koinange, iko wapi?*”
The woman standing on the broken porch of a tiny weathered home stared unhappily at Silla’s progress through the maize fields and frantically gestured in the direction she had just come. It was almost dusk, and knowing how to execute a Y-turn was useless on that skinny road. Reversing the ruts for a tortured mile was fair punishment for trespassing.
Back at the fork, Silla picked up a girl heading the direction Silla should have chosen. She said she lived in one of the small circular grass and mud huts hidden from the road’s view.
“Dr. Bill Koinange? He is a minister,” the girl explained.
Silla thinks, Wow, some church he’s got, until it dawns on her that this is the famous Koinange, a high-up-in- government-and-rewarded-with-land-perks kind of minister. The man probably didn’t even live there.
“I take you to his second wife.”
The two laughed as the old car bounced slowly through impossible holes. The sun was close to dropping over the edge of the valley and the road to her hotel was out of sight. There was nothing but rolling farm land all around them, enough to swell a certain Midwestern heart. Told to lock her car as they got out, Silla followed the girl uphill toward the circle of huts.
Half-dressed children careened in their direction, squealing with delight at the sight of the misplaced, colorless woman. Their wary mothers stood at a distance watching this white stranger be a bit playful with their kids. When the naive white woman reached out to pet a small dog and was rewarded with a snarl, the dog got kicked in the face and became the target for stones before Silla could protest.
Two of the children gently pinched her arm to see what white felt like. Another raced up from behind and startled her, much to everyone’s amusement. Silla’s casual tour guide had gone off to get the one man she was sure could speak English. He arrived with several women. They all looked suspicious or hostile. The white woman was a brazen intruder. She imagined they were wondering why they could never seem to get away from presumptuous Mzungu. She tried to explain the condition of her heart, in faltering Swahili.
“I live in Nairobi…” as if that should explain everything. It wasn’t until she made a loud tangle of her hands and voice though, indicating the crazy noises and rude traffic of the Big City that they seemed to get the idea.
“I just wanted to ask Mr. Koinange if I could walk here, in the peacefulness, sometimes.”
Her fingers were walking through the air like the Yellow Pages ad from the 1970s, just in case she had used the wrong Swahili words to explain herself.
Was it always being a stranger, always on the outside and trying so hard to be acceptable, that got to her? Bone tired, on land that made her ache for home, she could tell her heart was about to crack.
“I have a farm in America….”
Feelings swelled to the surface. Tears came. The Kenyans started whispering, trying to reach some consensus. What made her cry? How to get rid of her politely? It was unusual enough for a white woman to be wandering the countryside alone, but this was really something.
The lead man’s demeanor softened. Troubled by her tears, he offered to take Silla to their white neighbors across the faraway road, but Silla had seen the place. It was formal and proper, and she was decidedly not.
How could she explain that British people especially don’t often do well with weepy strangers? The story would spread and she’d be pegged as an emotional basket case. Being an empty, worn-out basket with these strangers was somehow safer. They were less likely to be appalled or alienated by her need.
Silla couldn’t imagine thumping her heart with her closed fist and then sweeping her hand across the horizon to take in the sun setting over the acacia trees with a sophisticated English couple. She couldn’t have shared her deep missing all this with people who thought it was a virtue to contain themselves.
At least sixty silent eyes were fixed on Silla. She was a spectacle of vulnerability and felt quite alone until a young, quiet woman wrapped in a worn soft cloth approached her and took Silla’s limp hand into hers, daring to bridge the considerable gap between them.
This nameless sister seemed to be in no hurry to leave this white woman’s side or to discover how she could fix her. The empathetic gesture was all Silla needed. A bit of mercy-fruit set into her empty basket.
Without words Silla thanked the Kikuyu for letting her be vulnerable among them. (Brokenness and gratitude have a universally understandable body language.)
Mzungu is the Swahili name for white people. Mzunguko means chasing in circles. The Kenyans politely pretend there is no connection between the two words, but Silla was sure they knew better. She was a weary Mzungu, having run in too many circles before wearing down her heart.
A penniless Kenyan had once asked her, “Why is it you Mzungu chase around so when you have enough maize and tea and sugar to last you many days?!”
Perhaps we are to be pitied … she wrote in her journal, for chasing after satisfaction when it is sometimes right there before us, as it was for me as the African sun set over the spreading acacias, and a gentle girl held my hand.

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