Celebrating East African Writing!
My first sighting of Nigeria was in December 1980 when our PAN-AM plane landed in Kano on transit to New York. I was eighteen and on my way to Ohio University. Fellow passengers were almost all white tourists with a few Indian businessmen thrown in for colour. There must have been other black faces on the flight but I don’t remember any, and the thought that crossed my mind was that I could be whoever I decided as there was no-one to contradict me. Being with strangers meant that I was not boxed into an identity. The elderly American next to me had overgrown hair in his ears, nose, moustache and eyebrows. Itchy to watch it stir and wiggle when he spoke. But as the first-born daughter of a Kikuyu mother, senior-civil servant father, and a beneficiary of a Catholic secondary school education, I knew to extend a good face to my elders and to all white people.
The man launched into a detailed account of his Safari. I responded in my most English-English to bust any pre-conceived notion in his head that I might have anything in common with the ‘money-for-photos-red-sheeted-noble-savages’ that he’d seen in the parks. I wore the latest cowboy boots for god’s sake. When I lit a cigarette and requested the perky hostess – who called me honey – for rum and coke, the man stopped going on about wildlife and asked if I’d really been raised in Kenya. He seemed both impressed and disappointed with me, as though my modernity negated my Africa-ness. So I played him, and in a softer virgin voice pretended that my father was a polygamist (I confess here that it is my grandfather who married to four wives), that I’d learned to smoke at the village well to revenge the unfair treatment of my stepmothers, that I was escaping a pre-arranged marriage.
After a while, the effects of the unaccustomed rum and coke, and imagining how my mother would slap and backslap this kind of nonsense out of me, blurred my thoughts and I couldn’t keep the details of my story straight. Still, the man liked the script and began to enthuse about how well I would fit in America because I’d transcended my upbringing, and who knows what I could become given this opportunity. “America will love you. You speak better English than I do,” he said, as though that determined and settled my future.
From the cabin of the plane there was not much to see except for scattered lights as we descended into Kano. The airport building looked remarkably similar to the (old) one I’d left in Nairobi. However, those who got on the plane quickly dispelled any notions of familiarity. First, they were loud, especially when speaking with each other. In a disorderly manner they squashed huge bags into overhead lockers. Only on national days and weddings did Nairobians wear African clothes, which even if made of African cloth tended to be western in design – like skirt suits in kente cloth. Two Nigerian men, in copious white garments that multiplied their size, spotted me from across the seats and called out, ‘Greetings mai sista. How you dere na?” How could they shout as though we were hair-braiders competing for business at Kenyatta market? When I looked away they gestured at each other, laughed. The bushy-hair man next to me placed his hand on mine, and squeezed. I felt as though his hairs would crawl off his face onto me. My reaction to the Nigerians had clearly demonstrated to him that I’d rejected African-ness. Despite the tales I’d told, I was no longer different enough for him to respect our distance. With a stiff smile, I pushed him away, reached for my headset and plugged it in. I felt confused and heady-achy, as much from feeling ill-judged as from the smoking and drinking. I didn’t say another word until we landed in New York.
I fell in love (or lust) almost as soon as I passed through customs. The skin of a black American man serving at a soda stand was an incredibly uniform shade of warm brown – even his elbows and knuckles were of the same even-toned hue. I wanted to eat his skin. His body was muscular in a loose kind of way, and although he wasn’t particularly tall, he looked like a basketball player. I wanted to bless my future children with his textured hair. I imagined asking him, in the epitome of American cool as delivered to us by bareheaded Kodak on KBC Sunday night TV, “Guess who loves ya, baby?”
JFK airport is a huge, foreign and busy place inhabited by people jabbering and cursing in many languages. The bench across from his stall was hard, and I experienced the sense of unreality that came from lack of sleep, and the weighing of expectations as to whether the reality in front of me validated the familiar America of movies – Shaft, Saturday Night Fever and Billy Dee Williams. When I thought he wasn’t looking, I feasted my eyes on the soda-man. I had several hours to kill before my connecting flight. Eventually, someone relived him at the stall, and the man sauntered over with a Coke and a smile.
He said something that I didn’t catch, and when I said, “Pardon?” he repeated whatever it was slower and louder.
“Dig what you see?” he said.
I studied the ground. He spoke so easy, gravel over water. I said a silent wawa, and my heart replied in universal language, Ngai fafa yesu christo jehovah. MmmMm!
“Wheres you from?” he asked.
Ati what? I could name the boroughs of New York and he didn’t even know Nairobi was in Kenya?
“It’s the capital city of Kenya. East Africa. Nairobi is a few degrees south of the equator.”
“Shiiiiit. Africa? I knows somebody from Africa. His name is Abola, Abeeola, something like that. Know him?”
Call me fickle, but at that point I knew the love was over. That he didn’t offer me the Coke and kept gesturing at the guy who’d relieved him at the stall; that he had a large white cloth hanging from his back pocket like a jua kali roadside mechanic; and most of all that he spoke ungrammatically – these signs confirmed that the soda man could never be one for me. He went on to ask questions that exhibited a general ignorance about the world outside of New York, and he spoke in a tone that suggested he thought Americans were better than Africans. He looked down on me.
I switched on my English-English and lectured him about the geography and history of Africa, distancing myself from him until he got the message. Negro is what we called Black Americans in our private spaces at home – not with slavery in mind but based on the images presented in the American media we consumed at the time. Negro is what my parents had warned me against. I’m ashamed when I think of it now but even though the soda man said he was in college and worked part time, I mentally branded him with the stereotypical image of a Negro – lazy, stupid, uncouth, lower class, nothing but a gangster in the making. I looked down on him. He looked down on me. African and Black American barely knew each other and what little was learned through unsympathetic, exploitive media. Not surprisingly, there was little possibility of connection.
But the soda-man’s brand of questions would later be posed by Americans of all races, ages and education levels. I answered them with less and less goodwill during my seven years in America – I learnt my English on the boat on the way over. I live on the fifth branch of the Mugumo tree. I prefer crocodile to snake meat. My father is my brother but what does my grandmother know.
I was determined to love America and I wanted America to love me. I yearned to belong, to form lasting friendships, to feel rooted.
I moved into a dormitory of 700 predominantly white American girls. Because there are such few white residents in Kenya, and they tend to live privileged separate lives, I had never encountered peer-to-peer racism. It felt odd to walk into the huge dining room and see Black and Hispanic students congregate around a table separated from the people they shared lessons with. Odder still that almost all the Black American students (less than 5% of the student population) lived together in one dormitory.
Language was a shield and a barrier. My brand of English gained me acceptance in the white community, or at least it eased their fears. In classrooms, there as almost a palpable lessening of tension as soon as I opened my mouth. My tongue was free of the guilt and anger of slave history – I could be perceived as objective, neutral territory. They (grudgingly) commended the fact I spoke their language well. Of course, it was this same English that made Black Americans suspicious of me – in a tone that suggested they thought I was putting on airs, they asked how come I spoke ‘British’ instead of African like the other Africans.
Ronald Reagan had signed a bill that led to the release of mental patients from institutions across the country. Several patients from a nearby mental centre joined the university on a special program. One of them was assigned to be my room-mate. She banged her head on the wall. She regularly upturned drawers, pulled off beddings and scattered papers on the floor. Hers and mine. I complained to the Resident Assistant, but it only got addressed when a Rwandese post-graduate student who’d heard that there was a new African on campus came to visit. He found the mess, heard my story and pronounced it racism. He wrote an official complaint, and demanded an apology for placing a young foreign student in a room with a mental patient. They’d kept her status a secret because no-one else would agree to share a room with her. They somehow thought that I’d either not notice her weird behaviour, or not mind. Perhaps they also thought I was likely to exhibit weird behaviour of my own.
I started to recognize racist behaviour for myself – being followed in a shop, assumptions that you needed special assistance in class. But I felt tense and artificial, constantly worried about how to present myself – chopping and changing my language to gain acceptance. I even made my peace with my old roommate and visited her family over one long weekend (and was shocked at the end to be asked to contribute money to defray the costs of the visit).
White America was friendly enough as long as I didn’t try to get too close. Black America didn’t accept me. Difficult for them to understand that I’d had no experience being black. Coming from a continent where almost everyone was black, colour didn’t define me. And Black in America was a complex, nuanced animal that needed constant feeding. You couldn’t comb your hair a certain way, you couldn’t wear pink nail polish, you couldn’t sit on this or that table, you had to keep up with who was ‘dagging’ whom. Even when I finally started to make sense of Black language, being black still felt like a course loaded with unexpected and illogical obstacles.
I’d dived into the deep end and hit my head at the bottom. Only then did I float up and seek rooting amongst my fellow Africans.
For financial and cultural reasons, most Africans lived off-campus. Because they were relatively few, they stuck together, shared houses, dated each other, attended each other’s parties and fund-raisings, and advocated each other’s causes. I lived with a Ghanian, dated a Zimbabwean. The group I hang out with included Africans from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Botswana, Mauritius and Rwanda. I learnt that it was a Kenyan thing to play with accents, and that it didn’t impress other Africans. Even though we spoke different vernaculars, ate different food and exhibited varied cultural influences, I sensed a uniting philosophy, a way of looking at the world that defined us as Africans. It manifested in our open-ness to joy, in our inexactness – not everything had to be spelled out or accounted for, in our communal considerations, in our spontaneity. I embraced my African skin.
This lasted until I came back to Moi’s Kenya, and pure shame about what the country had become, and the struggle for survival, drove me back into the comforting myopia of Kikuyu-ness. I understand it’s different for Africans in America too – it seems that as each community achieves a critical mass/population, it rarely reaches for personal friendships or interaction across borders. But I’ve learnt that, like transcendence of nationhood over tribe, to be an African is a choice always open to interrogation.