I am flying into Nairobi from Dubai, I have been in the air for twenty hours since leaving Melbourne, twenty eight hours since I locked the door of my apartment. The TV screen on the centre aisle bulkhead shows map of East Africa and the position of our jet between Kisumu and Nairobi, there are a smattering of other familiar names and places, Mount Kilimanjaro, Mombasa and further down Dar Es Salaam, Zanzibar. The text on the screen reads Nairobi 29 mins. I slept for a total of around four hours and so have joined “the thousand yard stare club”.
There was a five hour stopover in Dubai where I caught up on emails in the Emirates lounge and made Cappuccinos from a machine with more buttons than a flight deck. In the air, I watched four or five movies, they merge into each other, a collage of past lives and dreaming and now I am having flashbacks, like pop up boxes, lifetimes of well meaning people making dumb choices, betraying each other in unhappy romances with predictable endings, the man and woman who can’t stand each other, until their best friends die leaving them a baby to try to raise together, the Woody Allen Movie where half a dozen people’s lives become increasingly precarious as their various dreams implode. Please turn off all electronic devices, stow your tray tables, bring your seats to the upright position, and open the window shades. I look to window, blinding bright after so long the timeless lounge light of the cabin, I squint through the glare and the terrain below takes from, a crazy web of dirt roads etched white on the beige brown Kenyan landscape.
The plane makes one very steep bank and then another, shudders a little as it slows, banks again slicing the sky like the sweep of a blade and straightens for the last decent. The city of Nairobi, buildings in a haze are out to the left and an arid expanse, as far as the eye can see, to the right. I don’t understand the need for these steep banking manoeuvres but it is always the same. There are special people waiting for me in Kenya, people I love and I my heart swells a little when I think of some of my meetings over the next few weeks. I wonder if hearts only break through love.
A few days later in Nairobi I am with my friend Nimo and carrying six one litre bottles of spring water the kilometre back from the supermarket to the hotel. It is hot; the air is thick with the diesel fumes from noisy, badly maintained city busses. It is hard to talk above the noise of the traffic, trumpeting horns, and the cries from Matatu touts. The sidewalk is uneven and the plastic supermarket bag is cutting into my fingers.
Finally we reach the hotel, go to the open air cafe and order tea. Nimo is a beautiful Kikuyu woman working with an NGO in Nairobi, she has coffee coloured skin, platted braids in her hair, almond tiger bright eyes and a laugh like a bird’s song. It is so good to sit, to put the water down, to watch the busy street life rather than being part of it.
“That was heavy” I say, opening and closing my hand to get the circulation back.
“I am glad…. “I pause, “You know the women I have talked about at Ndabibi?” Nimo nods. “They carry 20 litres three or four kilometres and often a child as well, every day, sometimes twice…….whether they feel like it, or not. I have just realised in a new way how hard that must be.”
Nimo says: “When you have no choice, you must be so strong”. She says it flat, the way you can say things if you know they are true today and still true tomorrow. Nimo is from a village and carried water as a child.
Nimo’s statement sits somewhere in me, stuck in the space between my brain and the back of my eyes. We sit without talking; the roar of the city surrounds us.
The streetscape is a thing alive, a mass of dark skinned humanity. A man in a white short sleeved shirt so unhurried as to be almost slow motion, another making long purposeful strides, one moving faster, quick and out of step with the throng, turning his body left and right, a matador in the crowd. A women in a bold African print, some hawkers selling magazines, sunglasses, maps and bright sun umbrellas, faces eager, resigned, hopeful , hopeless, I begin to ponder what separates them from me? But it is too noisy to think. A Mhindi in a suit passes, he is wearing a gold watch and chain around his neck. He is nowhere near as invisible as he probably thinks, perhaps he is a visitor, and unlikely he will have the neck chain for long, even here downtown. A small gang of street urchins swarms around a middle aged couple, Mzungu tourists, red faced and flustered, lost looking.
Later I am thinking about what Nimo said, “When you have no choice you have to be strong”. I have a feeling that my own multitude of choices often undermines my ability to be strong and to do wholeheartedly what is necessary and just and healthy and true. So often I have the luxury to do what I feel like doing, in my sophistication my conscience has become something to “take responsibility” for. As I think about this now, feeling like doing something is just one way of deciding what to do and how to act and actually I may make better decisions if I didn’t relate so closely to what I feel and instead I just do what needs to be done. Thoughts about lilies and birds and sowing and reaping and growing and toiling and spinning all somehow adding up to some kind of encouragement to be present, or in Swahili Hakuna matata; “there are no worries”.
Some of my work in Kenya’s Rift Valley is an area we call Wema , we work with communities in two areas, one is Weseges and the other Maji tamu and we have combined the two names. Weseges people are primarily Kalenjin and in Maji tamu the people are mostly Kikuyu. They are traditional rivals and at times there has been violence between them. We are meeting in a hut with a tin roof, concrete floor and split log walls. Bright light shines through spaces between the logs like halogen in the half light of the room. The windows have no glass but shutters for lock up. It is like the hut in a Wild West movie and has recently been taken over by the Waseges committee on loan from the local government and the group has renovated it. They have installed a 2 meter square blackboard at one end and the room is filled with white plastic moulded chairs. The group proudly tells me they purchased the chairs from membership contributions. I am meeting with around 25 men and women who comprise management committees from the two economic empowerment groups. Normally I ask them to tell me what has happened in each of their group’s during the six or so months since I last visited.
Getting a true sense of what is happening can be awkward as the achievements for one group in some areas may overshadow the other and there is an unspoken competitiveness. This time I decided to try something different. I made a vertical chalk line on the blackboard and at one point put ‘Start’and the other end I put “Now”. And then I asked all those present to help me plot the achievements of the last 3 years. And from their own history it emerged that they saw the first year was about dreaming what might be possible, the second year was dealing with difficulties and disappointments including many resignations within the committees and some confusion about direction. And then when we came to the third year there were so many actions and achievements that there was hardly space enough to write everything in. And I joked that is seemed like a marriage; the first year was the honey moon, the second year we realised the reality of our choices and that our choice to work together was not going to be easy, commitment and faithfulness were required not just dreaming. And the third year was when the babies came and now it was our work to nourish and build what we had created. And there was a great explosion of laughter and and little speeches by various members about the truth of this.
And I said, “Do you remember when I had first come and you said “Mzungu, tell us what we should do” and you looked at me expectantly with you notebooks out and the pens ready? ”
Heads nodded and faces lit up, there were smiles and a hum of agreement
And I asked them,
“Does anyone think now this Mzungu can tell you anything about what you should do?” And we all laughed and laughed, like it was the silliest thing in the world.
This may seem a very small thing, but I treasure these small diamonds that shine unexpectedly from hard rough ground. Here and with these people I seem to know what to do.
Back in Nakuru I am staying at Merica Hotel, it is owned by a former politician and is the best hotel in town. I am sitting in the lobby waiting for a friend and there is an African wildlife documentary on the big screen TV. It is soon apparent that this is the story of the dry season and of a crocodile filled water hole that is slowly drying up. There is no commentary it is simply a visual account of the helplessness and horror of the animals that are forced to come and drink. I watch as a mother baboon has its baby snatched from her arms by a crocodile and she fights the croc and so lovingly retrieves the dying baby that it brings tears to my eyes, an antelope so perfect in its shape and coloring, black body stripe against its svelte beige body, ventures timidly for a drink and has its head bitten off by another croc. A young monkey loses its arm as it tries to get a mouth of water, it escapes confused skin hanging where its left arm used to be.
I am thinking that there is much that is not benign or romantic or beautiful about this planet, it is really a very violent and savage place. And that things are not like this because of something I have done, not my original sin, not even what my people have done or not done. But I can make choices which may make things better.
I talked with Nimo on the phone this morning. Nimo shares an apartment with her sister and brother in law, in Nairobi’s Eastlands, she says it is safe enough during the day but it is not safe to be out after 9pm. This morning when Nimo stepped onto the rough dirt road on her way to work, there was a mob and two young men lay there, ragged and bloody. One was dead, the other barely conscious, an outstretched arm clawing at the ground, as though to drag his body forward. It was only 7am Tuesday morning. They had snatched a local woman’s mobile phone and been chased by the mob and stoned. Nimo told me she had to pass within a few metres of the young man who was still just alive.
She said “The image of this boy is burned on my mind and I can’t get it out”.
Nimo soon found out from her sister that this young man also died.
Nimo said, “Okay was very wrong what they did but who could tell how they were loved as children and okay they were wrong but the young men who stoned them are poor and just like them as well”.
And I am thinking it is so unfair that she must now carry this image like a wound.
Nakuru, Kenya January 2011
There are two fundamental questions posed by many sages. “Who am I? And how will I live?” And I think who are we, what will we do? St Augustine of Hippo’s definition of a community is “a multitude of rational beings united by agreeing to share the things they love”. I am worried about what my community loves. I am worried by what I love. I am wondering if too many times, I am giving myself too many choices about how to live and what to do.  An Indian, literally “the one who speaks Hindi”  Swahili for white men and women, derived from “the one who looks lost”  Who am I?” became a famous self enquiry and teaching given by the Hindu Saint Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi at the beginning of the twentieth century  St Augustine of Hippo In ‘The City of God’ written early 5th Century