04 January 2007

Answering Questions

I've wanted to write about Kenya, but haven't known quite what to do -- I don't really want to write only about who I saw and what I did, because that feels very limited, yet I'm wary of writing about all the things I'm thinking about in terms of Kenya, writing, writers, and publishing, because I don't feel the authority to be able to write about those things in a way that would be useful to somebody other than me. I haven't really adjusted to being back in the U.S. and doing all the stuff I was doing before Kenya. I don't want to make the trip out to be some sort of grandly illuminating and life-changing thing, the tale so often told by colonialists and racists (often with the best of intentions and biggest of ignorances) of the rich white guy with existentialist qualms going off to the dark continent and discovering A.) his humanity; or B.) the inhumanity of the "primitive" world. It was an illuminating trip; it was life-changing, but I don't know how to convey why and how yet. It may take years.

In the meantime, I have a few things planned. First, I'm inviting some Africans to write about whatever they want here, because one thing I think we all need is more access to African writing, and since I've got this here weblog thingy and an audience, the least I can do is offer some of the writers I met the opportunity to meet this audience. We'll start things off tomorrow with a post by Beverley Nambozo.

Right now, though, I thought I'd give you some of the answers I have been offering to people who ask about the trip.

Q: How was Kenya?
A: Warm, Kenya. Well, Nairobi was warm but not exactly hot. Lamu, an island off the coast, was very hot. I was swimming in the Indian Ocean on Christmas Day.

Q: How long was the flight?
A: I spent about 18 hours in the air, plus time in various airports.

Q: Was there running water in your hotel?
A: Yes. I've been less comfortable staying in a village in France than I was in Kenya. Nairobi may be a bit dirty and not exactly safe at night, but it's a city. Lamu is quite different, being a small island, but it's an extraordinary place. What I got tired of there were the constant attention from people offering rides on donkeys or dhows, and the inescapable smell of donkey shit.

Q: Were there any cannibals? [Yes, I've been asked this question.]
A: No. I know it's hard to believe, but Africa is not a Tarzan movie.

Q: What did you eat?
A: I stopped being vegetarian a month or so before I left, because multiple people told me it would be difficult to get much purely vegetarian fare in Kenya. This was only partly true. I had friends who remained vegetarian there and had only a bit of trouble in Nairobi, but found the choices on Lamu pretty limited. I embraced my newfound carnivorousness wholeheartedly and sampled such things as goat and ostrich. The barbecued goat I had was similar to what I imagine a shoe might taste like, but the ostrich was a tender dark meat, and quite good. Mostly, though, I ate chicken, fish, vegetables, rice, and fruit. The fruit juices were particularly extraordinary.

Q: Did you get any writing done?
A: A little bit. I started a new story that I'm not sure I'll ever finish. Wrote a lot of journal entries.

Q: What was your best experience?
A: There were many great experiences, actually. The experience of hanging out with so many talented writers from all over the world was the greatest benefit of the trip. The best day, though, was when Njihia Mbitiru's father and mother drove me all around Nairobi and then to various towns and sites outside the city. They were determined to show me all the different levels and iterations of Kenyan society, and the stories they told of various places and people helped me get a sense of where I was in a way that nothing else during the trip did.

Q: Would you go back?
A: Given the opportunity, sure. I hope to visit Nairobi again, certainly, and there are lots of places throughout the continent I would like to see. There are people I very much hope to meet again, as well.