It started out in uncontained excitement. The sky was incomprehensible, vision compromised by a thick white fog that blanketed almost every inch of the environment. The trees, the grass, the red soil, the landmarks – everything, it seemed, had been sucked up by the voracious eye of a hungry hurricane that swept through the land while they were sleeping. The air was still, the birds and insects hushed. It was chilly, much like the inside of a freezer, yet they were all excited just to be in each other’s presence for the very first time. They had fled Earth on a rocket ship escaping obliteration, had feared they would be alone in the new world, but there she was and there they were.
They come here for charity work, not just for the safari. One ought to have a bit of heart, a charitable heart, you know? As they explore and indulge in the unspoiled nativity of the Mara, Naivasha, and Watamu, they will also be carrying out works of charity in a poor village nursery school. They are here to sympathize and empathize with the Kenyans wearing rags for clothes, whose babies are covered with snot and reek of urine, five years old yet unable to write a sentence. They have come to save the one and only ramshackle school from crumbling down.
Part of the visitors’ mission is to feed the children. The poor kids! So hungry that they do not mind having the foreigners’ leftovers for breakfast. A chunk of soggy ugali in chicken broth or white rice with the few vegetables that are too African for the visitors to eat. This is one of their biggest accomplishments, a feeding program for the poor hungry kids. And works of charity need to be documented. Innumerable videos and photos with their iPhones sent home to their neighbours, colleagues, and parents who funded this life-saving expedition.
The nursery school babies are heartthrobs, even with the snot, sullied pants, and small unwashed bodies. The shrill little Swahili voices are absolutely adorable. They wonder why the children do not understand what they say in their scant inglés. There are specific heartthrobs who might be lucky beneficiaries of what Binyavanga Wainaina calls Agelinajolisation. Poor babies from the East being adopted by affluent Westerners. They do not get it, why a mother has too many babies and she is literally dirt poor. They feel an urge to turn the world around for these families by taking one baby to Madrid who will later on rescue the family. It is as simple as that.
‘Oh, madre mia, you are so cute! Come with me to Spain. Be my baby, I adopt you. Yes?’
A cute little girl with the chubbiest of cheeks, it is said, has higher chances of living a cleaner and brighter life away from her mother, grandmother, aunties, and siblings. Away from the depressing poverty-stricken, nothing-ever-happens, tea-picking village. Away from this country of very rich Kenyans and very poor ones. Away from Swahili and the gibberish Kalenjin. Further away from anything African. They, of course, do not mean to reenact a miniature slave trade or colonization. Do they? She will learn español, study in good schools, eat healthy food, and travel across the EU. And, after she is done with her education, she will come back to Kenya.
They like to talk about hair. They ask if her hair is real. If it is not her ‘real’ hair then how long is her ‘real’ hair?
‘How do you wash it? Is it heavy?’
‘Does it grow down? Is it like a beautiful afro?’
Skin talk is next. Sunscreen, wrinkles, flawless skin, shea butter, make-up. It feels like a replay of a ‘Black in Europe’ YouTube vlog.
Watching ‘Black in Europe’ YouTube vlogs used to be her favourite pastime. She picked up something from them: when travelling, you need to be frugal with your money, clothes, and words. Do not go around spurting words out of curiosity. Conclusions are drawn easily from careless talk. You are either indifferent or ignorant about a country. Do not rely on tropes and stereotypes. Please do some research. Goodness!
They tell her that they have everything in Spain. Oh yes, they have everything in Spain, yet they are so uninformed. They tell her that they have everything in Spain! They have travelled over the world, which she thought was an intimate eye-opener; she was wrong! The question of identity is most striking, tension arising whenever the topic is brought up. Angst for her. Embarrassment for them.
‘King Charles, you know him? Is he also king here?’
They must have thought she was joking when she told them Kenya is a republic with a running government and a president. They could not tell from her calm voice that she was repeatedly screaming obscenities inside her head: We are no damn colony, spare me that Commonwealth shit.
They ask absurd questions. One afternoon, they go for a stroll through the tea farms, with farmhouses owned by European Kenyans on one side and servant quarters that resemble shanties on the other. They are happy. It is a beautiful view despite the stark and harrowing social economic differences as Ekaterra continually milks money out of Kenyan tea and the cycle of poverty it supports. They grieve for her country. They talk and talk while walking and compare the conditions of Spain and Kenya. The gist of it: it is highly probable that the Kenyan condition will improve if the good fight is put in. They all agree on that, but a stray thought crosses her mind: Spain was a colonizer, Kenya a colony.
Her thought is interrupted by a question – an absurd question that rekindles her anger.
‘G? Do you also pick tea to make some money? You know, like pocket money?’
The suffocating shame. Insufferable! That question makes her question a lot of things. Was picking tea a shameful way of earning money? Her mother had done it when she was young. Mothers still support their children by doing it. Why then did she feel shame? Where did it come from? Where? Why? Goddamnit! Kenya is supported primarily by agriculture. Tea, coffee, and flowers. Very few industries, unlike in industrialized countries. Money in Limuru, therefore, must only come from tea. That is what they thought – is that what they thought?
She was told judging others based on personal standards is unfair, yet she cannot help but wonder how they know close to nothing about Kenya. They have made someone cynical, have they? Yes, her knowledge of dependency in the Third World and political economy combined with this experience have undoubtedly made her cynical.
Grasea is a lover of literature and a literature major at the University of Nairobi for that very reason. As an explorer – both at heart and in reality – and a fervent reader, translated books are some of her favourites. When she is not reading, writing, or exploring, you’ll find Grasea watching films or deep in a Spotify playlist. You can find her on Instagram as @_gra.sea.