Find here all the posts that featured in the Starting to Love blogposts I wrote the last few months:
- why i keep my sunglasses on
- don’t come back
- What if the Devil
- Nairobi, Columbus and the New York Times
why i keep my sunglasses on
Sometimes, when men and women want me to be theirs, I ask them if they can take in all the soul in my eyes. I am used to doling it out, you see. I know how to be not too much and not too little. I know how to be just enough, although sometimes a little too much spills out. I know how to cap it. When I was young, my mother would send me to buy paraffin, and she’d put nylon over the bottle before screwing the bottle top on. That way, none of it spilled. But I could smell the paraffin all the way as I walked from the shops with the bottle in my hands, sometimes convinced that the smell was too strong and that the paraffin had actually spilled out, checking the sides of the bottle, once, twice, thrice… Maybe that is how souls are. Maybe that is why I can feel mine peeking out even on days when I put nylon over the top. Maybe that is why I can’t look you in the face. Because, you know, souls spill from the eyes.
And you have to ask, you just can’t go dishing your soul out to people. You will scare them and they will lock you up somewhere where your soul will prefer to stay deep in your guts where it belongs and stop trying to spill out. You have to ask before giving the men and women who want you to be theirs all of your soul, because sometimes, even when they try, there is too much of you to take in. And still, even when they agree that they can handle the soul in you, they backtrack and return your soul to you, right before the deadline on the receipt for returning goods, when you had started to consider that maybe they will not return it. And you try to argue, that souls are like books, yes, you can return them to the store, but it does not change the fact that you have already used them. And sometimes, when you are standing in front of them, receiving your returned soul, looking down and picking at the thread on your cardigan, too fatigued in that moment to measure the amount of soul spilling out of you, believing that your soul knows the drill and will measure itself now, you see in their eyes that some of their soul is spilling out, and you know that their soul used to fit within their bodies, and you want to ask them if they are sure they remembered to put all of the soul you gave them back in the jar.
don’t come back
Nairobi will be seated on the brown couch watching TV—probably some well choreographed dance performance on Kiss TV. I will be seated on the floor in front of him, with the back of my head at his stomach, donning his T-shirt and not much else. I will tell Nairobi I love him. He will say he loves me too, but that I say it too much. I will laugh and say all right, only a little annoyed.
But I will turn away from the TV to look at him. And he will be laughing at a joke in the song lyrics.
“Damn Nairobi, you make twilight look really good,” I will say.
“That’s such a white thing to say. I told you, you’re becoming white,” he will say.
“I’m just saying, you dusk well, Love,” I will say.
“And I’m just saying, your surprise at nature’s beauty is unKenyan,” he will say, and then smile the most beautiful smile in the world. (This is not my writing; Nairobi has the most beautiful smile in the world.)
“Can’t wait to come back and chill forever,” I will tell Nairobi.
“Don’t come back. Stay there and get dough.”
The sound of nothing. The feeling that the Devil is using his fingers and the veins in your head to play the game you played as a child in which you make different letters of the alphabet from pieces of string. The sound of a voodoo version of yourself the size of a doll inside your brain, pushing all the furniture in there out through your ears, clearing your brain of clutter, like reformatting your device. And then drawing back the curtains in your brain. And checking that you locked the door—both latches. Then the sound of the micro-version of yourself going to the centre of your head and seating on the floor and folding your legs so your forehead rests on your knees.
You want to tell Nairobi you are not just making conversation juicy when you say your account balance has been -4 dollars all year.
You want to tell Nairobi that as much as you get paid better elsewhere your rent is six times his.
You want to tell Nairobi you saw some of his exes, and their eyes are red, because they work all day, and then all night. Or maybe because they have been crying.
You want to tell Nairobi you don’t even know what the color of your skin means so that you can explain it to your children.
You want to tell Nairobi you actually loved this year, but when you talk about it people feel pity on you. That your standards of alright are now pitiful.
You tell Nairobi his sewer system, and his drivers, and his mates’ catcalling, and the fact that you need to say Mass to see tap water, drive you crazy. But that he’s home. He will always be home.
You want to ask him Doesn’t he miss you
You kiss him on the cheek and get up to boil some hot water to calm your evening allergies.
How your evening ends is like this: you call New Haven, and it costs you 310 shillings because she can’t catch your accent.
What if the Devil
What if the devil also switches off the lights in his bedroom on Thursday night, wears a baggy t-shirt and no trousers, places a packet of cookies next to his pillow and watches Grey’s Anatomy? Then he falls asleep with his fingers stained with chocolate chips and his laptop still running next to his head. And he dreams Grey’s-Anatomy-themed dreams. And when that cold 3a.m. breeze sweeps his bedroom, he is half-awake and half-asleep, dreaming about demons that are pulling at his right hand and his left hand, aware that it is a dream but scared anyway.
Then the Devil goes back to bed and wakes up at 10.30a.m., late enough to feel rested but early enough to be on a creative high. And then he kneels under his bed and brings out the globe. And he places the globe on his reading table. And he imagines his reading table as one of those Grey’s Anatomy surgical tables. And he takes a scalpel from his pencil pouch, the ones he used as a child to sharpen his pencils before going to school. It still has that black tint from the graphite.
Then he cuts open the globe’s belly. And he tries to be neat about it. The way Bailey cuts along the borders of the liver and the kidney and the pancreas, the Devil tries to cut along the borders of the globe’s organs. But there are people who were not cut out for surgery. The Devil is one of them. And he is clumsy with the globe’s organs, and the world’s kidney bleeds into its pancreas, and the spleen explodes. He tries to neaten it up, because now the kidney and the pancreas have some internal bleeding. But he remembers some riddim song he heard in a Githu mat and has been craving ever since. And he tries to find his laptop so he can play the song as he works. And then he raises his arm, trying to wipe out sweat from his brow without using his hands and he smells his armpits and thinks to himself that it would probably be more hygienic to take a shower before continuing the surgery. The globe is probably already infected because he did not scrub his chocolate-chip covered hands with disinfectant before starting the procedure, or because he did not wipe the leftover crumbs from his reading-table-turned-surgical-table. So he thinks to himself: “The least I could do is shower, even if I am going to screw the globe over.” Because the Devil does not care. If the globe’s body can function or not, it is not because he went out of his way to ensure it. He then takes his towel from the floor where he had left it after his shower the previous night (everybody sleeps better after a warm shower). Then he heads off to the shower, tripping on some of the surgical blades. He considers placing the blades back on the surgical table, but feels too lazy. He has to pick them up in the end anyway, so he just takes care to step over the globe’s blood on his bedroom floor, and walks to the shower.
He hums the tune of the riddim song, trying to find words he can recognize in it so they can be his search words on Google. Then he comes back to his bedroom, with the globe on the surgical table, and he remembers that he was supposed to meet his advisors at 11, but then it is too late, and now he has to go play FIFA with the boys.
And the globe remains there, bleeding but not dying, because the devil can do whatever he wants with the globe, can take away the globe’s cattle and can take away the globe’s wives and children, and can bring the globe disease. But the Devil cannot take the life out of the globe, so the globe bleeds and bleeds and bleeds. And the globe kind of wishes the Devil had the power to kill, because what the globe is going through might as well be death. And the Devil leaves the globe open on the table for three weeks, like the way you forget milk in the Fridge. Only the temperatures are not low. And the bacteria are forming. And the globe is starting to smell, like the Devil’s armpit. And the liver and the kidney and the pancreas are just trying to survive. And they fight for things from each other. Survival for the fittest and shit. And then the globe is dying dying dying always. And the bacteria tell the pancreas and the liver and the kidney to blame the Devil. But the bacteria are fine. It’s just the pancreas and the liver and the kidney, turning against each other, making an enemy of each other, even though the bacteria went out and got straws and put them in the globe’s body, and started to drink the globe’s blood, like old men around a pot of busa. And then they chill, the bacteria, and when the Globe’s organs cry for help, the bacteria, bellies distended, full of busa, tell them they should pray. Prayer always helps. And then they give drunken speeches, telling the kidneys that their health starts with them, and that it is their fault that they are ill. But the kidneys insist it is the pancreas’ fault.
Nairobi, Columbus and the New York Times
A few days ago, the U.S.A. celebrated Columbus Day, which is the day Columbus ‘discovered’ America. Reading about its controversy in the New York Times brought back memories of how when we were kids I had to cram in my head the names of numerous European imperialists. My Social Studies examination consisted of 60 multiple-choice questions. At least one tested me on who discovered Lake Victoria, or Mount Kilimanjaro, or Mount Kenya. With such questions, you pray that some of the choices are definitely wrong. And anyone with a Kenyan name, like Kimathi or Onyango, was a definite no. A gift from the examiner, we called it, because we could eliminate those choices. Then you would remain with three choices, of the names of European ‘explorers’, like Leakey, or Ludwig, or Speke. They also always had government titles like Sir and Lord that made no sense to me, and to many of the kids growing up in Nairobi.
Yet the same New York Times that is publishing many articles that criticize the politics of Columbus’s discovery of the U.S., is Columbising Nairobi, and possibly, other parts of the world.
Last week, I read an article by Gettleman in the New York Times. It was titled: Nairobi’s Latest Novelty: High-End Mac and Cheese, Served by Whites. The article was about how employing white waiters has become a marketing strategy for restaurants in Nairobi. It unsettled me, and I would like to focus on the problem with Gettleman’s article rather than suggest that he himself is a malicious person. Nothing there was supposed to be offensive. But still I read it in horror. I went on Twitter and Binyavanga Wainaina, a prolific Kenyan writer was urging Kenyans to “Vault over his (Gettleman’s) platform. This is what it means to own your continent.” Yet I did not know why Gettleman’s article offended me.
Gettleman is surprised by Nairobi. In the same way that Mt. Kenya was only discovered after European explorers discovered it, Gettleman seems to validate Nairobi by writing about it, and the idea that people have been experiencing Nairobi before he did is pushed to a corner. Gettleman says of Kenya’s attractiveness to foreign investors: “Nothing may signify that Kenya has arrived more than the sight of a white man with a bead of sweat.” This is untrue. There is no one in Kenya who when asked, “Why do you think Kenya has arrived?” will answer “Because I saw a white man with a bead of sweat the other day.” But more importantly, this is a return to the idea that until the white imperialist validates something, it is unworthy. That the fruits of all the things the country has been doing right since 1963 is that now a white man is waiting on us, in expensive restaurants. How sad can our goals get as Kenyan citizens? I am not the only one bewildered by Gettleman’s Nairobi. Larry Madowo, a popular journalist, asks “So @gettleman figures that ‘Kenyans don’t usually see working-class mzungus.’ What does that even mean? Mzungus don’t work?” The fact that Kenyans from Kenya are unable to relate to an article about Kenya should signify that Gettleman, and the New York Times, have misrepresented the region.
In the article, Gettleman retains this undertone of shock that Kenya, an African country, is functioning. He calls the restaurant an “eye-popping extravagance” that made the local papers. But surely, the local newspapers have been doing restaurant reviews since forever. Why is our Columbus so eager to make this restaurant seem like this privilege that Nairobi has never seen before? I have always enjoyed NYT articles, and I believe that you have to be a certain kind of amazing to write for the NYT. Gettleman, however, despite being very impressive as a person, disappoints me in his portrayal of my city. It makes me wonder why it is so necessary for foreign media to make African cities an “other”, different from any other spaces in the world. Gettleman suggests that these restaurants brought by foreign investors are a ‘novelty’, an island of class in a sea of “roof thatched shacks”. Like the white imperialist in pre-colonial times, Gettleman is suggesting that only what is brought by the Westerners is worthy.
Gettleman notes that the white waiters he says are causing a stir in Nairobi are working class white people. He says of Nenad Angelovski, “[his] English was not nearly at the level of Kenyan waiters”. It is problematic that Gettleman thinks that the waiters’ language of communication is worth noting. First, he is insinuating the inferiority of Nenad because he is not speaking good English. And secondly, he is suggesting that Kenyan waiters speaking good English, not Swahili, or their mother tongue, is a surprising and impressive thing. It earns them some respect. Again, in short, you are not legit unless you are like me.
Gettleman’s writing is obviously beautiful. And I would love to read his work minus this eagerness to make Nairobi seem like this place that just encountered civilization. But the truth is, no Nairobian would write about Nairobi in the way that Gettleman does. No Nairobian thinks, “Why are foreign investors reluctant to come to Kenya?” And concludes, “Oh it’s probably because it is often difficult to meet Western consistency standards in a place where the power goes out regularly and machete-wielding mobs occasionally barricade highways interrupting the supply of fresh beef.” There we go again trying to meet Western standards, as if we cannot be Nairobi, we can only be Nairobi in relation to some Western city. This statement, I believe, refers to the 2007/2008 post-election violence. And Gettleman is careful to sneak the words ‘often’ and ‘occasionally’ into that phrase to clear him of blame. I understand the temptation to exaggerate when telling stories. We all do it. But this article, rather than lighthearted exaggeration, is deceiving to a non-Kenyan reader. That I, who have grown up in Nairobi, think of this Nairobi that Gettleman is describing as a third party place that only he has been, means that he is deceiving his readership. A friend uses Gettleman’s words to summarise the impression this article gives: “translation: Kenya, we’re bringing you overpriced food and white waiters (for your post colonial hang-up) and trying to transform you into a “New Kenya” (defined by us), why won’t you live up to our Western standards? Tell us, ye machete wielding people of the Sahara.”
Gettleman’s Nairobi continues to surprise me because “fast food used to be from a local spot like McFry’s or barbecue at a roadside thatched roof shack.” First, this statement suggests a lack. But Nairobi was fine. Even Kenchic, a fast-food restaurant which people diss, had pretty decent joints in several parts of the city centre. Secondly, it is misleading to say, “roadside thatched roof shack” in the sense that he says it. My family and I were roadside thatched roof-shack kind of peeps. They had the best nyama-choma (roast beef). But more importantly, the thatched roof was intentional architecture, made like that to give a sense of the traditional kind of shelter.
Gettleman is so shocked by how a “sleek elevator opens into a corridor where men in black suits frisk visitors” that I wonder if he grew up in an urban centre. But I know he is either lying, or blinded by his shock of Nairobi, when he says, “Step into a Subway [restaurant] in Nairobi and it is as if you are leaving Kenya, or entering the new one.” Take the Subway in Kenyatta Avenue, for instance. Are you leaving one Kenya for a new one really when you enter Subway? I do not know what about walking out of Kenyatta Avenue into Subway would make me start singing “A whole new world” like Gettleman makes us think he did. Moreover, my friends and I do not consider Subway the most high-end restaurant in Nairobi. It is wrong for Gettleman to imply that just because Subway is American, non-Kenyan, then it is number one.
One of the people he interviews says of the international franchises, “It is better for everyone because it is top quality.” Why is it top quality? Why is it “high-end”? Because it is Western?
Yet Gettleman is entitled to his own biases, as long as they are true. What I would request, though, is that if the New York Times is going to write about Nairobi, then they should allow the people of Nairobi to write about it too. Foreign opinions are important, but only if they are true. And even then, they should not on their own shape the image of an outsider. I say outsider because I know that many people from Nairobi cringed at this article. Surely, I imagine, the New York Times was not planning to have them as audience.
There are so many people who write beautifully, and truthfully, about Nairobi from within. I appreciate that the New York Times tells the stories of Nairobi. We are told to tell our own stories as Africans. But until our homegrown publications command the readership that the New York Times has, the NYT has a responsibility to be balanced about the stories they tell on our behalf.