T OWARD THE END OF my second week in Kenya, Auma and I went on a safari.
Auma wasn’t thrilled with the idea. When I first showed her the brochure, she grimaced and shook her head. Like most Kenyans, she could draw a straight line between the game parks and colonialism. “How many Kenyans do you think can afford to go on a safari?” she asked me. “Why should all that land be set aside for tourists when it could be used for farming? These wazungu care more about one dead elephant than they do for a hundred black children.”
For several days we parried. I told her she was letting other people’s attitudes prevent her from seeing her own country. She said she didn’t want to waste the money. Eventually she relented, not because of my persuasive powers but because she took pity on me.
“If some animal ate you out there,” she said, “I’d never forgive myself.”
And so, at seven o’clock on a Tuesday morning, we watched a sturdily built Kikuyu driver named Francis load our bags onto the roof of a white minivan. With us were a spindly cook named Rafael, a darkhaired Italian named Mauro, and a British couple in their early forties, the Wilkersons.
We drove out of Nairobi at a modest pace, passing soon into countryside, green hills and red dirt paths and small shambas surrounded by plots of wilting, widely spaced corn. Nobody spoke, a discomfiting silence that reminded me of similar moments back in the States, the pause that would sometimes accompany my personal integration of a bar or hotel. It made me think about Auma and Mark, my grandparents back in Hawaii, my mother still in Indonesia, and the things Zeituni had told me.
If everyone is family, then no one is family.
Was Zeituni right? I’d come to Kenya thinking that I could somehow force my many worlds into a single, harmonious whole. Instead, the divisions seemed only to have become more multiplied, popping up in the midst of even the simplest chores. I thought back to the previous morning, when Auma and I had gone to book our tickets. The travel agency was owned by Asians; most small businesses in Nairobi were owned by Asians. Right away, Auma had tensed up.
“You see how arrogant they are?” she had whispered as we watched a young Indian woman order her black clerks to and fro. “They call themselves Kenyans, but they want nothing to do with us. As soon as they make their money, they send it off to London or Bombay.”
Her attitude had touched a nerve. “How can you blame Asians for sending their money out of the country,” I had asked her, “after what happened in Uganda?” I had gone on to tell her about the close Indian and Pakistani friends I had back in the States, friends who had supported black causes, friends who had lent me money when I was tight and taken me into their homes when I’d had no place to stay. Auma had been unmoved.
“Ah, Barack,” she had said. “Sometimes you’re so naive.”
I looked at Auma now, her face turned toward the window. What had I expected my little lecture to accomplish? My simple formulas for Third World solidarity had little application in Kenya. Here, persons of Indian extraction were like the Chinese in Indonesia, the Koreans in the South Side of Chicago, outsiders who knew how to trade and kept to themselves, working the margins of a racial caste system, more visible and so more vulnerable to resentment. It was nobody’s fault necessarily. It was just a matter of history, an unfortunate fact of life.
Anyway, the divisions in Kenya didn’t stop there; there were always finer lines to draw. Between the country’s forty black tribes, for example. They, too, were a fact of life. You didn’t notice the tribalism so much among Auma’s friends, younger university-educated Kenyans who’d been schooled in the idea of nation and race; tribe was an issue with them only when they were considering a mate, or when they got older and saw it help or hinder careers. But they were the exceptions. Most Kenyans still worked with older maps of identity, more ancient loyalties. Even Jane or Zeituni could say things that surprised me. “The Luo are intelligent but lazy,” they would say. Or “The Kikuyu are money-grubbing but industrious.” Or “The
Kalenjins-well, you can see what’s happened to the country since they took over.”
Hearing my aunts traffic in such stereotypes, I would try to explain to them the error of their ways. “It’s thinking like that that holds us back,” I would say. “We’re all part of one tribe. The black tribe. The human tribe. Look what tribalism has done to places like Nigeria or Liberia.”
And Jane would say, “Ah, those West Africans are all crazy anyway. You know they used to be cannibals, don’t you?”
And Zeituni would say, “You sound just like your father, Barry. He also had such ideas about people.” Meaning he, too, was naive; he, too, liked to argue with history. Look what happened to him….
The van suddenly came to a stop, shaking me out of my reverie. We were in front of a small shamba, and our driver, Francis, asked us all to stay put. A few minutes later, he emerged from the house with a young African girl, maybe twelve or thirteen, who was dressed in jeans and a neatly pressed blouse and carried a small duffel bag. Francis helped her into the back and pointed to the seat next to Auma.
“Is this your daughter?” Auma asked, scooting over to make room for the girl.
“No,” Francis said. “My sister’s. She likes to see the animals and is always nagging me to take her along. Nobody minds, I hope.”
Everyone shook their heads and smiled at the girl, who suffered bravely under the attention. “What is your name?” the British woman, Mrs. Wilkerson, asked.
“Elizabeth,” the girl whispered.
“Well, Elizabeth, you can share my tent if you like,” Auma said. “My brother, I think he snores.”
I made a face. “Don’t listen to her,” I said, and held out a package of biscuits. Elizabeth took one and nibbled neatly around its edges. Auma reached for the bag and turned to Mauro.
“Want some?” she asked.
The Italian smiled and took one, before Auma passed them around to the others.
We followed the road into cooler hills, where women walked barefoot carrying firewood and water and small boys switched at donkeys from their rickety carts. Gradually the shambas became less frequent, replaced by tangled bush and forest, until the trees on our left dropped away without warning and all we could see was the wide-open sky.
“The Great Rift Valley,” Francis announced.
We piled out of the van and stood at the edge of the escarpment looking out toward the western horizon. Hundreds of feet below, stone and savannah grass stretched out in a flat and endless plain, before it met the sky and carried the eye back through a series of high white clouds. To the right, a solitary mountain rose like an island in a silent sea; beyond that, a row of worn and shadowed ridges. Only two signs of man’s presence were visible-a slender road leading west, and a satellite station, its massive white dish cupped upward toward the sky.
A few miles north, we turned off the main highway onto a road of pulverized tarmac. It was slow going: at certain points the potholes yawned across the road’s entire width, and every so often trucks would approach from the opposite direction, forcing Francis to drive onto embankments. Eventually, we arrived at the road we’d seen from above and began to make our way across the valley floor. The landscape was dry, mostly bush grass and scruffy thorn trees, gravel and patches of hard dark stone. We began to pass small herds of gazelle; a solitary wildebeest feeding at the base of a tree; zebra and a giraffe, barely visible in the distance. For almost an hour we saw no other person, until a solitary Masai herdsman appeared in the distance, his figure as lean and straight as the staff that he carried, leading a herd of long-horned cattle across an empty flat.
I hadn’t met many Masai in Nairobi, although I’d read quite a bit about them. I knew that their pastoral ways and fierceness in war had earned them a grudging respect from the British, so that even as treaties had been broken and the Masai had been restricted to reservations, the tribe had become mythologized in its defeat, like the Cherokee or Apache, the noble savage of picture postcards and coffee table books. I also knew that this Western infatuation with the Masai infuriated other Kenyans, who thought their ways something of an embarrassment, and who hankered after Masai land. The government had tried to impose compulsory education on Masai children, and a system of land title among the adults. The black man’s burden, officials explained: to civilize our less fortunate brethren.
I wondered, as we drove deeper into their country, how long the Masai could hold out. In Narok, a small trading town where we stopped for gas and lunch, a group of children dressed in khaki shorts and old T-shirts surrounded our van with the aggressive enthusiasm of their Nairobi counterparts, peddling cheap jewelry and snacks. Two hours later, when we arrived at the adobe gate leading into the preserve, a tall Masai man in a Yankees cap and smelling of beer leaned through the window of our van and suggested we take a tour of a traditional Masai boma.
“Only forty shillings,” the man said with a smile. “Pictures extra.”
While Francis attended to some business in the game warden’s office, the rest of us got out and followed the Masai man into a large circular compound walled in by thornbrush. Along the perimeter were small mud-and-dung huts; in the center of the compound, several cattle and a few naked toddlers stood side by side in the dirt. A group of women waved us over to look at their bead-covered gourds, and one of them, a lovely young mother with a baby slung on her back, showed me a U.S. quarter that someone had foisted on her. I agreed to exchange it for Kenya shillings, and in return she invited me into her hut. It was a cramped, pitch-black space with a five-foot-high ceiling. The woman told me her family cooked, slept, and kept newborn calves in it. The smoke was blinding, and after a minute I had to leave, fighting the urge to brush away the flies that formed two solid rings around the baby’s puffed eyes.
Francis was waiting for us when we returned to the van. We drove through the gate, following the road up a small, barren rise. And there, on the other side of the rise, I saw as beautiful a land as I’d ever seen. It swept out forever, flat plains undulating into gentle hills, dun-colored and as supple as a lion’s back, creased by long gallery forests and dotted with thorn trees. To our left, a huge herd of zebra, ridiculously symmetrical in their stripes, harvested the wheat-colored grass; to our right, a troop of gazelle leaped into bush. And in the center, thousands of wildebeest, with mournful heads and humped shoulders that seemed too much for their slender legs to carry. Francis began to inch the van through the herd, and the animals parted before us, then merged in our wake like a school of fish, their hoofs beating against the earth like a wave against the shore.
I looked over at Auma. She had her arm around Elizabeth, and the two of them were wearing the same wordless smile.
We set up camp above the banks of a winding brown stream, beneath a big fig tree filled with noisy blue starlings. It was getting late, but after setting up our tents and gathering firewood, we had time for a short drive to a nearby watering hole where topi and gazelle had gathered to drink. A fire was going when we got back, and as we sat down to feed on Rafael’s stew, Francis began telling us a little bit about himself He had a wife and six children, he said, living on his homestead in Kikuyuland. They tended an acre of coffee and corn; on his days off, he did the heavier work of hoeing and planting. He said he enjoyed his work with the travel agency but disliked being away from his family. “If I could, I might prefer farming fulltime,” he said, “but the KCU makes it impossible.”
“What’s the KCU?” I asked.
“The Kenyan Coffee Union. They are thieves. They regulate what we can plant and when we can plant it. I can only sell my coffee to them, and they sell it overseas. They say to us that prices are dropping, but I know they still get one hundred times what they pay to me. The rest goes where?” Francis shook his head with disgust. “It’s a terrible thing when the government steals from its own people.” “You speak very freely,” Auma said.
Francis shrugged. “If more people spoke up, perhaps things might change. Look at the road that we traveled this morning coming into the valley. You know, that road was supposed to have been repaired only last year. But they used only loose gravel, so it washed out in the first rains. The money that was saved probably went into building some big man’s house.”
Francis looked into the fire, combing his mustache with his fingers. “I suppose it is not only the government’s fault,” he said after a while. “Even when things are done properly, we Kenyans don’t like to pay taxes. We don’t trust the idea of giving our money to someone. The poor man, he has good reason for this suspicion. But the big men who own the trucks that use the roads, they also refuse to pay their share. They would rather have their equipment break down all the time than give up some of their profits. This is how we like to think, you see. Somebody else’s problem.”
I tossed a stick into the fire. “Attitudes aren’t so different in America,” I told Francis.
“You are probably right,” he said. “But you see, a rich country like America can perhaps afford to be stupid.”
At that moment, two Masai approached the fire. Francis welcomed them, and as they sat down on one of the benches, he explained that they would provide security during the night. They were quiet, handsome men, their high cheekbones accentuated by the fire, their lean limbs jutting out of their blood-red shukas, their spears stuck into the ground before them, casting long shadows toward the trees. One of them, who said his name was Wilson, spoke Swahili, and he told us that he lived in a boma a few miles to the east. His silent companion began to pan the darkness with the beam of his flashlight, and Auma asked if the camp had ever been attacked by animals. Wilson grinned.
“Nothing serious,” he said. “But if you have to go to the bathroom at night, you should call one of us to go with you.”
Francis began to question the men about the movement of various animals, and I drifted away from the fire to glance up at the stars. It had been years since I’d seen them like this; away from the lights of the city, they were thick and round and bright as jewels. I noticed a patch of haze in the otherwise clear sky and stepped farther away from the fire, thinking perhaps it was the smoke, then deciding that it must be a cloud.
I was wondering why the cloud hadn’t moved when I heard the sound of footsteps behind me. “I believe that’s the Milky Way,” Mr. Wilkerson said, looking up at the sky.
He held up his hand and traced out the constellations for me, the points of the Southern Cross. He was a slight, soft-spoken man with round glasses and pasty blond hair. Initially I had guessed he spent his life indoors, an accountant or professor. I noticed, though, as the day had passed, that he possessed all sorts of practical knowledge, the kinds of things I had never got around to knowing but wished that I had. He could talk at length with Francis about Land Rover engines, had his tent up before I drove in my first stake, and seemed to know the name of every bird and every tree that we saw.
I wasn’t surprised, then, when he told me that he had spent his childhood in Kenya, on a tea plantation in the White Highlands. He seemed reluctant to talk about the past; he said only that his family had sold the land after independence and had moved back to England, to settle in a quiet suburb of London. He had gone to medical school, then practiced with the National Health Service in Liverpool, where he had met his wife, a psychiatrist. After a few years, he had convinced her to return with him to Africa. They had decided against living in Kenya, where there was a surplus of doctors relative to the rest of the continent, and instead settled on Malawi, where they both had worked under government contract for the past five years.
“I oversee eight doctors for a region with a population of half a million,” he told me now. “We never have enough supplies-at least half of what the government purchases ends up on the black market. So we can only focus on the basic, which in Africa is really what’s needed anyway. People die from all sorts of preventable disease. Dysentery. Chicken pox. And now AIDS-the infection rate in some villages has reached fifty percent. It can be quite maddening.”
The stories were grim, but as he continued to tell me the tasks of his life-digging wells, training outreach workers to inoculate children, distributing condoms-he seemed neither cynical nor sentimental. I asked him why he thought he had come back to Africa and he answered without a pause, as if he’d heard the question many times.
“It’s my home, I suppose. The people, the land…” He took off his glasses and wiped them with a handkerchief. “It’s funny, you know. Once you’ve lived here for a time, the life in England seems terribly cramped. The British have so much more, but seem to enjoy things less. I felt a foreigner there.”
He put his glasses back on and shrugged. “Of course, I know that in the long run I need to be replaced. That’s part of my job-making myself unnecessary. The Malawian doctors I work with are excellent, really. Competent. Dedicated. If we could just build a training hospital, some decent facilities, we could triple their number in no time. And then…” “And then?”
He turned toward the campfire, and I thought his voice began to waver. “Perhaps I can never call this place home,” he said. “Sins of the father, you know. I’ve learned to accept that.” He paused for a moment, then looked at me.
“I do love this place, though,” he said before walking back to his tent.
Dawn. To the east, the sky lightens above a black grove of trees, deep blue, then orange, then creamy yellow. The clouds lose their purple tint slowly, then dissipate, leaving behind a single star. As we pull out of camp, we see a caravan of giraffe, their long necks at a common slant, seemingly black before the rising red sun, strange markings against an ancient sky.
It was like that for the rest of the day, as if I were seeing as a child once again, the world a pop-up book, a fable, a painting by Rousseau. A pride of lions, yawning in the broken grass. Buffalo in the marshes, their horns like cheap wigs, tick birds scavenging off their mudcrusted backs. Hippos in the shallow riverbeds, pink eyes and nostrils like marbles bobbing on the water’s surface. Elephants fanning their vegetable ears.
And most of all the stillness, a silence to match the elements. At twilight, not far from our camp, we came upon a tribe of hyenas feeding on the carcass of a wildebeest. In the dying orange light they looked like demon dogs, their eyes like clumps of black coal, their chins dripping with blood. Beside them, a row of vultures waited with stern, patient gazes, hopping away like hunchbacks whenever one of the hyenas got too close. It was a savage scene, and we stayed there for a long time, watching life feed on itself, the silence interrupted only by the crack of bone or the rush of wind, or the hard thump of a vulture’s wings as it strained to lift itself into the current, until it finally found the higher air and those long and graceful wings became motionless and still like the rest. And I thought to myself: This is what Creation looked like. The same stillness, the same crunching of bone. There in the dusk, over that hill, I imagined the first man stepping forward, naked and rough-skinned, grasping a chunk of flint in his clumsy hand, no words yet for the fear, the anticipation, the awe he feels at the sky, the glimmering knowledge of his own death. If only we could remember that first common step, that first common word-that time before Babel.
At night, after dinner, we spoke further with our Masai guardsmen. Wilson told us that both he and his friend had recently been moran, members of the bachelor class of young warriors who were at the center of the Masai legend. They had each killed a lion to prove their manhood, had participated in numerous cattle raids. But now there were no wars, and even cattle raids had become complicated-only last year, another friend had been shot by a Kikuyu rancher. Wilson had finally decided that being a moran was a waste of time. He had gone to Nairobi in search of work, but he had little schooling and had ended up as a security guard at a bank. The boredom drove him crazy, and eventually he had returned to the valley to marry and tend to his cattle. Recently one of the cattle had been killed by a lion, and although it was illegal now, he and four others had hunted the lion into the preserve.
“How do you kill a lion?” I asked.
“Five men surround it and throw their spears,” Wilson said. “The lion will choose one man to pounce. That man, he curls under his shield while the other four finish the job.” “It sounds dangerous,” I said stupidly.
Wilson shrugged. “Usually there are only scratches. But sometimes only four will come back.” The man didn’t sound like he was boasting-more like a mechanic trying to explain a difficult repair. Perhaps it was that nonchalance that caused Auma to ask him where the Masai thought a man went after he died. At first, Wilson didn’t seem to understand the question, but eventually he smiled and began shaking his head.
“This is not a Masai belief,” he said, almost laughing, “this life after you die. After you die, you are nothing. You return to the soil. That is all.”
“What do you say, Francis?” Mauro asked.
For some time Francis had been reading a small, red-bound Bible. He looked up now and smiled.
“These Masai are brave men,” he said.
“Were you raised a Christian?” Auma asked Francis.
Francis nodded. “My parents converted before I was born.”
Mauro spoke, staring into the fire. “Me, I leave the Church. Too many rules. Don’t you think, Francis, that sometimes Christianity not so good? For Africa, the missionary changes everything, yes? He brings…how do you say?”
“Colonialism,” I offered.
“Yes-colonialism. White religion, no?”
Francis placed the Bible in his lap. “Such things troubled me when I was young. The missionaries were men, and they erred as men. Now that I am older, I understand that I also can fail. That is not God’s failure. I also remember that some missionaries fed people during drought. Some taught children to read. In this, I believe they were doing God’s work. All we can do is aspire to live like God, though we will always fall short.”
Mauro went to his tent and Francis returned to his Bible. Beside him, Auma began to read a story with Elizabeth. Dr. Wilkerson sat with his knees together, mending his pants while his wife stared at the fire beside him. I looked at the Masai, their faces silent and watchful, and wondered what they made of the rest of us. They might be amused, I decided. I knew that their courage, their hardness, made me question my own noisy spirit. And yet, as I looked around the fire, I thought I saw a courage no less admirable in Francis, and in Auma, and in the Wilkersons as well. Maybe it was that courage, I thought, that Africa most desperately needed. Honest, decent men and women with attainable ambitions, and the determination to see those ambitions through.
The fire began to die, and one by one the others made their way to bed, until only Francis and I and the Masai remained. As I stood up, Francis began to sing a deep-voiced hymn in Kikuyu, with a melody that I vaguely recognized. I listened a while, lost in my own thoughts. Walking back to my tent, I felt I understood Francis’s plaintive song, imagining it transmitting upward, through the clear black night, directly to God.
The day we got back from Mara, Auma and I received word that Roy had arrived, a week earlier than expected. He had suddenly appeared in Kariakor with a suitcase in hand, saying that he’d felt restless waiting around in D.C. and had managed to talk his way onto an earlier flight. The family was thrilled by his arrival and had held off on a big feast only until Auma and I returned. Bernard, who brought us the news, said that we were expected soon; he fidgeted as he spoke, as if every minute away from our eldest brother were a dereliction of duty. But Auma, still stiff from sleeping in tents for the past two days, insisted on taking the time for a bath.
“Don’t worry,” she said to Bernard. “Roy just likes to make everything seem so dramatic.”
Jane’s apartment was in a hubbub when we arrived. In the kitchen, the women were cleaning collards and yams, chopping chicken and stirring ugali. In the living room, younger children set the table or served sodas to the adults. And at the center of this rush sat Roy, his legs spread out in front of him, his arms flung along the back of the sofa, nodding with approval. He waved us over and offered us each a hug. Auma, who hadn’t seen Roy since he’d moved to the States, stepped back to get a better look.
“You’ve become so fat!” she said.
“Fat, eh?” Roy laughed. “A man needs a man-sized appetite.” He turned toward the kitchen. “Which reminds me…where’s that other beer?”
No sooner had the words fallen from his mouth than Kezia came up with a beer in hand, smiling happily. “Barry,” she said in English, “this is the eldest son. Head of the family.”
Another woman whom I had never seen before, plump and heavy-breasted, with bright red lipstick, sidled up beside Roy and put her arm around him. Kezia’s smile subsided, and she drifted back into the kitchen.
“Baby,” the woman said to Roy, “do you have the cigarettes?”
“Yeah, hold on….” Roy patted his shirt pockets carefully. “Have you met my brother, Barack? Barack, this is Amy. And you remember Auma.” Roy found the cigarettes and lit one for Amy. Amy took a long drag and leaned forward toward Auma, exhaling round puffs of smoke as she spoke.
“Of course I remember Auma. How are you? Let me tell you, you look wonderful! And I like what you’ve done to your hair. Really, it’s so…natural!”
Amy reached for Roy’s bottle, and Roy went to the dinner table. He grabbed himself a plate and bent down to smell the steaming pots. “Chapos!” he exclaimed, dropping three chapatis onto his plate. “Sukumawiki!” he shouted at the collard greens before spooning a heap onto his plate. “Ugali!” he hollered, cutting off two big wedges of cornmeal cake. Bernard and the children followed his every step, repeating Roy’s words at a more tentative volume. Around the table, our aunts and Kezia beamed with satisfaction. It was the happiest I had seen any of them since my arrival.
After dinner, while Amy helped the aunts wash up, Roy sat between Auma and me and announced that he had come back with big plans. He was going to start an import-export company, he said, selling Kenyan curios in the States. “Chondos. Fabrics. Wood carvings. These things are big over there! You sell them at festivals, art shows, specialty stores. I already bought some samples to take back with me.”
“That’s a great idea,” Auma said. “Show me what you’ve got.”
Roy told Bernard to fetch several pink plastic bags from one of the bedrooms. Inside the bags were several wood carvings, the sort of slick, mass-produced pieces that were sold at quick turnover to the tourists downtown. Auma turned them around in her hands with a doubtful expression on her face.
“How much did you pay for these?”
“Only four hundred shillings each.”
“So much! Brother, I think you’ve been cheated. Bernard, why did you let him pay so much?” Bernard shrugged. Roy looked a bit wounded.
“I told you, these are Just samples,” he said as he folded the carvings back in their wrapping. “An investment, so I will know what the market wants. You can’t make money unless you spend money, eh, Barack?”
“That’s what they say.”
Roy’s enthusiasm quickly returned. “You see? Once I know the market, then I will send orders back to
Zeituni. We’ll build the business up slowly, you see. Slow-ly. Then, when we have a regular system,
Bernard and Abo can go to work for the company. Eh, Bernard? You can work for me.”
Bernard nodded vaguely. Auma studied her younger brother, then turned back to Roy. “So what’s the other big plan?”
Roy smiled. “Amy,” he said.
“Amy. I’m going to marry her.”
“What? How long has it been since you last saw her?”
“Two years. Three. What does it matter?”
“You haven’t had much time to think about it.”
“She’s an African woman. I know that! She understands me. Not like these European women, always arguing with their men.” Roy nodded emphatically, and then, as if he were being yanked by an invisible string, he jumped out of his seat and headed toward the kitchen. Taking Amy in one arm, he lifted his bottle of beer toward the ceiling.
“Listen, everybody! Now that we are all here, we must have a toast! To those who are not with us! And to a happy ending!” With solemn deliberation, he started to pour his beer onto the floor. At least half of the beer splashed on Auma’s shoes.
“Aggh!” Auma shouted, jumping back. “What are you doing?”
“The ancestors must drink,” Roy said cheerfully. “It is the African way.”
Auma grabbed a napkin to wipe the beer off her legs. “That’s outdoors, Roy! Not in somebody’s house!
I swear, sometimes you’re so careless! Who will clean this up now? You?”
Roy was about to answer when Jane rushed up with a rag in her hand. “Don’t worry, don’t worry!” she said, wiping up the floor. “We are just happy to have this one home.”
It had been decided that after dinner we would all go out dancing at a nearby club. As Auma and I headed down the stairs ahead of the others, I heard her muttering to herself in the darkness.
“You Obama men!” she said to me. “You get away with anything! Have you noticed how they treat him? As far as they are concerned, he can do no wrong. Like this thing with Amy. This is just an idea that has popped into his head because he’s lonely. I have nothing against Amy, but she’s as irresponsible as he is. When they’re together, they make each other worse. My mum, Jane, Zeituni-they all know this. But will they say anything to him? No. Because they’re so afraid to offend him, even if it’s for his own good.”
Auma opened the car door and looked back at the rest of the family. They had just emerged from the shadows of the apartment building, Roy’s figure towering over the others like a tree, his arms spread out like branches over the shoulders of his aunts. The sight of him softened Auma’s face just a bit.
“Yah, it’s not really his fault, I suppose,” she said, starting up the car. “You see how he is with them. He’s always been more of a family person than me. They don’t feel judged with him.”
The club, Garden Square, turned out to be a low-roofed, dimly lit place. It was already packed when we arrived, the air thick with cigarette smoke. The clientele was almost all African, an older, after work crowd of clerks, secretaries, government workers, all gathered around wobbly Formica tables. We pushed together two empty tables away from the small stage, and the waiter took our orders. Auma sat down next to Amy.
“So, Amy. Roy tells me you two are thinking about getting married.”
“Yes, isn’t it wonderful! He’s so much fun! When he settles down, he says I can come to stay with him in America.”
“You don’t worry about being apart? I mean…”
“Other women?” Amy laughed and winked at Roy. “I tell you honestly, I don’t care about that.” She swung her fleshy arm over Roy’s shoulder. “As long as he treats me well, he can do what he likes. Right, baby?”
Roy maintained a poker face, as if the conversation didn’t concern him. Both he and Amy had the sheen of too many beers, and I saw Jane sneak an anxious look at Kezia. I decided to change the subject, and asked Zeituni if she’d been to Garden Square before.
“Me?” Zeituni raised her eyebrows at my impertinence. “Let me tell you, Barry-if there is dancing somewhere, then I have been to that place. These people here will tell you that I am the champion dancer. What do you say, Auma?”
“Zeituni’s the best.”
Zeituni tilted her head proudly. “You see? Really, Barry, your auntie can dance! And you want to know who was always my best partner? Your father! That guy, he really loved to dance. We entered many contests together when we were young. In fact, I’ll tell you this story about his dancing. It was when he had come home to Alego one time to visit with your grandfather. He had promised that evening to do some chore for the old man-I don’t remember what it was-but instead of doing his work, he went out to meet Kezia and take her dancing. You remember, Kezia? This is before they were married. I wanted to go with them, but Barack said I was too young.
“Anyway, they came home late that night, and Barack had had a few too many beers. He tried to sneak Kezia into his hut, but the old man was still awake and heard their footsteps in the compound. Even as an old man, your grandfather’s hearing was very keen. So right away he shouts for Barack to come. When Barack comes in, the old man doesn’t say a word. He just looks at Barack and snorts like an angry bull. Hmmmph! Hmmmph! And this whole time, I am peeking through the window of the old man’s house, because I’m sure that the old man will cane Barack and I’m still angry at Barack, for not letting me go to the dance hall.
“What happened next, I couldn’t believe. Instead of apologizing for coming home late, Barack walked over to the old man’s phonograph and started to play a record! Then he turned and shouted to Kezia, who was hiding outside. ‘Woman!’ Barack shouted. ‘Come here!’ Right away Kezia came into the house, too frightened to refuse, and Barack took her in his arms and began to dance with her, around and around in the old man’s house, as if he were dancing in a palace ballroom.”
Zeituni shook her head and laughed. “Well now…no one treated your grandfather this way, not even Barack. I was sure now that for this thing Barack must be beaten severely. For a long time, your grandfather said nothing. He just sat there, watching his son. Then, like an elephant, he shouted out even louder than Barack. ‘Woman! Come here!’ And right away my mum, the one you call Granny, rushed in from her own hut, where she had been mending clothes. She asked why everyone was shouting, and your grandfather stood up and held out his hand. My mum shook her head and accused your grandfather of trying to make a fool of her, but the old man was so determined that soon all four of them were dancing in the hut, the two men looking very serious, the women looking at each other as if now they were sure that their husbands were crazy.”
We all laughed at the story, and Roy ordered another round for everyone. I started to ask Zeituni more about our grandfather, but just then the band took up their positions on stage. The group looked a bit ragged at first, but the moment they struck their first note, the place was transformed. Immediately, people began pouring out onto the dance floor, stepping to the soukous beat. Zeituni grabbed my hand, and Roy took Auma’s, and Amy took Bernard’s, and soon we were all dancing into a sweat, arms and hips and rumps swaying softly; tall, ink-black Luos and short, brown Kikuyus, Kamba and Meru and Kalenjin, everyone smiling and shouting and having a ball. Roy threw his arms over his head to do a slow, funky turn around Auma, who was laughing at her brother’s silliness, and right then I saw in my brother’s face the same look I had seen years ago in Toot and Gramps’s apartment back in Hawaii, when the Old Man had first taught me how to dance-that same look of unquestioned freedom.
After three or four numbers, Roy and I both relinquished our partners and carried our beers into the open courtyard out back. The cool air tickled my nose, and I felt a bit tipsy.
“It’s good to be here,” I said.
“You know it. Like a poet.” Roy laughed, sipping his beer.
“No, really, I mean it. It’s just good to be here, with you and Auma and everyone. It’s as if we-”
Before I could finish, we heard a bottle crash to the floor behind us. I spun around to see two men at the far side of the courtyard pushing another, smaller, man down onto the ground. With one hand, the man on the ground appeared to be covering a cut on his head; with his free arm he was trying to shield himself from the swings of a billy club. I took a step forward, but Roy pulled me back. “Mind your own business, brother,” he whispered.
“They may be police. I tell you, Barack, you don’t know what it’s like to spend a night in a Nairobi jail.”
By now, the man on the ground had curled up into a tight ball, trying to protect himself from the haphazard blows. Then, like a trapped animal who senses an opening, the man suddenly jumped to his feet and climbed onto one of the tables to scramble over the wooden fence. His assailants looked as if they were going to give chase but apparently decided that it wasn’t worth it. One of them noticed Roy and me but said nothing, and together the two of them sauntered back inside. I suddenly felt very sober.
“That was terrible,” I said.
“Yah, well…you don’t know what the other guy did first.”
I rubbed the back of my neck. “When were you in jail anyway?”
Roy took another swig of beer and fell into one of the metal chairs. “The night David died.”
I sat down beside him and he told me the story. They had gone out to drink, he said, in search of a party. They had taken Roy’s motorcycle to a nearby club, and there Roy had met a woman. He had taken a fancy to her, and they started talking. He had bought her a beer, but before long another man had come up and started getting in Roy’s face. The man said he was the woman’s husband and grabbed her by the arm. The woman struggled and fell, and Roy told the man to leave her alone. A fight broke out. The police came, and Roy didn’t have his identification papers, so they took him down to the station. He was thrown in a cell and left there for several hours, until David finally managed to get in to see him.
Give me the keys to the motorcycle, David had said, and I can get you the papers you need.
No. Just go home.
You can’t stay here all night, brother. Give me the keys….
Roy stopped talking. We sat and stared at the shadows, oversized and faint off the lattice fence.
“It was an accident, Roy,” I said finally. “It wasn’t your fault. You need to let it go.”
Before I could say anything else, I heard Amy hollering behind us, her voice slurring slightly over the music.
“Hey, you two! We’ve been looking all over for you!”I started to wave her off, but Roy jerked out of his chair, tipping it to the ground. “Come on, woman,” he said, taking Amy by the waist. “Let’s go dance.”