I am invisible. A native Kenyan in the midst of cheerful expatriates. I am the only black person in this house party excluding the servants tinkering around in starched white uniforms. They all switch to sheng whenever they have to speak to me. The party of guests is seated on a garden patio that pans out onto this perfectly manicured lawn lined by a colorful hedge. A crystal clear pool lies on one end of the compound leaving about enough idle space for an Ostrich farm. I am the invited guest. The writer. The token local, a good add to the mix.
Meet ‘O-younger Parlour’, the Kenyan friend.
There is a generation gap. The mean age is 55. Second life individuals with grown children in college, enjoying per diem benefits in a hardship African city. They arrived in foreign ports seeking to engage with Africans who are not subordinate. They are eager to hear their thinking and understand their perspective.
An elderly English woman is speaking with a hint of regret in her voice.
“The country is going to the dogs and it’s such a crying shame. Lake Naivasha is drying up. The port in Lamu will destroy all the mangroves, the coral colonies and with it the unique bio-diversity”.
I nod sympathetically and add that environmental impact assessment standards have improved in the past few years. Her response is quick,
“But the corruption is terrible, I read it in the papers everyday and nothing is being done about it”.
I try and reason that the judiciary has teeth under new constitution and it is not as easy to get away with corruption in these times. She shakes her head slowly,
“I don’t know about that…You sound well educated. Did you study overseas?”
“Actually I went to school locally”
“Oh! Was that a private school?”
“ No, regular government school”.
“Interesting, and in which part of the country?”
“The Rift valley”.
“I love the Rift valley. I once took a drive out to Lake Bogoria. It is heavenly. I remember sunrise at the edge of the escarpment and I felt at one with humanity”.
She kept talking…
“You know, I always talk my askari to understand what the real Kenyan feels about all this corruption going on. What he tells me breaks my heart. My husband and I thinking of adopting his little Francis since his mother died. He is such a bright and sweet boy”.
I slip into whining mode.
‘It is a pity. Our political leaders do not have the people’s interest at heart’.
She quickly pips in,
“Tragic isn’t it? Kenya has everything going for it. A beautiful landscape, good malls and the weather is excellent. But by the way things are going politically, I might think of taking up that a new position in London. The other day they were gunshots not far from where we live and the Al Shabaab terrorists. It is all little too much for me”.
Then she pauses reflectively.
“Someone told me the other day that, that I needed to get out of the comfort zone every so often and I told them, I am always out of the comfort zone”.
As she yaks on, I look around her comfort zone again. Swimming pool and a hammock dangling between two palm trees in sight. I would be in no rush to leave this comfort zone.
“So, O-younger, am I pronouncing it right”.
“Yes, a little less emphasis on the O”.
“Am curious, you very articulate, do you travel a lot?”
“Not much, I picked up the accent from watching CNN”.
“That’s hilarious, so tell me, what do you do?”
“I write for a living”.
“Really! that is so exciting. You know what you should really write about? There is a woman in Karen who has a woodcraft workshop that employs 50 poor women from slums living with AIDS . Most of them abandoned but they make amazingly beautiful beadwork”.
Then off she goes on that tangent,
“There are so many positive stories like this to write. The papers do not seem bothered. I could find her contacts and she would very happy to host you”.
I mumble my way through the request and give a half measured pledge to look up the reference. She has ‘maswali kama ya polisi’ ( questions like a policeman).
“Are you married?”
“Maybe I should introduce you someone. I know a really nice Kenyan girl I think you should meet. But wait, she is Kakuyu. That might be a problem right? Because you are Luwo and the tribal thing and all, I do not get it. I think the solution lies in a wider middle class, educated people who can engage in sober minded debate and understand the principles of a democracy. I still think you should meet her. Because brilliant and educated modern Kenyans, like you are the future of this nation”.
I wait. No telephone number forthcoming.
We are joined by another couple. Ted and Jean. First time in Kenya. They love it, they think it is aa-mazing! especially the Mara. I learn details about the best camping deals and sights untold.
“Have you been to the Mara O-younger?
“Well, you must go, drop me an email and I will recommend really a splendid place with excellent service. The croissants were to die for!”
I feel a tap on my shoulder. It is the host. “Need a refill Parlour!” The booze is making all this bearable. He turns to the elderly lady I was speaking to, “Interesting chap, isn’t he?” She smiles broadly, “So refreshingly different from most Kenyans I have met”.
The invisible man is a persona I adapt when playing the educated local stereotype lost in the white-dominated expatriate gathering. In Kenya, where worlds are so far apart, a simple soiree in the Spring Valley suburbs sometimes feels like stepping into another world outside my typical realm of reality. I remain aware that Kenya can offer its best or worst depending on what type of glasses one dons on. I am not in denial about the challenges of the country. I simply do not dwell on them or see the ghost of corruption and tribalism in everything that is wrong with it. Besides, the issues are too complex to warrant a persistent defensive stance.
So I play invisible because there is really no point of a stirring up a Black Panther fit whenever the West is compared to Kenya out of context. These are the gated communities amongst us. They may be geographical within the same locale but existing in entirely parallel realities. In a post Agrarian society that is getting a little ahead of itself they present a false ideal and one that many locals aspire to. Race relations in Kenya are still ruled by a colonial mindset hierarchy (superiority by virtue of skin colour) and even when you think you are color blind in one’s thinking, in certain circles you will always be reminded of obvious fact of white privilege in modern Kenya.