Where the Heat Comes From
Africa is one of the centerpieces of fantasy in our time. Its ambiguity and variety have always challenged the imagination, partly through dark and brutal acts, partly through a vitality that interweaves the subtle and the sizzling. Though Africa’s cooperation fueled the Atlantic slave trade, though its conquest stands as a repulsive record of colonial misjudgments and excesses, and though its periodic coups are usually the work of blue-ribbon brutes, the continent’s people constitute a startling and inspiring catalogue of languages, customs, and physical types.
When I was there two summers ago, traveling in quick stopovers from Dakar to Monrovia to Lagos and then spanning the continent to Nairobi, where I remained for two weeks, it was easy to see that if you want to know where the heat comes from, Africa will set you straight. If you have a passion for the scorching rendition of the human story by drums and percussively elastic dancing, Africa will run rhythmic rings through your nose and teach you new stanzas of the poetry of the pelvis. Not that there isn’t abysmal poverty reminiscent of Belzoni, Mississippi, in Shauri Moyo, which means “You Are Hot,” not that there isn’t a gloom as wide as the waist of an elephant standing on its hind legs. But you see and feel a will intent on reducing the hold of ignorance, filth, and imprecision, intent on fusing African poetry and Western fact into a fresh interpretation of modern life.
So Africa is moving through the mist of its — and our — misunderstandings. If history is benevolent, the wounds suffered from within and without, from the worst of colonial history and contemporary African corruption, greed, and gangster politics, will all someday become no more than the ritual scars of an initiation into world status. We see only the forehead of Africa now, but it is levitating through the steam of its own heat.
1. MIDDLE PASSAGE REVERSE
On the plane I sat with a couple of Nigerians, one a tall, maple-syrup-brown student studying in Chicago, the other reddish beige, stocky, and recently graduated into the world of computer software. The student was comical, his accent and look that of a young trend-addicted Texan — a leather tie around the collar of a red shirt, that shirt covered by a black suit, his nappy hair oiled and a small suitcase of Jheri curl solution to keep those kinks under control once home and to provide friends and family entry to the circle of black American style. Both were aware of the Buhari takeover, which felled a democracy, albeit a corrupt one, and wondered whether or not the new (and since deposed) leader’s submission to Islam would make much difference. It was concluded that tribal roots were deeper and thicker than religion or politics. “In our country, it is not who you know but who you are related to that makes the difference between being in the jail or out on the street, begging for your money or getting the very good job. That is how we are. But this Buhari guy, he might try to be honest. That is very dangerous in Africa, however.”
The software African, an Ibo who as a child had been a terrified witness to the Biafran war of 1967-70, sat in front of me. As soon as he mentioned the war, I remembered the photograph of an Ibo mother gone mad, her huge breasts black and flaccid, her embraced baby starved dead, her hand filled with a rotted chicken she swung to taunt the hungry. He spoke softly because the other Nigerian was a Hausa, a member of the once largely ignorant tribe that the educated lbos meant to free themselves from when they seceded. But all of that was past and he became disgruntled about other business as the flight progressed. “Look at this plane. It is filthy. I wonder if this plane is so dirty because it is going to Africa.” He wrote a note to the stewardess on a napkin: I hate you Pan Am. You have no respect for the African. You think all we deserve is dirt. But since he wanted a second helping of food — “I am really hungry, miss” — he chose not to hand it over. I joked with him that I would give her the napkin and they would never let him fly Pan Am again. Except on the wing. Of course, when he was asked why his people weren’t interested in planes, one African witch doctor answered, “We fly in our minds.”
When the plane landed in Dakar and I was on the land of Africa for the first time, I didn’t experence any special excitement because the greens and the low trees and the milky brown earth reminded me of the arid parts of the American Southwest. But on the low hills that surrounded the airport like a badly tattered sombrero brim, five or six long, nilotic bodies were moving in a percussive gait akin to dancing, their robes shifting position in the dry air as if measuring the wind. As we lay over, I left the plane and walked across the field, passing first a shed in which automobiles were being repaired, then a guard near the wire gate that opened to the dirt road running parallel to the landing strip. There were lots of Peugeots and Africans whose small body types counterpointed those so tall they seemed to balance the sky and the clouds on their shoulders. The wind was a hot glove, thick with invisible fur covering your every movement. But as more clouds gathered, the air cooled and the light changed, transforming the milling Senegalese in the distance into shadows in robes. I had now become accustomed once again to the African smell I’d first encountered 20 years before in college, that scent reminiscent of grease and condiments that sometimes becomes a smooth stench. And there was also the somber pride that inhabits the eyes of many and that appeared by the end of the trip to be the most universal aspect of African people, cutting across the whirlpool of religions, languages, and historical enmities.
Senegal was the land of Ousmane Sembene, that muckraking Marxist and sardonic weaver of celluloid tragedies; and the land of Leopold Senghor, whose 1930s poetry of negritude had saluted Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” as a salve for the lonely African blues in Paris, but whose regime, for all his stanzas’ pandering to the Baudelairean appetite for ersatz savagery, had been largely a flight from the bush to the Louvre. Here, according to the films of Sembene, the African was tied to the ground more by tribal custom, Islam, and corruption than by the oftcriticized attraction to French elegance. After all, it was the work of European scholars and explorers that informed provincial tribes which knew little of each other that there were not only more varieties of culture than they could imagine but that there was, in fact, an African continent. Yes, for all the huffing and puffing, for all the black kingdoms that decayed mysteriously back into pre-history, Africa is largely a European idea, the result of bigger maps and the will to knowledge as well as the desire to exploit labor and raw materials. A huge woman I saw hobbling under her blubber, a babushka spun around her head and her body covered with a print dress of smoldering color, gave me a feeling of the easeful warmth I forever associate with the American South, while the passing men who seemed formed of flesh and stilts had an effortless grace that presaged the African basketball I would see in Kenya. As the plane rose from the airstrip and headed for Liberia, an odd melancholy melted down through my skin as I sensed the long, hard march Africans would have to make. A steaming road of asphalt caked with blood lay before so many of them, just as the monstrous records of dictatorships lay immediately behind them. The mood was perfect for a sky ride to the next domain.
Monrovia was very different from Dakar. Its greenness was sweet to the eye and its air a smooth and warm rejoinder to the droning noise of the airstrip. In the airport, the shine boys were on it, after dollars, their almond eyes and high cheekbones capable of instant pathos or entrancing smiles. There was warm beer for sale, and the customary picture of the president in every shop revealed a nearly comical severity much like that of Sapphire’s photograph in the old Amos and Andy television show. Except that there was little comic to it when you thought of the blood let to destroy one order and push Dr. Samuel K. Doe up to the top. The army men who walked about with the vicious arrogance of pit bulls left no question as to how power was maintained in this country. What we have read of the Reign of Terror is almost always a few seconds away in Africa, the distance only as far as the gathering of enough guns to wrest control.
In 1980, Doe had brought off a coup, storming the palace with fewer than twenty men, who gouged out the eye of the former president and disemboweled him, after which their leader called for public executions. The doomed were wounded as many times as possible before a shell bit off the top of a head or plowed fatally into a body. Perhaps that was the cost of a tradition in which the 60 local tribes had been living for over 130 years under the condescending weight of a regime begun by freed American slaves. Thinking of themselves as black pioneers, they took the land with America’s military backing and formed the first African republic in 1847. Those colonizing Negroes saw their African cousins — ”brothers” and “sisters” has always been an absurdly maudlin exaggeration — as no more than savage labor sources. Some think they emulated the antebellum ways of the whites they knew in America, yet in a way they were really no more than an intrusive “tribe” anticipating a monstrous aspect of Africa’s political future. And they would probably have reacted in much the same way had they been put in command of droves of illiterate black Americans, given the fact that some ruthless ex-slaves had chattels themselves when they could afford them.
In the airport I met a black American businessman getting a shoeshine who had been working deals in Africa since 1976. He immediately pointed out what he considered the differences between the aggressive Monrovian shine boys and young U.S. Negroes. “If they had half the hustle these kids have got, we could get this goddamn welfare and all that crap up off our backs. Work is the only solution to our trouble.” He had become well acquainted with West Africa and laughed at the local newspaper. “I buy these things to cop a giggle. They’re ridiculous. ‘Today the president looked out the window. Today the president put his pants on. Today the president wiped his ass with his left hand. Today the president blinked twice before sunrise.’ They’re all on that level. News is an unknown commodity in Africa. But one thing is sure: there are big bucks to be made over here. Big bucks. So far, the fattest deal I’ve done was 20 million, but that’s not the top. It’s our time over here — those who got their stuff together and can handle the funny ways you got to deal with these Africans. You can offend your way out of a million dollars in five minutes. No telling what the man with money looks like. He can be a dirty, nasty, greasy-looking sonofabitch. He can be in a robe or a suit with raggedy sandals and his hair hasn’t been washed in only the crystal ball knows how long. But this guy can be sitting on some money, buddy. You’ve got to be cool. You can’t look down on anybody. It’s always a mystery. And the most interesting thing about it is that they prefer dealing with us, not white folks. Same thing with the Japanese. They choose spooks, too. It’s our time. But it ain’t going to be about the niggers in that joke back in the ’60s about going back to Africa. You know the one where the boat hits the shore and all these greasy motherfuckers get off in robes and plastic beads and want to know, ‘Hey, do the welfare checks come on the first and the 15th or the 10th and the 25th?’ That won’t do it.”
As we came down in Lagos, where the greens were even more various than in Monrovia, the pilot announced that the use of camera equipment was forbidden. I was pushed back down into gloom, wondering what Nigeria’s new regime preferred to keep off the photographic record. I bid farewell to the businessman and listened to a missionary explain how conversion worked and what he had learned through dealing with the spiritual concerns of Africans. “The Western version of the Joseph story is that wherever Joseph went, he never forgot God. The African version is that wherever Joseph went, he never forgot his family. So when asked what salvation means in African terms, you always got the answer that a man who goes home to his village and follows his father’s orders will be a safe and happy man. The point for a missionary is that God the Father can be explained in those terms. That the Father of everyone is, finally, spiritual, and that doing his moral bidding will make one safe and happy.” Much later, in Nairobi, I met a superbly dressed Irish lawyer, his hair silver, his gin tonic atilt, and the lines of intelligence and wit sectioning off his face, who soberly told me something I would never have imagined:
In the next century, this continent will be the center of Christianity. When the pope came here three years ago, we had the biggest crowd ever seen in Kenya. Kenyatta never drew crowds like that. In the West, we think Christianity is old hat. For the African, it is the good news. It is a release from the grip of superstition. Everything takes time to seep through, and our first legacy — our worst — was ravenous materialism. Now, very slowly, mind you, we are seeing the arrival of Western high-mindedness. It is very humbling and has that peculiar intensity you come to expect of Africans. At their best, they seem as though they could make stones come alive through the Power and the sincerity of their emotion.
2. EAST AFRICAN ENTRY
We landed in Nairobi at half past midnight and the array of Africans was as provocative as that of any people I have ever seen: Africa, like a long and legged serpent, writhes over the chessboard of time, at once primeval and contemporary. There were Africans splendidly dressed in tweed jackets, silk shirts, and magnificently woven trousers who carried themselves as though they were to the rest of the world what the sun is to our solar system. Then there were others in brilliant robes and glistening Italian shoes; Africans in cowboy hats who had gold teeth, tribal scarification, and remarkably mismatched attire; Africans in deeply wrinkled $400 suits and terribly scuffed shoes, their hair as filthy as unshaken dust mops; Africans in berets and military dress, in smocks with official airport buttons. I appreciated most the arrogance and the enthusiasm, those eyes exuding temperaments as aloof as the ears of a giraffe but given the grace of bristling affection.
Everything fit together, I have long thought of this century as poly-rhythmic, an era at one with the transmogrified African sensibilities of jazz, perhaps the most sophisticated performing art in Western history. But ours is also a century of speed. In that respect, the speed with which Africans moved from prehistory to software and the telex has provided a shattering but impressive compression of European history: the move from the world of magic to that of speculation, deduction, and scientific experiment. Sophisticated technology bespeaks an accurate understanding of natural law far beyond the explanation in metaphor of animist superstitution. The agony of the long fight to separate church and state happened more quickly and with a brutality that did not allow African convention to suppress science or new political ideas. The moment Africans were colonized, their church was separated from the government, and the imposition of borders agreed upon by Europeans in Berlin in 1884 created pluralistic nations that tribalism in contemporary Africa has yet to truly accept. Though they were colonized, their conquest also meant access. Just as the white man changed Africa and Africa changed him, the adventure of the African in Europe’s and America’s libraries and laboratories means a safari into the intellect and technology that will, eventually, lead to a mutual transformation, a fresh combination, yet another bittersweet conjoining rife with uplift and destruction. It is one of the signal ironies of our time that the totally selfish or geopolitical concerns of empire also made for a redefinition in the wake of rebellion and decolonization which expanded our conception of human talent and dignity.
The drive from the airport was comfortable and the pleasantly heated Kenyan air came in the open windows after passing through fields of tall grass. It was early in the morning and I checked in at the New Stanley Hotel, located at the intersection of Kenyatta and Kimathi avenues, names that acknowledged the combination of eloquence and bushlord bloodshed that coaxed and hacked the way to independence: Jomo Kenyatta was the first president of Kenya and Dedan Kimathi had been the last butchering desperado of what the British call Mau Mau. In a few hours, I was looking out from my seventh-floor balcony as Nairobi came to, with night some dark capsule that dissolved into the morning light. Cars and old buses filled with workers began roaring and rattling down Kenyatta Avenue and the people of the city — walking swiftly, ever so swiftly — appeared from every direction and in every size, shape, skin tone, and imaginable sort of dress. There was a wood smell in the air and a chill that leaned subtly inside the wind and I could see the rectangles and cylinders of modern architecture surrounding the golden peaks of a mosque from which the muezzin chanted his guttural calls to prayer. Five times a day, above the percussion of jackhammers, car horns, and whistles, the caustic melancholy of Islam flared, taking control of an unplanned orchestration of human and mechanized sound.
It was time to hit the streets. I put on my black knit shirt, my olive British khakis, my slender leather Italian dress suspenders, my silk and wool Irish motoring cap, my beige Henri de Vignon high-topped shoes. That sartorial combination was in keeping with the cosmopolitan qualities of my bloodline — African and Asian from Madagascar, Irish from Atlanta, Choctaw from Mississippi, and some tribe I will probably recognize on another trip, perhaps to West Africa.
The pulsation out in the streets had its own uplift and I found myself wandering around, looking this way and that, not focusing on anything, only seeking the feeling of the city. It was a city all right and the populace ranged from the very rich to the terribly impoverished. The beggars came crawling forward, eyes crowded with the harsh lessons of penury. One man, his legs bone-thin and twisted around each other, pulled himself down the street with a long pole he used in rowing strokes; it struck me as I looked at all the people who had been reduced to cripples by polio that what we consider abstraction in African sculpture might just as often be realistic. Then there were others with slashes in their cheeks or their ear lobes stretched to brown loops that dangled against their collars. Those who shined shoes were setting up their businesses, as were people who sold elephant-hair bracelets, batiks, carved statues, and the machetes called pangas. As I walked it was obvious that they knew I wasn’t an African. Some assumed more than that.
When I neared what I later heard was a dangerous part of town, I passed three young African men sitting on the ground, barefoot, ragged, and filthy. Soon one had passed me and was walking in front while the other two were behind, close enough to smell. I knew what that was. I suddenly put my back to a wall and they turned to face me. I let them know that I would defend myself. There was a brief exchange and they moved on. Had they been armed, things might have been different.
That was my first brush with street crime, and I was to have a second that was almost identical on a Sunday morning walk, though it didn’t get as close to attack. In front of the New Stanley, I spoke with a man I’ll call Boniface, who dealt marijuana, cocaine, and provided walking tours and sex with a chocolate topping for German women especially. A cosmopolitan man who had traveled as a sailor and was quite wily, Boniface told me about Nairobi crime.
These people, they come in from the bush every day. Every day. They think there is work here and there is none and they do not want to become beggars. They are too proud. They would rather rob. But you were lucky. You were near River Road. There you can hire a man to kill someone you want dead for 50 shillings. They kill him. They come back and you don’t have the money, they kill you. You see that white woman over there, the one crossing the street? That man right behind her, he can see she is too busy enjoying to know she is in danger. When she turns a corner, he will rob her. He will snatch her purse. If he cannot get her purse, he will take one of the bags she is carrying. He will get something and she will be disappointed in Africans. But Europeans they are scared in their heart of the black because if the child is bad, they say, “Go to sleep or I call the Negro.” This happened to me in a small village in Germany. I was working the lift. This German girl see me when the door open: AHHHH! And she go down. We had to pick her up. All her life she was told as a threat: “If you are bad I will get the Negro.” If that woman across the street whose money is doomed to be stolen is from Germany, she might feel she is punished for coming to Africa!
Since then, wandering robbers known as the “five-minute gangs” have been breaking into homes in the suburbs, taking what they can and getting away before the police arrive in the conventional six minutes. Even so, like any modern city, Nairobi doesn’t feel dangerous and isn’t, except for those who don’t know where the limits are or who are “too busy enjoying” to feel the presence of a predator.
3. THE ONLY MODERN BLACK MAN
By the time I got back to the hotel on that first morning, breakfast was being served and the waiters in green coats, white shirts, black ties, and black pants moved quickly. The New Stanley’s restaurant and the Thorn Bush, the hotel’s enclosed sidewalk patio where drinks and food were served, became my meeting places. When I wasn’t there, I was taking long rides in a cab I hired daily, listening to the driver disparage other tribes or explain how the tea and coffee plantations worked when we traveled far out of the city into the Aberdare. Or I was at the Jockey Club, a remarkable race track, sitting up in the boxes with the Anglo-Africans who owned horses, betting the way they suggested and winning almost every time out. Or I was on foot, walking here and there, striking up conversations with eyery kind of African I could talk with, most friendly, some con men playing on what they expected would be a black American sentimentality about “the motherland.” I could hang out with the rich black son of a coffee business owner, an athlete who had played rugby in Scotland and wondered why Africans who went to America came back so big. Or I might be dancing at the New Florida or the Skylight Room or partying with the teams of the NBA, the Nairobi Basketball Association. In all, it didn’t take me long to know that I was an American, which was no news, or that the kind of American I was had a special significance to Africans, at least the Africans of Kenya. As one young man told me in the Nairobi market:
We keep wanting you to come back, to help us build our country. The American black man is the only black man in the world who is his own man. You send an African to France, he comes back a French African; to England he comes back a British African. He will not come back the way you American black people are. You are the only ones who have learned all of the white man’s knowledge and have put it out your own way. In his heart, the African knows this. In our country, this is what we need. We need to be Africans in a modem way. Now we are half old-fashioned and half European, or all of one. When we see you on the television and in the movies, on the cassettes of the basketball games and such things, we see a truly modem black man. That is our struggle and we hope you will come back to Africa and help us build this new thing completely.
I heard that many times and from many different levels of society, always said with an earnestness that made a bigger joke of the ersatz Africans of America who confused identity with pretentious name changing, costumes, and rituals that turned ethnicity into a hysterically nostalgic social club. But ethnic nationalist black Americans had no comer on imbecility. One conversation that was as illuminating as it was terrifying reminded me how unreasonable defense of African tradition could sustain barbarism. At breakfast one morning, I talked with a couple on vacation who lived in the Sudan, where Numeiri had recently sought support from the Muslim majority and allowed them to slaughter thousands of Christians in the south. Numeiri had refused to let the press into the areas where the murders were taking place, but those who lived in the country knew the facts and the rough figures. (Numeiri recently fell to a group of military men whose epaulets are large enough to suggest — if my epaulet theory is correct — that they will be as repressive and vicious as he was.) They also went on to talk about how tribal customs called for a clitoridectomy following the birth of each child. “They continue to cut away until nothing is left but an opening.” I wondered how the ersatz Africans of Brooklyn would justify that. Who knows? After all, when the issue of female circumcision was raised at an international women’s conference held in Europe a few years ago, the delegation from Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) stormed out in protest, castigating the European feminists for imposing their standards on a Third World culture. Well, there’s nothing like uncompromising ethnic self-regard at high tide.
4. THE OLD MAN
It was the end of June and the drought was on. The Railway Club golf course, where Africans in floppy hats and plaid pants strolled in front of their caddies, was filled with green trees, but a long hay-colored stretch showed the effects of the devastating wait for rain. The Kenyatta Mausoleum, across from the Hotel International Nairobi, next to the Nairobi City Council, across from the Kenyatta International Conference Center, was parched. The grass was yellow or replaced in patches by brown or red earth, the bushes interrupted by the stone and steel gate were faded and sagging toward what looked like death from thirst, but through that gate, in a black cap with a shining badge on it, rifle at rest, in a red jacket that stopped halfway above the knees with five brass buttons lining down to a white belt, the legs covered by dark trousers either-sided with a red stripe and glistening boots, was a single African soldier as impressive as any soldier I’ve ever seen, standing guard out in front of the monument that contained the old man’s remains. On each side of the guard were 10 flagpoles from which the red, black, green, and white national colors flew, their emblem crossed spears behind a shield. Across the street, the green pavilion next to the conference center had long stretches of earth turned red by relentless sun, only three of the spotlights intended to light the path leading to the old man’s statue over an empty fountain were left intact — the other 40-odd metal poles, victims of the intended coup in August of 1982, stood like dead and slightly bent gray stalks. The pavilion itself was falling apart and the octagonal and square motif of its pavement gave way to rebellious patches of uncovered stone, combining the structured and the anarchic as perfectly as anything in Kenya. The steps were loose and some of the stone was missing. But the bronze of the old man stared into the desiccation with a stoicism that bespoke his endurance and eloquence on the long trek to independence. That African voice is still legendary and the name “the old man” calls forth the culture.
In Africa, it takes a long time to really become a man. A man is one who knows. When you have become a man, your respect is very big. The years give you the gift of power. Each hour, each day a man lives turns him stronger in knowledge. So the African has, as the European says, reverence. Our old people are respected because their spirits take on the strength that the body loses to time. When the old man spoke, he could make the air around your ears very hot. He could raise bubbles in your blood. Kenyatta was force, an African voice. That is why be put on the symbol of the country a shield, two lions holding spears, and a cock with a hatchet in the center of the shield. This is not the British lion; this is the African lion. There are no lions in England; the lions are in the British mind. They took from us that symbol and Kenyatta took it back just as he took our land back. The cock is the power. It is all African and it is all very simple. It is also very strong and very patient. In Africa you must learn to wait and to remain powerful. That is the test of the world and all old men who are not mad or foolish know how it is done. Kenyatta knew. He was the old man. Yes.
Jomo Kenyatta was a Kikuyu born around 1892. His was a life that embodied the transition of the African from the world of magic and superstition to the complexity of modern life, which he could learn about only through contact with the Western world. Were it not for surgery, Kenyatta would have been dead early on, the victim of a spinal disease corrected at a mission when he was ten. It was there that Kenyatta became fascinated by papers that the missionaries referred to as objects that said things or gave orders. Once, when everyone had left after a proclamation had been read, Kenyatta returned and spoke to the paper. The paper did not answer. He raised his voice. The paper remained silent. Kenyatta decided that he had to get to the bottom of that magic, and once he did, he so intensified the power of his oral tradition that he developed into a spokesman for nascent tribal nationalism and anti-colonial feeling. The handsome and charismatic African traveled to Europe, flirted with communism, increased his skills as an orator, and returned in 1946 to Kenya, where he quickly came to symbolize the desire for independence and an end to the inferior status of the African in his own land. When the so-called Mau Mau Emergency took off in 1952, Kenyatta was arrested and accused of leading the guerrilla forces which were slaughtering Africans, whites, and livestock. The Kikuyu rebels were defeated in 1956. As David Lamb wrote in his excellent The Africans, the death toll following the rebellion “stood at 11,500 Mau Mau guerrillas and African civilians, 2000 African troops fighting for the British, 58 members of the British security forces and 37 British settlers.” Nonviolent agitation continued, and, finally, Kenya became independent a few years after Kenyatta was released from prison in 1959, then exiled. In 1960, he was elected president of the new Kenya African National Union. He became prime minister of the independent nation on December 12, 1963. Those who wished him to follow the largely unsuccessful path of African socialism were disappointed. Kenyatta turned his back on the Marxist models and made sure that Kenya maintained its status as a capitalist, multiracial society, albeit one dominated by his own tribe. His decision to downplay race in favor of pluralism and incentive made him a hero to Africans and Europeans. Though the investigation was dropped when Kenyatta’s daughter was discovered at the center of an ivory-smuggling ring, though Tom Mboya and a few other political enemies were assassinated, though there were some politically motivated arrests, the corruption and bloodletting were so comparatively modest that the old man is still revered. Since the nature of African independence has reduced almost everything to good or bad kings, Kenyans are largely philosophical about Kenyatta and see him as an essentially fair and intelligent ruler whose occasional ruthlessness never overshadowed what he gave to his country. Perhaps his greatest achievement was cooling the tribal animosities to such a degree that there was no national outbreak of violence when the old man died in August of 1978 and was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi, a member of the small Tugen tribe. Since the attempted coup of 1982, however, Moi has been replacing the Kikuyu in the armed services with the Tugen, which makes Kenyans nervous across ethnic lines.
5. THE UNIT
In the backwaters of our minds hovers the nightmare of the bestial African, human blood dripping from his panga. This is what many think of when they hear the term Mau Mau, a name accepted by the British but still denied by the fighters who had to reach for a primordial savagery to express their outrage in face of colonial repression. They committed the murders of rebellion in the most unspeakable ways, sometimes drinking human blood, eating human flesh, mutilating livestock, burning. It all ended with the demon run of Dedan Kimathi, the last desperado. A clerk who would be king, who seemed to have gone mad in the middle of his journey, whose fury against colonial domination created an appetite for blood among his followers, Kimathi had called himself Field Marshal, Commander-in-Chief, Knight Commander of the African Empire, Prime Minister of the Southern Hemisphere. None of those names protected him in court, and none of the magical powers he claimed for himself traveled beyond the Aberdare forest where he fell, wounded in a leopard-skin coat. His photograph after capture shows long woolly snakes of hair matted beneath his head as he lies supine, the British handcuffs looking like metal bones or talismans, the light cast from his eyes that of a man nearly overcome by contempt for his captors. Kimathi was hanged and the revolt crushed.
Pages upon pages have been written, reports made, accusations leveled and denied, the breakthrough coming when a British soldier, an Anglo-African who had been reared near the Kikuyu, began interrogating the captured rebel General China, making his way through the labyrinthine meanings of a protean tongue. By achieving linguistic entry into the Kikuyu world, the British were able to isolate the rebels, and an end came to four years of terror, manic whiskey-guzzling, and gauche flamboyance of the sort exhibited when white ladies wore pistols with their evening gowns. Most important was the fact that the British were able to enlist ex-rebels to help them track and fight the continued resistance, a device as important as General Crook’s recruiting Indians to fight with the American cavalry in the wars of the Plains and the Southwest. As Fred Majdalany wrote in State of Emergency: “The whittling down of the increasingly disrupted gangs was from now on left more and more to Special Forces, whose use of ex-terrorists had reached the point where they were now regularly tracking down and killing their former leaders.”
I had read about it, I had heard about it, I was told stories by the leftover British from the days when Africans felt smothered under the heavy red robe of empire. The central clash was with those who had fought for British control when far outnumbered— 30,000 settlers to a million and a half Kikuyu — and had long been admonished by dignitaries back in England to give up the ship and let the Africans sail or flounder; and there were those baptized in the inevitably bloody dream of change, who took oaths in the bush and came away remade, the steel of pangas in their hearts, pangas that eventually made their way into human flesh. They would fight. Yes, they would fight. One of them told me about it. A cab driver.
My regular cabbie was Juma, a Kikuyu whose love for White Cap beer kept him from showing up on my final Sunday in Nairobi, when I went to the track for the last time. Irritated, I hired another driver and he took me out on the road to the Jockey Club, passing the African women who carried loads on their heads, the trees, the occasional spavined dog, the homes that were large and the buses that were raggedy, making a left turn into the track, where the backdrop became green and the Indians ran much of the gambling, where the owners had a clubhouse and talked excitedly about their horses, where tar-black Africans in British khaki sat under poles and a tarpaulin roof tooting marches, where the members of various tribes would entertain with exciting dances and drumming between the races. The African, European, Asian, and Arab crowd, filling the stands and the field, betting, cheering, and drinking with friends, family, and children, had an entrancing epic variety, ranging from those in robes and tribal beads to Saudi Arabian silk suits and diamonds, from the palest skin tones possible to the deepest ebony, from the squat and homely to the breathtakingly tall and handsome. Then there were the jockeys, jet-dark Africans and rosy-faced Irishmen armed with crops and educated knees. They came out of the stables seated on little saddles, the brims of their caps in the air, the straps beneath their chins, their silks brilliant in the afternoon sun, all moving on the backs of the bays, the chestnuts, and the grays, the creatures’ musculature pulsive insignias of breeding.
They are coming out on the track now, some bucking and rearing, cantering to the gate. The sky is a particularly African blue, gray, and white; the vegetative geometry of the green shaping, the horizon beyond the track has its own textures; and invisible patterns are cut across it all by big and little African birds that redefine the meaning of their hues in the light.
When it is all over and the sun is going down, my driver is waiting for me. He takes me to see a friend who lives near the Jockey Club, where I chat for an hour, and we head back for the New Stanley. When we are stopped by African policemen who have spread a long white piece of wood run through with spikes across the road, my driver is delighted instead of annoyed, and suddenly intuition pushes me to ask him if he knows anything about the Mau Mau. He is silent, leaning forward against the wheel, then back, slouching. He asks me why I want to know. I tell him I am a writer and I have heard what the white people have to say but I have found no one who was on the other side who could tell me what the Africans really thought and really did. He smiles and tells me he is very happy that I am a writer, that I can put my words on paper. There was no Mau Mau. He has never told anyone this before but be will tell me. He says he likes me. He bas watched me every day when I rode with Juma. I remind him of a black American who came back to Africa and dedicated his life to educating Africans. Because of this and this only, he will tell me. His voice has a melancholy so thick the words seem to sink in the air after they are uttered.
I am a poor man but somehow I am happy for what I see. Africans can go to the New Stanley, Norfolk. It used to be European here, the Asian there, the African back down. You could own nothing. If you are there you must only service. You must only whisper. I saw this, My father was a cooker. If you want food — no. Water — no. Coffee — no. A European could write D.C. — district commissioner — that you are wrong. No word from you, no fair trial. But in 1945 the African learned from the war — if you cut a European, he bleed; if you shoot him, he die. This was new! The old people did not go to learn this. The European could not be killed. If you strike him, you die. Ahl Old was wrong. This was very important.
We needed unit, unit: our people, our land. We Kikuyu took the oath. I have been shot in the leg one time, two times. Two bullets in me right here and behind the ear. But all people are not equal. Some they do not have heart. Courage is to them the poison you spit out. They were royalist. We make it if you loyal to the British here, you die. You die! It was necessary because the British is very clever. He had command us, but he did not know us. How we live, how we move, Kikuyu knew. If he tell, he must die! In the bush in one month you become like animal. Smell, hear, quick, strong. You cannot eat for seven whole days. You can go for six months, for a full year without a wash, and now, even after 30 days, the animals let you pass. Ha! You see, you see?
The British thought the Kikuyu had lost to remember the forest, that we could not lie still as the trees and wait to kill them. We did not have the good guns of them. Ours had been made by ourselves and had only the one bullet. When you shoot, barrel is hot. You must wait to cool. Our orders were to use the rifles we had made ourselves only to defend. Only defend, you understand. To kill, we use only the long silent knife. If you use a bullet not to defend, you die. The knife because the European hates the sharp edge. He would rather be shot. He hates to burn covered with petrol. You kill him this way it is an African way. The knife, the flame make his heart stampede. It stampede.
I was scout. Young boy. Go here. Go there. No one knows what it is I am doing. We cut him here. We disappear. We smile to talk to him. We say we know nothing when he ask. Soon, when he looks at us and he does not know, he sees his own grave, his own family, his horses all floating in a grave of warm blood, all covered with petrol and he smells the flesh of British burning.
But the most we kill are not British — the loyal Royalist African. Why do we kill him most? I want you to understand this. He did not know that the African is a human being. He did not that the British is not God. He did not that he was more important than the British was to England. If he believe British is God, the European go home and rule with the royalist right here for him. Do you understand? The British will not have to be here. If an African must cut another African to death so that more will know the European is not God, it must be so. From that blood come the tree of respect. You must — only for emergency — fear the Kikuyu more than British.
We all must die, but what must we die for? If we must die to prove we are human beings, if we must kill to prove so, if we must love to know so, it is these things to do that are done. My heart has happiness somehow, even though I am a poor man. I hope you understand this because I did not get an indication — to read, to speak, to write. My eyes, my ears, my skin, what all I remember: This is my indication.
6. A PANGA IS NOT A FEATHER
Given the history of postcolonial Africa, all Kenyans are concerned about the ever-present possibility of a coup, something they learned about when the air force attempted to take command of the country in the August dog days of 1982. The insurrection was put down quickly by the army, when the radio was recovered and broadcasts announcing a new regime were ended and the violent animosities of the African poor were beaten down. Those animosities sweep color, culture, and even class before them. As the wife of a coffee grower said to me, “They were going to get the Wahindi — the Indians; the Wabenzi — the rich Africans who drive Mercedes; and the Wazungu — us, the white people. They got a bit of the first two, but they never really got around to the Wazungu.”
The hatred of the Indians is the enduring contempt for the go-between, the person who has risen with absolute determination and mercantile wiles but relates to those below in the condescending terms established by the rulers of the society. Three young men who worked in the market selling chess sets, carved statues, and printed cloth that women wrapped around them as dresses told me over beer in my hotel room that the Indians printed fake batiks which they sold for almost nothing or gave away as bonuses so as to corner the market. That was but one of the tricks Indians used to push Africans out of the business world, wanting everything for themselves. But they also admitted that the Indians were often more industrious than the Africans and that they were willing to sacrifice in order to build income.
The Indian will be your friend only if he is fooling you!l He is no good. One of the independence we do not have is economic. But we are different from the Wahindi. He will pile his money up and up and up. I cannot do this. I must go to the disco and drink beer and I must have a new pair of “levees.” If I do not do this, I will have much sadness. I will feel like I am a dirt road and life is rolling over. But when I buy new clothes and dance and drink, then I am more.
A German businesswoman in her eighties told me that the Indians worshiped a god given over to currency, a ruthless mythological bitch whose vision of life was that anything done to gain money was all right. But she was equally aware of the notorious African inclination to corruption: “In the African mind, there is no stigma to corruption. It’s just being smart.” So a bribe in the hand is far more important than skill or talent in too many instances. Though Kenya claims a more honest governmental and social structure than almost any other African country, both black and white complain of the bribery in everything from licensing to acquiring land. Where things are not decided on the basis of tribal or familial allegiance, money commands favors. A Kikuyu businessman’s son told me:
These men in government can be no good! When it was proposed that we might get a loan to build an underground so that people could travel better, when they could not discover the way to steal most of the money, they would not accept the loan and said that Nairobi was too small a city to have an underground!
This kind of hanky panky has led to a bitterness that found its limited release during the attempted coup and said a great deal about the changes in the country since independence. Twenty-five years ago, the whites might have been the most hated, then the Indians, then the Africans loyal to empire. But time and bribes and tribes had changed that pecking order, which was dwarfed by the fire and terror that resulted when the air force tried to throttle the Moi regime.
Before the army, the people did not know what is coup. But the army teach them. At first, there is running and shouting. The people were happy in the streets, then they see. They see what is coup. Is when you can do nothing but watch and hope nothing happen to you or happen to your family. This is what took place on those few days. The people were happy to destroy business of Wahindi because they have been treated so bad by them. But the army took whatever they want. This was the pay they give themselves. Many Indian homes were broken into and they took sex with the Indian girls and the Indian wives. They feel this is their only chance because in certain places the Indian will threaten to kill an Indian woman if she is seen with an African. What the army did to them is not in the newspapers. So many disgraced their fathers had to marry them, or their brothers or their cousins. This is not talked about. But the Wahindi, they do not learn ever. Money is all they understand. Money will not stop the soldier who kicks in the door. He will take the money and then still do what he came for — to kill you, to rape you, to wound you. Wahindi do not understand that the African is a human being. This the British knows, this the Wahindi will never understand. A panga is hanging over his head and he pretends it is a feather.
One Sunday morning I took a long walk, traveling up Harry Thuku Road, and passed a fenced-in area where soldiers were living. It was the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Voice of Kenya, the radio station that had been taken by the air force. At the gate in berets and fatigues were the two surliest black men I have ever seen. Viciousness seemed to seep from their pores and the only answer they had to any question was a sullen, “We are all right.” They weren’t impressed in the least by a writer from America and it was clear that their job was to kill anyone who tried to come into that station without the appropriate papers. Beyond the guardhouse at the gate, as I moved on, was a lot filled with broken-down cars and trucks. I looked for bullet holes in them and saw none. All I could think of was how terrible it must have been when men like those at the gate were allowed to do what they wished. The idea of a country taken over by cool black killers was as nightmarish as anything I could ever imagine. But then, anything could happen in Africa.
Harry Thuku Road became Hotel Boulevard and I heard “Polly Wolly Doodle” in what sounded like Swahili floating from a restaurant. Eventually, after walking up a bill and passing eucalyptus trees and a large hotel, I began descending and the Aga Khan Nursery School came into view, next to a playground filled with Asian children joyously playing soccer in white uniforms and expensive tennis shoes. Against the fence of the playground was a shack made of slats, flattened rectangular threegallon cans, and cardboard. It was a store and inside it old African men sat at a table eating maize with powdered milk. Every so often a Mercedes filled with giggling Indians passed. Directly across from the playground there was a sunken field of pineapple trees, corrugated shacks, ragged, shoeless people, stacked burlap sacks, and a child collecting coal, but near the end of the street, seated at a table in a torn and filthy dress, her feet wide from never having worn shoes, sat a young girl of about 10. She was playing a card game by herself, alternately excited or laughing, her big eyes, long neck, and long arms predictions of a great beauty. In the way she turned her head, stuck her tongue out of the side of her mouth, and sighed the accompaniment to what was possibly a dream, this girl suddenly became an index of the indomitable. I knew that as Jong as Kenya could produce children like her, it would have a chance to handle whatever burdens history and circumstance placed upon its shoulders. Or, as it was once written. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” ❖
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 18, 2020