Another small Kenyan heartbreak

Vega Tom
Posted August 19, 2013 from United States

While I can't really say that I can call Kenya a second home as tempting as it can be (I wonder if it could ever truly be home for this mzungu), Kenya has been an integral and forming part of my life since I was born. My grandmother has lived their since the early seventies and I first landed there at the age of 3 with my year and a half old sister along with my parents for their first visit to my grandmothers home since she had moved there ten years before.

I remember playing with centipedes and hermit crabs in Mombasa, losing my plastic Bata shoes in the mud of lake Naivasha chasing down flamingos, the many bumpy dusty car rides, the children who played with my blond hair and touched my skin and that I had burping contests with, and the many extraordinary and challenging men and women that over my time there I grew to see in very different ways. At three being held by Mohinder, a charismatic sikh man who worked for my grandmother who had yellow eyes. Gathu her driver who always wore a derby hat and just was so COOL. He still is. My step Grandfather Paul who was dashing and playful and ever chasing business schemes and always trying to get us to eat more. Eat, eat! You must be strong and healthy as he heaped more than you could ever possibly eat on your plate: ugali, irio, nyama choma....

Margaret, my grandmothers house keeper, who I found overbearing at 13 and at 19 so caring, strong and hardworking carrying the weight of raising her two daughters after her husband, a weight lifter, passed away from a heart attach at the gym and then took on the orphaned son of her sister who passed away from AIDS (though no one called it that then). She worked for my grandma, she was family, but wasn't, but was. I always felt weird about her doing my laundry. My friend Samantha, who I met at a Catholic Girls School after being essentially show and tell for a day and become penpals with for many, many years, with epic novella letters, to reconnect at 19 as partying, restless teenagers. The annoyance on a cabbies face when she would flag down a cab or tuk tuk and I would come up not paying the higher mzungu price. So beautiful and sharp and restless. She's in Germany now.

Working on a cabinet making crew with Kenyan men in blue work jumpsuits and realizing that breaking at lunch over bread with margarine and chai that I had the first real conversation with a man there as a day to day human being comparing rent and life in the US vrs Kenya and not as a white girl conquest or a possible sponsor in six months. Working and hearing on the radio news of the embassy bombings unfolding and knowing in my heart that Paul was there, downtown. The collective confusion and anxiety and fear someone we knew was hurt or worse. Thankfully Paul came out unscathed having hit the ground ahead of the second blast that sent the glass of the windows of the buildings in the surrounding blocks flying - the source of most of the injuries related to the bombings. So I volunteered at a hospital tying off blood collection bags in the run down hospital. Where the surreal becomes real and you just do.

So many experiences and memories rooted in my being in Kenya. The warmth and generosity of so many people, the strange navigation of post colonial relationships, the harshness and joys of travel, the resourcefulness of push starting the Isuzu Trooper out of the driveway again and Jua Kali, the chai, the respect of elders, the strange conflicting pride and inferiority complexes of a hub of foreign aid so present in Nairobi, the bombastic matatus, the yellow dogs. The allure of the expat life that succumbs to the hypocrisy of the eductated white elite behind their gates complaining of Kenyan politics they can't vote in and, always, of security. And the friendships started from letters or a beer at an outdoor restaurant and catching the rainwater in a torrential rainy season downpour. But in all that, knowing at the time that it would be where I would end up some day, some how. Even feeling alien so much of the time I felt so rooted in something intangible and soul grabbing and in the red earth.

But instead I feel my connection to Kenya slipping through my fingers. My grandpa passed away of a heart attack many years ago. My grandmother is getting old, so suddenly over the last few years. She is part time in the States and part time there and at some point won't make it back (to which place I don't know). And this morning I got news that one of the more complicated characters in my split continent consciousness had passed away in his sleep.

David. My grandmother sponsored him as a young man to come to the states for university. He was Maasai, gangly and brilliant. And an alcoholic, ever with dreams of big ventures that would self destruct or had no where to go. A complicated relationship with his wife who passed away of tuberculosis shortly after they reconciled and had twin sons. At 13 I damned him utterly unreliable, having failed to meet us in Narok as promised to see his new place after a long and grueling drive in the rain that turned the roads to mud. Me and my grandmother pushing the Trooper out of mud many times, with my younger sisters in the car and her elderly cousin at the wheel. Finally making it to Narok to be taken into the boma of his older sister. Washing up in a small tub of precious water and sleeping on stretched leather platforms with my little sisters, eyes stinging with the ever present smoke.

At 25 we met him again at a restaurant in Narok on the way to Maasai Mara with my then husband, as skinny as ever and cigarette in shaking hand. But we talked life, politics, the world like old friends. His brilliance shone and his world weariness and the pride in his children. Survivors. Later when my grandmother was ill he became the key ally in sorting out her affairs with my mother, in navigating the cluttered bureaucracy of property ownership and unsettled business of stolen car claims. He came through one hundred fold.

I had know idea this would hit me as it has. It's him: enigmatic, complicated, so integral to my grandmothers life, so infuriatingly unreliable sometimes and so the right man and the right time in others. And another piece of my Kenya life that is gone. Leaving a strange and surprisingly hole in my abdomen - the heart, the soul?

As I find myself more and more rooted here: work, love, life.... I yearn to go back. But to what?

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