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How Kenya Exploded In My Heart

A letter from Harare
Petina Gappah


I once lived in a European city that had so few black people that I was most people’s only encounter with Africa. I was the Africa expert, giving little seminars on the genocide in Rwanda and the promises of South Africa’s rainbow nation. Throughout that time, I felt like a poser – the one African country that I really knew was Zimbabwe, the rest were as foreign to me as Slovenia or Poland. I still feel I do not know Africa. I never can, but through reading, travel and friendships, I have come to love a number of African countries.

More than these, I love Kenya.

Kenya means very specific things to me. It means my friends at Kwani?, the hip literary journal which has opened a space in which the most moving and funny and lacerating and edgy writing is exploding out into the world. I cannot separate their kwaniness from their Kenyanness. Kenya means Lamu, a place like no other that I have visited. Kenya means all the amazing people that I have met in my travels there, filmmakers, and businesswomen, civil servants, media types, hotel staff, for I have stayed mainly in hotels, so that I am one of those for whom Kenya will always be the country of the permanent karibu, a county of the friendliest people in the world, an eye-rolling cliché that is nonetheless true. I have conversed with Luo and Kalenjin and Kikuyu and, on one occasion, what I took to be Massai teenagers, but who, according to my Kenyan companions, were Kikuyu dressed as Massai for the tourist dollars. On a beach in Mombasa, I cemented my Kenyan tourist credentials: I received the flattering attentions of a reed-thin “beach boy” with beaded dreadlocks.

To add to these associations with the people I have met are all the wonderful things that happened to me in Kenya. The thrill of my first ever public reading as a writer. The young men who asked me if I had ever visited Kibera because the slum I described in my reading sounded like their home. The ground of Kenya shaking beneath my feet as I fell in love on the shores of Crater Lake.

Every time that I have been to Nairobi, I have returned with a singing soul.

And when I am not there, Kenya follows me. The smiling man I met on the Number 8 bus to the United Nations is a Kenyan, he said. I swelled with pride when Kenya’s Ambassador Amina Mohammed became the first African to chair the WTO’s General Council, and the first African woman to be interviewed for a spot on the WTO’s Appellate Body. Whenever I met Kenyans in Geneva and other places, I felt a strong tug of kinship. And at school, my four-year-old son Kush became best friends with a little Kenyan boy called Jacob.

Like Juliet did to the love-struck Romeo in the Dire Straits song, Kenya exploded on my heart.

There was an underlying ache.

I wished we had this in Zimbabwe, that a rainbow coalition of political parties could unseat a stagnant ruling party and still have a vibrant opposition. I could not help comparing Nairobi’s greenness to Harare’s drought dry grasses and trees. A friend once asked me what I thought we would talk about in Zimbabwe if ever we solved our crisis. In Kenya, I found some answers. Kenyans filled the streets of Nairobi at the weekend, their bars were packed with smiling happy people, troubled, it seemed to me, by no graver political issues than the antics of their health minister Charity Ngilu. On one weekend that I was in Nairobi, the papers were given over to a discussion of the school results. There were league tables, and pictures of beaming little girls and boys and agonising editorials about why some regions were doing badly compared to others. I remember a picture of a woman with a smile that showed the insides of her teeth as she embraced her son.

Future doctor, said the caption.

For one used to headlines from the Zimbabweans papers about inflation going up to 15 000%, and newspapers filled with the President’s daily screeds against “detractors and would-be colonisers” and the empty promise that Zimbabwe would never be a colony again, this all seemed achingly normal.

Then came December 2007.

And suddenly, it was not of Zimbabwe that stern-faced British prime ministers, European Union observers and American presidents were talking, but Kenya. Suddenly, Nairobi was becoming Harare, and Kenya, Zimbabwe.



 Petina Gappah‘s letter also features in Chimurenga Vol. 16: The Chimurenga Chronic (available here).

Set in the week 18-24 May 2008, the Chronic, imagines the newspaper as a producer of time – a time-machine – which travels backwards and forwards, to place these events within a broader context and thereby to challenge the logic of emergencies and immediate needs that characterise contemporary African media.

Buy the Chronic
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