Out of Africa: Part II

[If one intends to review this post, but has not yet read Part I (which is below), I would start there.]

The choice for this note’s title was deliberate; the best mental preparation I had for the trip was Out of Africa, published in 1937 by Danish Baroness Karen von Blixen under the pseudonym, Isak Dinesen, in which she chronicled her ownership and operation of a coffee plantation outside Nairobi from 1915 to 1931.  The book, which bears only passing relation to the 1985 Meryl Streep – Robert Redford film drawn from it, is devoted primarily to Ms. Blixen’s struggles to manage her farm, her relationships and interactions with native Africans, and her love of the flora and fauna of Africa.  The book has been called “intricately racist,” but I strongly disagree.  Given the evident high esteem Ms. Blixen had for those she called the “Natives,” and the great regard they in turn had for her, the work is simply a product of its times.

There are 42 tribes in Kenya.  The largest tribe in Kenya is the Kikuyu; the most renowned and resplendent, in their red plaid tribal garb – and, until recent generations, the most feared and fearsome — are the herders, the Maasai. 

“A Maasai warrior is a fine sight.  Those young men … are unswervingly true to their own nature, and to an immanent ideal.  Their style is not an assumed manner, nor an imitation of a foreign perfection; it has grown from the inside, and is an expression of the tribe and its history, and their weapons and finery are as much part of their being as are a deer’s antlers.”

  • Out of Africa; Isak Dinesen

Kenya’s population has grown from 2.65 million in Ms. Blixen’s time to 55 million today.  Population and urban growth have dramatically shrunk the land upon which the Maasai traditionally roamed with their herds, causing their ancestral livelihood to wither.  Some now have no alternative but to support their families by doing tribal dances for tourists in makeshift villages.    

Among themselves, Kenyans speak in native languages; as Binyavanga Wainaina noted decades ago in One Day I Will Write About This Place:  “Urban Kenya is a split personality:  authority, trajectory, international citizen in English; national brother in [Swahili]; and content villager or nostalgic urbanite in our mother [i.e., tribal] tongues.”  [Our guide, Manson, advised us during the trip that in Swahili, “Hakuna Matada,” made famous by Disney’s The Lion King, does indeed mean, “No Worries.”  😉 ]  Each of the places we stayed offered wonderful accommodations and excellent service by staffs consisting entirely of Kenyans.  We came to realize that these service employees are the fortunate ones; by adopting Western manner and command of English, their incomes far surpass that of the average Kenyan.  They wore name tags with English monikers such as “Lucy” and “Juliet.”  Although businesses catering to foreigners are clearly reluctant to ask customers to deal with African mores, most of the employees themselves were pleased to provide and be called by their native names when we asked for them.

At our last tent camp, I stupidly left some items where they could be damaged by an impending storm.  We were out in the park, so we called back to the camp to ask someone to move the items out of the elements.  When we returned, I asked the young man who had helped me – whose nameplate said, “Moses,” but who had readily given me (and helped me pronounce) his native name, how to say, “I am an idiot” in Swahili.  At first, he blanked; but when he understood that I was referring to myself, he grinned but said, “I can’t tell you that; you’ll have to ask Beth.”

Beth (as with Manson, since I haven’t sought this lady’s permission to refer to her, not her actual name) is the wonderful woman who manages the camp.  Manson considers her a role model for his daughters.  When I asked her for the Swahili translation for “I am an idiot,” she smiled broadly.  “You can’t say that,” she said.  “People will laugh at you.”  I said, “But I was an idiot, and made the staff work.”  She laughed, and gave me the translation, and practiced it with me.

We had the chance to visit with Beth during our last few evenings.  She is of the Kikuyu tribe.  While playfully teaching me the Swahili translation for other common phrases, she informed us that what I had been referring to “Kenyan names” were actually “tribal names.”  She pointedly did not want to be called by her tribal name.  Her name was Beth.  She indicated that tribal loyalties and customs were holding Kenya back.  “The only way we will move ahead as a country is if we think of ourselves as Kenyans, not as tribe members,” she said.  English is the common denominator, and accordingly, she felt that English was the language that her fellow citizens should embrace.  She was the last we heard repeat what I had heard from a number of Kenyans during our stay:  how pleased she was that – finally – there had been a peaceful transfer of presidential power without riots.

So amid extreme poverty for so many Kenyans, I found that many we encountered had hope – in some, despite material conditions at which most Americans we consider “poor” would blanch.  They – who have been struggling to maintain a democracy for a mere 60 years – cherished the peaceful transfer of power that we had taken for granted before January 6th; they, such as Manson and Beth, appreciate – obviously better than some of our own American elected officials — that the well-being of their nation lays in putting tribal loyalties aside and focusing on the good of the nation.  Their understanding brought home to me that the Capitol riot was not only an insult to America, but to people everywhere who yearn for what we have.  Recently-elected Kenyan President William Ruto, who came from humble beginnings but is now rich, won the election on a pledge to provide help for impoverished Kenyans.  (Studies of his victory reportedly indicate that voting patterns had not adhered to tribal lines as closely as in the past.)  May he make good on his promises.  As this is published, the election opponent Mr. Ruto defeated, Raila Odinga, continues to question his loss; may his supporters refrain from taking to the streets to emulate the example of seditionists in America and recently in Brazil, and Kenya’s own recent troubled electoral past.

Beth walked us to our van on the last day.  After hugging each of us in turn, she looked up at me.  “Of all the Swahili phrases I taught you, the only one you pronounce correctly is, ‘I am an idiot,’” she smiled.

Clearly apropos.  We started home.  I don’t foresee that we’ll ever make it back to Kenya, but I wish we could.  If Kenyans can put aside their ancestral differences and remain on a democratic path, there is certainly light for them at the end of what will unfortunately be a long tunnel.

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