am at home. The past eight hours is already receding into the
forgotten; I was in Cape Town this morning, I am in Nakuru , Kenya now.
tired and her eyes are sleepier than usual. She has never seemed frail,
but does so now. I decide that it is I who is growing, changing, and my
attempts at maturity make her seem more human.
I make my way to the kitchen. The Nandi woman still rules the corridor.
10 years, I can still move about with ease in the dark. I stop at that
hollow place, the bit of wall on the other side of the fireplace. My
mother's voice, talking to my Dad, echoes in the corridor. None of us
has her voice: if crystal were water solidified, her voice would be the
last splash of water before it sets.
Light from the kitchen brings the Nandi woman to life. A painting.
was terrified of her when I was a kid. Her eyes seemed so alive and the
red bits growled at me menacingly. Her broad face announced an
immobility that really scared me; I was stuck there, fenced into a
tribal reserve by her features: rings on her ankles and bells on her nose, she will make music wherever she goes.
Did I sense, so young, that her face could never translate into
acceptability? That, however disguised, it would not align itself to
the programme I aspired to?
In Kenya ,
there are two sorts of people: those on one side of the line will wear
third-hand clothing till it rots. They will eat dirt, but school fees
will be paid.
On the other side of the line
live people you see in coffee-table books. Impossibly exotic and much
fewer in number than the coffee table books suggest. They are like an
old and lush jungle that continues to flourish its leaves and unfurl
extravagant blooms, refusing to realise that somebody cut off the
Often, somebody from the other side of the line.
two groups of people are fascinated by one another. We, the modern
ones, are fascinated by the completeness of the old ones. To us, it
seems that everything is mapped out and defined for them, and everybody
is fluent in those definitions. The old ones are not much impressed
with our society, or manners - what catches their attention is our
tools: the cars and medicines and telephones and wind-up dolls and
In my teens, set alight by the poems
of Senghor and Okot P'Bitek, the Nandi woman became my Tigritude. I
pronounced her beautiful, marvelled at her cheekbones and mourned the
lost wisdom in her eyes, but I still would have preferred to sleep with
Pam Ewing or Iman.
It was a source of
terrible fear for me that I could never love her. I covered that
betrayal with a complicated imagery that had no connection to my gut: O
Nubian Princess, and other bad poetry. She moved to my bedroom for a
while, next to the faux-Kente wall hanging, but my mother took her back
to her pulpit.
Over the years, I learned to
look at her amiably. She filled me with a lukewarm nostalgia for things
lost. I never again attempted to look beyond her costume.
is younger than me now; I can see that she has girlishness about her.
Her eyes are the artist's only real success: they suggest mischief,
serenity, vulnerability and a weary wisdom. Today, I don't need to
bludgeon my brain with her beauty, it just sinks in, and I find myself
I look up at the picture again.
Then I see it.
I been such a bigot? Everything: the slight smile, the angle of her
head and shoulders, the mild flirtation with the artist. I know you
want me, I know something you don't.
Lisa: nothing says otherwise. The truth is that I never saw the smile.
Her thick lips were such a war between my intellect and emotion. I
never noticed the smile.
The artist is
probably not African, not only because of the obvious Mona Lisa
business but also because, for the first time, I realise that the
woman's expression is odd. In Kenya , you will only see such an
expression in girls who went to private schools, or were brought up in
the richer suburbs of the larger towns.
look, that slight toying smile, could not have happened with an actual
Nandi woman. In the portrait, she has covered her vast sexuality with a
shawl of ice, letting only the hint of smile reveal that she has a body
that can quicken: a flag on the moon. The artist has got the dignity
right but the sexuality is European: it would be difficult for an
African artist to get that wrong.
too seem wrong. There's awkwardness about them, as if a shift of
aesthetics has taken place on the plain of muscles between her nose and
her mouth. Also, the mouth strives too hard for symmetry, as if to
apologise for its thickness. That mouth is meant to break open like the
flesh of a ripe mango; restraint of expression is not common in Kenya
and certainly not among the Nandi, who smile more than any other nation
The eyes are enormous; as if the
artist were determined to arouse the sympathy of the viewer, to change
a preconceived notion of a woman is. Skins, with “tribal scars” on her
face. I can see the gaggle of tourists exclaiming:
“Ooh…such dignity! She's so… well, noble! ”
turn, and head for the kitchen. I cherish the kitchen at night. It is
cavernous, and echoes with night noises that are muffled by the vast
spongy silence outside. After so many years in cupboard-sized South
African kitchens, I feel more thrilled than I should.
On my way back to my room, I turn and face the Nandi woman, thinking of the full-circle I have come since I left.
I left, white people ruled South Africa . When I left, Kenya was a
one-party dictatorship. When I left, I was relieved that I had escaped
the burdens and guilts of being in Kenya , of facing my roots, and
repudiating them. Here I am, looking for them again.
I know, her eyes say.