Discovering home: An excerpt
I 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.
Mum looks 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.
After 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.
I 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.
Why? 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 water.
Often, somebody from the other side of the line.
These 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 guns.
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.
She 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 desiring her.
I look up at the picture again.
Then I see it.
Have 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.
Mona 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.
That 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.
The lips 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 I know.
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! ”
I 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.
When 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.
This excerpt comes from Discovering home. To enquire about purchasing a copy please contact us with "Discovering Home" in the subject line.
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