Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Snake in the Living Room

I tell people I’ve lived in Kenya for ten years.

It’s not true. It’s actually six years. But I need ten years to express the decade-love, my decade-home. This isn’t just another home – it’s not England, Germany, or even my birth-land. ‘Africa has a thousand ways to get under your skin.’ Africa has twined me, hooked me, rooted me and condemned me. I didn’t choose this. Nomad by conscription, wanderer by heart.

I can’t categorise this place. Every time I think I know everything it is to me, who I am in Kenya, every time I shrink in horror from atrocities and swindlings, there is something new. A glimpse of betterment, of hope. But it works backwards as well. I forget the inherent dangers, too.

When we first reached Kisumu, Mum encountered a snake in her classroom, down the spiral of a notebook. She screamed, ran, and wakened me to an increased terror of Kisumu snakes. I walked on eggshells for weeks, every string or belt a snake in disguise. I didn’t see so much as a tail end, and I got over the paranoia.

Today, I was chatting to Mum in the living room when I saw a brilliant green cord lying across the white tiles near the wall. Wicked eyes, flickering forked tongue. Even as I looked at it, I couldn’t believe it was in my house. A thing like that, possibly poisonous, possibly perilous. It looked a lot like a green mamba, and a green mamba kills as well as it breathes.

Needless to say, we were quick to get onboard the table and call the askari to get rid of it.

Anyway, this story has a point. I’m trying to say that everything we take for granted can be stripped away with terrifying speed. This is true of any place, but I see it more often in Kenya. Your health can leak away before you ever see a doctor. Car accidents maim if they don’t kill outright, and no ambulance will come for you. The safety of your home (for example, from snakes) is rapidly compromised. The freedom to walk, to shop – these freedoms can quickly be lost.

British tourist companies are flying people home from Mombasa. Terrorism. Grenades exploding and murdering in Nairobi, Mombasa. Two weeks ago, a Somali couple impersonating police officers tried to lure my own mother into their car. We have heard mutterings of Westerner kidnappings in the works.

We stay on. Almost every expat does. It’s not a matter of bravery, just common sense.  Sometimes when I’m walking alone, I feel a weak, abstract fear (or gut-clenching terror, when snakes are involved) but I don’t worry much. At these times, it’s harder to be across the ocean.

I have other fears. I don’t want Kenya to consume me. I don’t want it to define me – to eternally be thirsty for African rains. Karen Blixen went back to Denmark, but she never came back to Kenya. I don’t know if I could bear to leave this place for always. But will it ever release me?

I can’t help feeling that jacaranda skies should dye my eyes blue, so the world will know I belong to Kenya.