Most people lucky enough to have spent time in Africa have made their way to one of its most beautiful countries, Kenya. My family used to vacation there when we lived in southern Africa in the 1970s, and though my memories of those trips are now soft around the edges, my heart still feels Kenya.
It feels it in colour (golden, accented by anything bright), music (my brother dancing like a madman to the beat of a local band, The Daffodils, whose The Lion Sleeps Tonight—uyimbuwe, uyimbuwe—was better than any version I’ve ever heard), taste (fresh-caught scampi sizzling in garlic butter), and smell (the Indian Ocean off Malindi, where I nearly touched one of the most dangerous fish in the world, the stonefish, in a shallow coral pool). But it feels it in a less tangible sense as well: I remember Kenya as safe, happy, and warm.
Without much doubt, this deeper imprint of Kenya is at least partly due to these trips being times in which my family felt particularly good to me. I associate Kenya with relaxation and tranquility on a personal level. So in expressing my sadness at the news that a jagged gash of violence and hatred has ripped through Kenya, I won’t say “isn’t that awful—it was so idyllic at one time.” It couldn’t be idyllic, given its post-colonial legacy of roughly 40 ethnic groups and more than half the population in extreme poverty.
And yet … and yet to me and to everyone I’ve ever talked to who has gone to Kenya, the country has steadfastly symbolized hope, despite the odds. It isn’t just me who is shocked by the chaos that has overtaken the country—Kenyans themselves are incredulous.
Stephanie Nolen, the Globe and Mail’s insightful and frighteningly brave African correspondent, had a piece in the paper last Saturday (“Into the Valley of Death") in which she described her harrowing road trip through the country to try to discover the root of the madness. On this trip, which included a stop at her driver’s burned-down house complete with the corpses of a mother and baby, Nolen can’t find one person who can tell her why the violence erupted. It seems to be some infernal combination of a contested election, desperation for economic reforms, and latent ethnic tensions. Nolen concludes the piece by asking her travelling companions, both Kenyan, if anything they saw on the trip surprised them. One responded, “with bitter wonderment in his voice.” His answer: “That this is Kenya, and you cannot move from place to place. That there is no control. That people are killing just like anything.”
Of course, one outcome of this tragedy is that it will reiterate the image of Africa as a savage and hopeless continent to the rest of the world. Play a word association game with Africa as the original word—an honest game—and you will get something like drought, AIDS, machetes, famine, and corruption. The words come fast and heavy. I know. But I also know that they must be contested. They must be balanced with other ideas, even when these ideas seem elusive. Because Africa is not just dark. And so I leave you—leave me—with this gorgeous picture of Africa—Malawi to be exact—that my friend Francesca’s husband, Chris, took about a year ago. (Chris is not only a fantastic photographer, he is an AIDS doctor and researcher; he and Francesca are currently living in Malawi). This is Africa, too.