There once was a girl in Africa

Context matters. So let’s go back to the very beginning, which was kind of a long time ago now for me. So don’t try to read this at a red light.

I am by all counts American. But I’m an American who was not raised in America. The stomping grounds of my childhood were in Kenya where I lived from the tender age of one until the awkward one of fifteen (with a brief intermission back in America). I always felt guilty calling Kenya home though, not being Kenyan by ethnicity or nationality. For God’s sake I barely knew Swahili. I had an American town to call home instead. A little suburb who had cheated her way into holding the esteemed title of Home simply by the random act of my parents purchasing a house there in the 1970s (though no sooner had they signed on the dotted lines they promptly moved to Africa).

The majority of my childhood was spent in a one story stone house a few miles from gritty, downtown Nairobi. Myth had it that fighters in the Mau Mau Rebellion once occupied our house as a safe haven. Wrought iron bars, remnants of the war, were positioned inside every window. Like all houses of the Kenyan upper middle class and the expatriate community we had a gate at the entrance to our driveway that was manned by a guard. Cornell, our guard, was a tall man who smelled of wood smoke and body odor. He would greet us with a tea stained toothy grin and wave his rungu with excitement when we came home. In my twenties I went through a period of disbelief that my parents, educated liberals who both served in Kennedy’s Peace Corps, would have stooped to such a classist convenience as having a guard. I know now that it would have been righteously remiss to not offer a man like Cornell that job. Like most Kenyans employed by Americans Cornell was genuinely pleased to have a job working for a family who paid fair wages and covered his seven children’s school fees and medical expenses. The unemployment rate in Kenya blows any percentage that Americans have ever experienced out of the water.

My sister and I were white children traveling daily through a sea of black faces (with white Swedes, Canadians and Italians in no short supply either). I regularly found myself face to face with Kenyan children my own age, in rags, staggering through the polluted streets sniffing glue and hoping to snag some money through our open car window. We drove daily over potholed roads that would have caused fury to American taxpayers. But they were lined with banana and jacaranda trees and we felt lucky to be spared the strip malls that choked those well-paved streets back home. We shared these roads with horn happy matatus spilling over with passengers. It was hair raising but thrilling. Nairobi markets may not have sold chocolate chips or Starburst but they bustled and smelled alive. The butchers’ white smocks were stained with blood and the ground around their stalls messy with innards and trash. The lettuce wasn’t rinsed of soil and misted on the hour. And the sweetness of locally grown mangos, piled high in cardboard boxes, was intoxicating. Back yards in Nairobi weren’t square, fenced in aliquots of fertilized grass and tulips. They were acres worth of equatorial flora and tropical birds, abutting onto snake-filled ravines and emerald green tea plantations. And our school wasn’t built of cinder blocks with long, menacing hallways to brave inside. It was an Eden resplendent with bougainvillea vines and charming classroom ‘pods’ built of cool stucco walls and thatched roofs.

Someone recently told me that the two periods in our lives when we are the least capable of relinquishing control are when we are toddlers and when we are teenagers. Toddlers feel true despair when control and choice has been taken from them. They throw themselves on the floor and wail inconsolably. Teenagers feel an almost equal desperation but they are not allowed to express themselves in the same way as when they were two. The academic institution my father worked for had been nudging him to return to America to fulfill his professorial duties. My dad put off the move long enough to get my older sister through high school uninterrupted and in 1992 when armed car robberies were becoming a part of daily life he decided the time had come. Kenyans were angry over their government’s impotence and greed and took their anger to the streets. Nationals and foreigners alike were targeted and everyone was nervous. My parents were divorced by this time and my mother happily ensconced in a new profession. My mother and I could have stayed until I graduated. But my mother felt compelled to return to the states with my father so as to keep me close to him geographically and emotionally. I loved my father but at the time I didn’t appreciate how short his life would be and I resented leaving my childhood home in order to have weekend dinner dates with him. I also resented that my sister had been allotted the time to complete high school in Kenya while I had to re-root at the age when teens are at their most painful. I hated the whole plan but I felt I had no choice in the matter. I could have thrown a tantrum. But the assumption had been that I, the superficially more stable of the daughters, could handle being uprooted.

So in August of that year we headed across the Atlantic to our long rented out house, no longer a family and none of us deluded enough to think we were going home.

I lived with my mother in our suburban “home” while my dad and his soon to be wife would rent in the big city. I’m not sure I would have felt friendly towards any suburb that was foisted on me under these circumstances. But the one I got in the lottery of life was, objectively speaking, pretty boring. And rich to boot. The football players liked me but I wasn’t embraced into the popular fold off the bat. Initially I found myself friendly with the few misfits and artists - a dark haired and sulky girl who had her nose pierced and rarely showered…and a brilliant boy who later skipped out on high school to become an oxygenarian. I eventually found my way through this all-American high school and much to my surprise I did thrive, due to friendships above all else. But I never could stomach embracing this place as my home. I clutched to the belief that it was just a short-lived mistake in what had been thus far an “adventurous” and “inspiring” life. What a fucking little snot I was inside my otherwise nice enough young global heart.

I chose Ohio to hunker down in for college. Ohio isn’t much to write home about but I chose her and therefore easily embraced its flat horizon and friendly Mid-western culture for a short four years. My father died during my college years and my mother moved to Pakistan to pursue an old love affair. At the end of college I took a posting with the Peace Corps in West Africa. I would return to Africa and shake free from the suburban clutch.

Returning to the African red earth felt like coming home. However, I quickly realized that it wasn’t enough for me to happily wander the dusty West African markets while I pretended to know something about growing gardens in a desert. I chose to leave Peace Corps early and good old Uncle Sam put me on a plane back to the only family I still had on this continent – my British stepmother. She had remained stateside, in this protagonist of a city, after my dad died. I cried bitterly as our plane descended onto the flickering lights of the local airport I knew all too well. Returning here after my failed reunion with Africa seemed an ominous sign. A few years later after another stint abroad I returned yet again to my stepmother’s house on a flight originating yet again from Africa. I house sat for her with a man I’d fallen for long distance and for whom I had left ‘my’ continent for. We got in a fierce fight within days of settling in. I fled into the basement, crying in disbelief that I’d wound up here again. I blamed America rather than blaming the man. Or myself.

Seven years and a number of addresses later I followed my then-husband back to this fucking city for his training. He gave me veto power in the decision but while I couldn’t stand the idea of it, I had no real reason to keep him from the intellectual prowess of the city’s institutions – just a beast-sized amount of resentment projected onto this city, as though it was her lobster rolls and shitty winters that were getting in the way of my dreams. I agreed to go. A few years later when an option to leave was put on the table I participated in the decision to stay. But for a number of years I grudgingly walked through my life here. This town represented a disturbing pattern of loss of control over my destiny. I felt her smirk at me, hearing her whisper to me that despite a decade worth of attempts to carve out a return to my international life (including getting a nursing degree explicitly to get me overseas again) I wound up just following the wrong men around, doing nothing I’d set out to do. And with resentment wrapped about me like a cloak made from the feathers of an African albatross (which isn’t even a species that exists), I moped like a little girl.

For a long time I felt like Life was dictating my life.

But remember I’m 41 years into the slippery slope towards menopause? I’ve got the passage of time and clearer eyes going for me. I still don’t need reading glasses. In fact my vision is only getting better. I’ve started to embrace the concept that, as someone I adore reminds me daily, life happens for us…not to us.

I was a transplant in Kenya. And she was a gem of a spot for a childhood. For decades I said that Kenya was the only home I have ever known. The truth is, for a long time she was the only home I ever accepted. I still grieve the lost opportunity to raise my children as I was raised. But I no longer itch to be an outsider living a tightrope life between cultures. Yes, I still prefer outdoors markets and would choose a quirky bungalow that comes complete with geckos in the closet over a shingled front entry colonial any day. But I’d welcome a little cardinal pausing on my window ledge in place of an African lizard. I’d happily frequent a little grocery store in the Berkshires selling fresh cows milk and organic herbs in place of a dusty little Africa duka. I’d welcome many an American town and city into my life. And the ironic thing is that I already have. I pined for my childhood home for so long, not realizing that I’d made other homes - for shorter or longer times - almost everywhere I’ve ever been. And I have one now. One I was growing fond of all the while complaining bitterly about…a city I’ve walked almost every inch of. With people who I wouldn’t give up for the world.

Put me down and I’ll make roots. Put me down and I’ll find beauty. It’s what I do best. What matters most of all is how I live, not where. I want a choice over what I do in whatever place I’m standing. And I have one. It doesn’t always feel like it. I don’t buy the bullshit that the sky is the limit. But I do have choices. And always have.