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Bibi Acha

As a child, I wrote stories about a place that didn’t quite exist. It almost existed, but it was too nondescript for that. This story bulldozes that mythical kingdom; this is a story about a place that exists. Where? Partly in space—on the Equator—and partly in time, in the past. You can’t see it for yourself, so I will describe it to you. Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of “The Danger of a Single Story”, I grew up in Africa. The only world I knew was Mombasa, Kenya. Yet the stories I wrote took place in the world of the stories I read. As Darren Chetty writes in his essay ‘You Can’t Say That! Stories Have to be About White People’: “We learn so many things from reading stories, including the conventions of stories […] The problem is that when one of those conventions is that children in stories are white, English and middle-class, then you may come to learn that your own life does not qualify as subject material.”

So how white, English and middle-class am I? The answer is half. My mother is those things; my father most certainly is not. When I tell people I am from Kenya, there is always the question that never makes it further than the tip of the tongue—“but you’re not black?” The unspoken question is never “but you’re white?” Because I’m not. I’m whiteish. Off-white. Several generations ago, my father’s family settled in Kenya from the Indian subcontinent. My mother’s family settled there just one generation ago, a few years before it stopped being a British colony. Her father fought for the British against the independence movement. He’s dead and buried, but the issue is not. 40,000 Kenyans are suing the British government in a class action for mistreatment that they say was perpetrated in those last ten years of colonial rule. And here I am. The post-racial poster-child. I am offering myself as your guide. Let me show you around the town where I was born.

Growing up, the books I liked were Martha Quest (1952) by Doris Lessing and The Poisonwood Bible (1998) by Barbara Kingsolver: books about girls who were not from Africa but were of Africa. I also liked books that yearned after homes as unlike mine as it was possible to be: Little House on the Prairie (1935) by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and L.M. Montgomery’s plaintive pictures of Prince Edward Island. Like theirs, my past is a foreign country, literally and metaphorically—far away, irrecoverable now and perhaps, despite my efforts, incomprehensible to you. For every visitor to Africa apparently needs a “fixer”, otherwise the order of things would be unintelligible. You can see why American journalist Denis Johnson, reporting on the civil war in Liberia, needed one. Things that might be secure in another part of the world are not applicable during a civil war. Less clear is why the actor Ewan McGregor needed fixers when he journeyed by motorcycle down the east coast of Africa. McGregor’s companion, Charley Boorman, explains in the National Geographic documentary, that “quite often in Africa it will just go pear-shaped, it’s the last mad place.” And so it is.

Michel Foucault realised that freedom is a practice, not the achievement of civil order. If you take freedom to mean having individual self-determination, a number of good options for your life, and a future that is a vision of your own authorship, then most Kenyans are not “free”. But life there is free in the way of a careening firework: unpredictable, lawless, fear-inducing, awe-inspiring, climactic, brief, quickly fading to black. Your life could turn out in many unexpected ways, it’s just that most of them are indeed pear-shaped. I saw much more human flesh and death than is standard fare for the English heroine of our storybooks. Limbless lepers, corpses from traffic accidents lying by the roadside, the madman who lived naked in the timber-yard on our street, and ordinary working men’s muscles and sweat through their torn t-shirts. Terrible outcomes indiscriminately handed out to people with no social security. I remember our housekeeper’s ankles, swollen, after she’d stood in a police cell for 48 hours with all the other people who were swept off the street for no reason at the same time as she had been. The khaki sides of prison transportation trucks, trimmed with a row of handcuffed hands reaching out toward the open air. But none of these sights marked my life as unusual. By picking them out to describe to you, I’m warping their significance. I went to school and came home, ate cookies on the sofa where I lay reading like a normal child (though not normal for that country at that time), and lived to tell the tale.

And here is the problem that I face as your tour-guide. The words to describe home elude me, because home is all the things so familiar they don’t merit description. The goes-without-sayings; the wallpaper. Depiction is transformation, defamiliarization. Here’s the problem, Chimamanda, there is no language to tell the story. To me, “tree” does not connote beech or birch, but baobab, ficus, flamboyant, frangipani. I do not think of “road” as paved, nor do I think of bare earth as a rich loam colour. It is anything from red to grey. “Pillows” are filled with kapok seed, “mattresses” are made of foam or stuffed with rags. All this gets suppressed in the words that we have. I can’t give you the right concepts, except by detailed description—and description misrepresents the ordinariness of these things. All the time I was growing up I knew acutely that my paradigms were non-paradigmatic. English is my first language but I learnt it in a context where the only other first-language speaker of it was my mother. The bursting colours and spiky geometry of succulent plants are not “tropical” or “exotic” to me. They are everyday. I cannot relate to these adjectives, and now home is unrelatable in a different way: I can’t adequately relate it to you. “Home” is perspectival. Home is indelible.

How, then, can I tell you what it was like? I can quote Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o. It’s a place of insane contrasts. “In my mind, I now put this wretched corner beside our cities: skyscrapers versus mud walls and grass thatch; tarmac highways, international airports and gambling casinos versus cattle-paths and gossip before sunset.” Everything is painted in primary colours, which can be a sensory overload for the unwary. (Be warned, my tour-group.) Graham Greene in The Heart of the Matter (1948) also manages to portray the startling-ness of the landscape accurately, even though he is supposedly talking about a non-existent place. “Round the corner, in front of the old cotton tree, where the earliest settlers had gathered their first day on the unfriendly shore, stood the law courts and police station, a great stone building like the grandiloquent boast of weak men.” So all of it was ordinary, yes, and I saw everything with the equanimity and indifference of a child. But both these authors point to the most glaringly obvious and un-ignorable aspect of my home: the rampant inequality and colonial legacy.

And this is the reason that Kenyans are not yet free. Race is class. Frantz Fanon said: “I am not the slave of the idea that others have of me but my own appearance.” For the most part, black people are poor. Some Asians and Africans are middle-class, and whites are upper. The political economy is one of “gangster capitalism”, in Howard French’s phrase, and the majority of wealth is held in the hands of elite heirs to British rule. This little narrator of yours is less a poster-child and more of an anathema, a confounding mixture of rigid categories. White and brown, rich and poor. Kenya is still trying to reclaim Black identity, and there is just no heuristic for mixed-race kids. It was only in 2017 that “Asians” were added to the official list of the Tribes of Kenya, at last admitting my father to the class that belongs. Quartz Africa commented that it is unlikely white Kenyans will be seen on that list any time soon, so there remains the unattributed half-coloniser in your narrator. Home is not necessarily the place where you belong or where you feel at ease. Sometimes it isn’t yours for the claiming, as the British found out upon Kenyan independence. It is the unclaimable and yet the un-disclaimable, part of you. Two years before I was born, and in the spirit that probably spurred my parents along in their brave experiment, a scholar from my town made a documentary called The Africans: A Triple Heritage (1986). He claimed that Africa could only be understood as a combination of three influences: indigenous, Western and Islamic. Kenya’s project of self-understanding is just beginning. So you see, my friends, how impossible is this tour. Not only do I lack the language to conduct it, I am trying to tell a story that is inchoate.

Childhood is powerlessness; poverty is powerlessness. To stand out so much that it invites questions about your ethnicity everywhere you go, and simultaneously to have no voice in how you or your people are treated, is to have deep-level cognitive dissonance. To be a drop in an ocean of cheap lives and violent deaths is to have no delusions that you aren’t contingent. Yet to be a racial anomaly is to be assured of your own uniqueness. All you could do, as a child and a Kenyan living with the quality of unruly freedom that we had, was trust to the brute luck that brought you here in the first place.

Passion is the prerogative of the powerless. It’s the imperative to make something meaningful out of the random fact of your existence. Passion is one reason why elections are so violent in Kenya. At least 1,300 people died in rioting that followed a rigged election in 2007—many killed by the police—and 600,000 fled home. Ten years later, at another round of elections, the official in charge of voting technology was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. The incumbent party hired Cambridge Analytica, the company with its fingers in every poisoned pie on offer, as its political advisor. Turnout was 80%, total spend $500 million. Allegations of tampering led the Supreme Court of Kenya to order that votes be recast. Votes were downcast, rather. This time, turnout was 39%, out of which 98% picked the incumbent, but the opposition had pulled out anyway. Maybe passionate rage carried people through the first round, but hope and anger spurt and spew like a severed artery until they are spent. Just as my nationalistic pride in our athletics team gave way, as I grew up, to the ignominy of our currency being worth one-hundredth of a sterling pound. Nobody wanted it. They did want our politicians, though; the International Criminal Court wanted six of them on charges of crimes against humanity over the 2007 election violence.

Hiding from rioters was a recurrent childhood nightmare. The stuff of my nightmares was the stuff all around me. To this day, I have a dread fascination of the sea and always feel at home by it. Another recurrent nightmare was the story of Abraham, tasked by God to kill his son. In the dream, my father was Abraham and I was the sacrifice. And it’s not just that stories have powerful effects on children’s minds. I don’t doubt that the streets literally running with blood once a year on the day of the Eid-ul-Adha festival, when goats are slaughtered to commemorate this story, had an impact. I was, and am, terrified of snakes. One turned up under the kitchen counter at my grandparents’ house. Their houseboy was dispatched to get rid of it. He was the one sent, there was no question. It was not his house but he had to risk his life to earn his wages. As Joel Modiri puts it, “Poverty raises […] ‘a question of the human’, namely the question of ‘who counts as human? whose lives count as lives? and finally, what makes for a grievable life?’” He harried the snake out from under the kitchen counter and then hacked its writhing spine in two with a machete. Did I see all this? I can’t remember. Why would I have been allowed anywhere near the danger? Perhaps it’s the imaginings of my conscience, which has also been hacked at, and hacked back, to make life tolerable there. But it didn’t become tolerable, and so I gave up wrestling and looked away.

I looked west and came to England. Passion, brute luck and relative privilege carried me ashore. Oxford is my current home. (A sense of belonging is what Oxford University sells to its alumni, of course. That’s what turns alumni into donors.) I found a book called Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War and Survival (2017) written by someone who’d been at my college, and I read it despite the title. The author, Jeffrey Gettleman, had made the inverse journey to mine. After a visit to Kenya, he decided that he must live there. He became the New York Times’ correspondent for the region. I wanted to know what my home looked like through the other end of the telescope. What did he see that he so instantly fell in love with? The memoir includes the standard references to the sights and smells. But rhapsodies about the beauty of nature don’t cut it when the ugliness of societal arrangements is all around. He delights at the smells where many of them disgust me. They disgust me because I didn’t choose them. Nor did any Kenyan choose to have poor sanitation and haphazard waste collection. As a journalist, Gettleman is fascinated by conflict. But the conflict means I can’t love the place. Wounds feel personal. These are my people. I do envy Jeffrey Gettleman his unconflicted love of the place, though. Of course, Africa is stereotypically a place of conflicts, not least soul-internal ones. Gettleman is cognisant of the risk of perpetuating stereotypes in his writing. For him, it’s a personal moral dilemma over how to balance truth-telling vs stereotype-projecting, just as it’s a personal moral dilemma over how he treats his servants.

It all begins to sound like another White Man’s Burden (which is what Rudyard Kipling called the project of civilising Empire). It’s not a personal moral dilemma for Gettleman, it’s an urgent political predicament for everyone. Gettleman sees his part in it as exposing truths for Western governments and NGOs. Even so, he is writing for a Western audience, as I am this very minute. Still, I cannot understand why he chose to participate in the horrifying social arrangements that exist there. I do not mean that my leaving was the right thing to do, but that it was the only bearable thing to do. But, again, what makes me special (anomalous racial mixture aside)? Why not empty the country of all people with delicate sensibilities? Then nobody would be complicit.

In fact, guilt is what all the dippers-of-toes into Africa feel, not just Gettleman and I. Major Scobie, the protagonist of Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, betrays everyone he loves. Not deliberately, but just because the stakes are so high and fatality so close by. Wracking guilt is Denis Johnson’s devastating punchline in The Small Boys’ Unit. And it’s my punchline too. Speaking to you, my tour-group, I’m cautious and apologetic. I’m examining my credentials in front of you, wringing my hands—or perhaps my dirty linen—in public. It feels necessary because, for so long, both the English and the Kenyans have been incredulous that I am one of them. I could ask someone closer to home than Jeffrey Gettleman what they love about Kenya, like my parents, but that would make explicit the unspoken betrayal—leaving the family home. It would be to admit I don’t get it, admit that my concept of home is defective, ask to be exonerated of my conflictedness.

The main thing that drew Gettleman to Kenya is “the transitive property of trust”, “the surprising openness” and “this notion, lived just about every day out here, that nothing’s easy but everything’s possible”. Gettleman is right about the freewheeling freedom, but wrong about trust. The “possibility of anything” is sometimes fun—like getting in the newspaper because I was the first ever girl in my town to join the Kenya Scouts, formed at Independence. Some unpredictable things aren’t so enjoyable, like being chased by a crocodile. So boundless potential could be fun, it’s just that for most Kenyans it is “pear-shaped”.

As to trust, Kenyans distrust many things. Don’t trust the water (make sure you boil it before drinking, my visitors) or the police (don’t ever look them in the eye). To say “he’s a politician” connotes weaselry, smooth talk, self-interest, self-promotion. There is a lot of distrust, but ordinary people aren’t the objects of it. Trust suggests something to overcome: an initial wariness, cageyness, stand-offishness, lack of faith, cynicism, enmity, churlishness, dog-in-the-manger-ness with your time or your things. The atomic individualism necessary for dog-eat-dog simply does not exist there. The cultural theorist Jeremy Gilbert has noticed that Western models of society are often implicitly based on a competitive market way of thinking. Annette Baier, another theorist on trust, observed that many moral philosophers are men whose life experience is dominated by arms-length transactions. So perhaps it is only certain versions of “trust” that I am cautioning against, battling the very words that I am (at the same time) transmitting to you.

Trust is everywhere. It’s in the way people speak to each other—a formal and deferent manner (mainly between men of all ages), a friendly mockery and open admiration (between young men and women), and plain good-hearted gossip (among everyone). People rely on extended family, neighbours, and even acquaintances with their children, whose care and upbringing are shared. It’s absolutely mandatory to offer guests food, even when food is scarce. It’s not uncommon to be asked for a go on your bicycle when you’re out and about. (The request would make no sense in a culture where rational people were unwilling to take the risk that the borrower would ride off dishonestly, nor in a culture where everybody had most of the material things they wanted.) Strangers knocked on our door asking for cups of water regularly; it was known all around that we were the only “white” family in the neighbourhood, and therefore likely to have water. Non-engagement or interpersonal conflict would be insane. It is just assumed engagement is beneficial, so everyone maximises it.

My friend who has experience of other African countries (Angola, São Tomé e Príncipe, Cape Verde, and Mozambique) thinks there is a conceptual connection between trust and vulnerability. Because precariousness is a fact of life in Africa, and emotional bonds are not considered embarrassing, she thinks that trusting others defines what belonging means. It is linked with that pear-shaped freedom. The more regulated the exercise of power is, the less space there is for trust and trustworthiness. The more discretionary power there is, the more one feels invited to trust the person exercising the power, and, of course, the more vulnerable the trusting party is. In any relationship, you are vulnerable to the possibility of exploitation. But there’s a different kind of vulnerability in unequal relationships. In those, the person already stands to lose in most of life (through structural inequality, access to resources and opportunities, etc.) but Kenyans have an attitude where that is wholly irrelevant to this interaction. Is that attitude “trust”? Whatever we call it, I can recommend it. Yet again, my friends, we stumble upon the inadequacy of language. I am contrasting your language with my reality, for which there’s no real language except non-standard usages. Home is the inaccessible and the ineradicable


Bibi Acha is the pen-name of an Oxford graduate student working in the humanities.