The Old Fever: A Memoir of Kenya by Rick Gray
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The Curse

The Curse

There were two students in Ol Kalou who were Luo, a tribe now famous for their relation to Barack Obama, whose father hailed from Luoland. How these poor kids ever ended up in the Kikuyu highlands was a mystery I never solved, but during my solitary walks I often passed them like another lost sheep on the moors. They cornered me one afternoon in the library after school. One of them, the quieter one, crouched near the window, peering outside for any listeners, as the front man stepped toward my desk.

“You are going to Kisumu tomorrow?” he whispered.

“How did you know?” I didn’t remember telling anyone about my trip. The two exchanged a quick look and stared down at their flip flops, their show of defiance and Luo solidarity among the shoe-wearing Kikuyu. Their broad, calloused feet were often frozen into a shade of light grey, and caked with dried mud, like the thick hide of elephants. Another awkward moment of cross-cultural stalemate passed. I quickly let it go without explanation. I was learning. And it was a relief to talk to boys for once. The library visits from the girls during this period were charged with feminine intrigue, and left me horny and sullen. “What d’ya need?” I grinned.

Samaki!” they both hissed. It was as if they were asking for food itself, rather than just fish, to relieve the pain they suffered under a Kikuyu diet of corn and beans and potatoes. The front man dug his hand into his school uniform shorts and pulled out a faded bandanna, in which lay a heavy Kenyan coin. It looked ancient, a relic from the Kenyatta administration, and was a dark bronze from oxidation.

“Now wait a minute,” I said, waving away the coin. “I can’t transport samaki. It’ll go bad on the bus.”

“Bad?” they asked. They couldn’t associate this word with their beloved fish. I searched my Swahili for the word for rotten, then gave up and wrinkled my peeling nose to indicate the smell of spoiled samaki. They both hunched over to stifle their belly laughs, their school uniforms ties swinging down from their shaking, half-starved bodies.

“No, no, mwalimu,” the talker told me, once he had caught his breath, “you bring the dry one.”

“They sell those everywhere. You can find them down in Gilgil.”

“They are no good,” the kid at the window spoke up, then peered again out into the school compound for Kikuyu spies.

“They must be coming from Kisumu,” the talker agreed, “those others are cheating.”

“They’re the same. I’ve seen the trucks. They ship them in fresh from the lake.”

“They are not same,” the student at the window said, his voice rising slightly.

“We want Kisumu samaki,” the other joined, standing straighter, as if speaking now for many more than the two in the library. This was a matter of taste, and tribal honor, and I thought of my own distant homeland, and what a Rueben would have meant to me at that moment, dripping with Russian dressing. Turning my face away from these students, I lowered my voice and told them I would do my best to smuggle some Kisumu samaki into the school compound. It was as if I had announced that our school had been shut down, and they were going home. They almost wept with gratitude, and after I told them to go away and leave me alone, I watched them dance away across the fields, their flip-flops waving and snapping below their calloused heels. Though I tried to share in their Luo victory, I couldn’t stop thinking about my Rueben.

My favorite point of the trip from Ol Kalou to Kisumu came at a bend in the road in the Kalenjin highlands where the forest dropped away and, down below, western Kenya opened before you. Even more than in the vastness of Kenya’s northern deserts, it was here where I first understood the continent’s enormity. This was the furthest eastern edge of Africa’s massive heart that stretched into the deepest jungles of the Congo. People walked differently down there, and even its humidity seemed to vibrate with a slow, heavy rhythm that was not from the east. Standing on the muddy shore of Lake Victoria in Kisumu, I felt the Indian Ocean was a million miles away. I don’t know what would have happened to me if I had been sent to this area to teach, but it made me love Ol Kalou even more, and offered a glimpse into another Africa that probably would have killed me if I had been sent there instead of the highlands.

Everyone in the west believed in magic. Not good magic, as advertised in the safari brochures, but magic that led respected teachers and judges to wander off into the swamps and offer themselves to hippos. You couldn’t even get an open bottle of beer in a bar there, but had to wait for the barkeep to circulate with the one opener and wave her down, or bring your own, or use your teeth, which was the most popular choice. The fear of poisoning was too rampant for open bottles, and even bathroom breaks were awkward and filled with suspicion. Some carried their bottles with them, though this was considered slightly rude. Others recapped the bottle and slammed it down tightly with their open palm, as a warning to the other magicians not to spike their beer with their evil potions. Most just held it in, and held their bottles close to their chest, like a poker hand.

I am almost sure I was dosed one night at a bar near Busia. True, I had been drinking African gin, but my drinking on this night was not excessive, and I had eaten well at the home of the Peace Corps volunteer from the area who had invited me out west for a visit. Not long after I had returned from a bathroom break, I found my attention kept returning to a man in the corner who was studying me in a way that looked like he was plotting my murder. I tried looking away from him, but I felt his eyes pulling me back to his menacing face, which began to take on the abstract appearance of an African mask. I don’t know how it passed from the stare into the hand gestures, but I remember him pointing to me like hypnotist, and then waving me over. The Peace Corps people I was with noticed something was wrong, and told me to mellow out. I couldn’t stop myself from staring at the strange man, who had now risen from his chair and was puffing out his cheeks like a twisted Dizzy Gillespie blowing a tune. I rose too, and the Peace Corps contingent jumped up and tried to restrain me. I rushed at this man like a rabid dog, and the outdoor bar area was filled with the sound of breaking glass and fleeing customers. It all seemed to me to be happening in slow motion, and there was part of me that continued to observe the entire incident with ironic detachment. But something else had been numbed into a thuggish stupidity, and I grunted and flailed as I was tackled and dragged out of the area. I never found my glasses, and spent weeks after this incident squinting with both blurred vision and shame into Kenya’s brightness, waiting for a new pair from Nairobi. It didn’t occur to me then that I may have been the victim of bad magic. I was too worried about getting kicked out of the Peace Corps, and African magic was something in which I still didn’t believe.

Yet there were reports of it from Peace Corps volunteers who had been posted out west, as well as the Machakos area, the turf of the Kamba people, a tribe known throughout East Africa for the power of their magic. The general belief holds this is how the Kamba were able to survive the Maasai on the open grasslands of Kenya. Whether it was simply their reputation for magic, which intimidated the Maasai, or the actual magic itself, depends on your belief. The fact remains that they were wide open to attack and surrounded on all sides by one of the most feared tribes on the continent. Yet the quiet Kamba survived, and even thrived. Even so, I treated reports from these areas as nothing more than ghost stories. But as the volunteers posted to Kambaland began to disappear (there were a number of “psychovacs,” or psychological evacuations from this area), I began to listen more closely, and eventually visited Chris, a volunteer who taught English near Machakos. It was during this trip when my attitude about magic began to shift.

Chris had written for a small-town newspaper in Southern Illinois before Kenya, and had confided in me during training that he dreamed of moving to Chicago after Peace Corps and becoming an investigative journalist. But when I greeted him in Machakos there was something now in his shining blue eyes below long tangled hair that had nothing to do with journalism, or a successful American career. We toured the village, which reminded me of Ol Kalou in some ways, though it was poorer, and dustier. His classroom also looked similar to my own, and did almost all classrooms in rural Kenyan schools. That is to say it looked like a Third World prison cell, with nothing on its walls but crumbling cement and maybe a coat of paint, always faded. The only object on the wall, besides the battered blackboard, was a photograph of President Moi, a former schoolteacher, now looking down on his humble past with a sneer. The misery of these classrooms seemed to amplify, rather than crush, any sign of humanity that happened within their spaces. The eruptions of student laughter, and even the subtle grins and the muffled giggles, took on a subversive, even political dimension in such a dismal environment. I learned how to work a mock-frightened look up at the photo of President Moi into my classroom act, which was always good for a laugh, though there was nothing humorous about what Moi was doing to the country. My students knew this too, even more than I, which made it funnier, in the sick way we all loved to share.

And I missed this humor as the sun began to set on Kambaland. After the roaring Kikuyu, the Kamba were too quiet, and I had a creeping sense that something was going on behind my back. Something is always going on behind the back of an outsider in Africa, especially a white one, but it is mostly benign, and springs from curiosity and raw friendliness. But in Machakos it felt more complex, and strange. We had toured all there was to see in the village, and the school compound, and were walking together back to Chris’ hut when I was drawn to porch area of an old, decaying colonial-era home. A woman was seated on a chair. She wore a long, light blue gown, and a head scarf of the same color. As I continued walking I noticed her stillness. I could only see her from the right side at this point, and thought for a moment it might be some kind of shrine, or an African version of a Virgin Mary statue. That’s when I spotted the orange glow of a pumpkin sitting in her lap.

“She’s cursed,” I heard Chris comment next to me. When I turned back to him, he had already stopped, and was standing in the road behind me and looking back at the porch. “She’s stuck to that pumpkin,” he whispered, still staring over at the darkening home.

One of the ways curses are cast in this area is through contact with a charmed object, which is activated through potions and chanted spells. It helps if this is a living object, such as a fruit or vegetable, but even a dead animal or strands of hair can work well as a conductor, as long as the material is organic. Chris’ own brush had disappeared from his hut within weeks of his arrival, he had told me earlier in the day, which helped explain his mop of uncombed hair. Many of the western volunteers had the same hair style, and I wondered if the source of this look was stolen brushes used for witchcraft. He motioned me over, urging me to take a closer look. When I crept forward I saw her right hand pressed against the pumpkin’s flesh. I found the nerve to follow him even closer to the home, to get a look at her face. It was paralyzed into a smile, or a grimace of pain. I ran like hell.

We called it an early night back at his hut and doused the flame of his lantern. I crawled into my sleeping bag on the floor. We lay for a long time in the eerie quiet of Kambaland before Chris finally spoke.

“No one’s gonna believe this shit,” he said.

“It’s probably just us,” I offered. Another long silence passed, as we considered this.

“Fuckin’ Africa.”

I grunted my agreement, and we both burst into nervous laughter. The whole village probably heard it, as it went on and on, howling in the darkness like hyenas. My face was wet with salty tears before it was over, and my stomach ached, but oh, how good it was to be with a brother American! A curse in Africa is always about separation from one’s tribe, and loneliness, and I had felt its sting many times up in Ol Kalou. On some nights I was no better off than the women on the porch, stuck to my maps, or my bottle. Africa has a way of making you understand the only antidote for such a powerful curse are life’s simplest, best things, such as tribal camaraderie, or food from home.

Of course the Luo students already knew this. I still don’t believe there was any difference between the fish available at markets throughout Kenya, and the dried tilapia, wrapped in a Kenyan newspaper, I would deliver to them in the school library. But this didn’t matter to these two boys, hungry and isolated up in the Kikuyu hills. They were sure that the fish I handed off to them had come directly from the muddy waters of their home. And when I received a letter from the States at the Ol Kalou post office, I handled the object in the same, secretive manner I watched these boys accept their sacred fish. I always needed to be alone before I read one, as these two did before they ate their samaki, and can think of little else in this world that has ever given me so much pleasure.



© 2012, Rick Gray

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